People with disabilities have proven over the years that they can achieve great academic and vocational success. With the rapid increase in disability diagnoses, and the extension of academic resources and accommodations, students with disabilities are able to demonstrate their vast knowledge and abilities. As such, our world is filled with high-achieving professionals with disabilities.
Unfortunately, professional systems haven’t caught up with the times. Law students with disabilities face more discrimination than most professionals, because part of becoming a lawyer is passing the bar exam, and part of that process is passing the character and fitness portion. Law students are forced to disclose disabilities (mental and physical) and at times medical records, to prove to strangers on the character and fitness evaluation team that they are of good moral character to represent others. By requiring this information, the Bar is assuming that disability is a negative thing–something that students must attest to while proving that “despite their disabilities they can be great lawyers.”
But why does the Bar take that approach? You see, if any person would be a great lawyer, of good character, it would be a person with a disability. People with disabilities face challenges on a daily basis. They are forced for long periods of their lives to adapt to hurdles thrown their way, and compensate for their differences. They understand the ups and downs their clients face–because they have thrived in the face of stigma and discrimination–and they have succeeded in achieving their goals. They have become accustomed to the unpredictability and are quick to problem solve. People with disabilities are persistent and resilient by nature, and have worked incredibly hard to be respected in schools and the workplace.
But the issue of passing the character and fitness evaluation is terrifying law students with disabilities everywhere. Because the thing is, you pay hundreds of thousands of dollars by the time you have finished your legal education, you work hard to ace your exams, you walk across that stage at graduation, and then months later, the state bar decides if you are of good character despite your disability. This is on its face, discriminatory.
A law student at my law school (though at a different campus) is taking a monumental step in suing the Florida Bar based on its issues with his mental disability. This is a veteran, who served our country by working with explosives, who our country deemed was of good enough character to defend our freedom. Yes, like many veterans he came back from a deployment with a mental illness. He dealt with life or death situations while deployed and it’s reasonable that someone in that vocation would return with mental illness. Complicating matters further, he was going through a divorce–known as one of the most mentally straining processes for anyone. Also like many veterans and others dealing with especially stressful and personal life issues, he coped for a period of time by drinking too much.
This student did the right thing by asking for and receiving help when he needed it. He received treatment for adjustment disorder and substance use disorder from the VA medical center. He has been actively going to therapy and maintaining his mental and physical health consistently for a long period of time.
So, in return for asking for help and consistently treating his understandable mental health concerns, when this veteran tried to find a different career serving this country in an alternative way (serving citizens with legal needs), the Florida bar creates a fury of discrimination armed with stigmatic attitudes. They want him to pay thousands of dollars to provide even more medical documentation than he already submitted, and have him
This is an issue that needs to be resolved, and quick. Because the ADA and other related laws dictate that people cannot be discriminated against because of their disability. Disability is a protected class, a class of people who have been historically and systematically discriminated against. For that reason, to right the historical wrongs, the ADA and IDEA and the Rehab Act all were created to dismantle this wrongful discrimination. Yet, the ABA and state bar’s haven’t followed suit.
They have, however, tried to shield themselves from an ADA violation by “encouraging” state licensing boards to focus on the behavior of the law student instead of their diagnosis specifically. However, it is frequent that behaviors can be explained by a specific diagnosis. Without explaining the diagnosis, behaviors can seem confusing to a licensing board. Notably, these licensing boards have infrequent experience with people with disabilities.
Law students with disabilities not only have to prove and substantiate their diagnoses to their law schools to receive reasonable accommodations, they have to do the same for the MPRE, the bar exam, and the character and fitness evaluation. In this sense, they have the cards stacked against them. They remove card by card, proving their character and persistence again and again, in hopes that when they graduate they have a seat at the table. But often, the people who evaluate students with disabilities are hired to evaluate them against their peers without disabilities. They say, “clearly if this student got As in law school, they don’t need accommodations on the MPRE/bar exam because even though this student received appropriate accommodations in law school, compared to the average Joe they still would’ve passed.” The purpose of accommodations is not to pass or beat the average Joe. The purpose of accommodations is that the student can showcase their knowledge in a way that others without disabilities can see.
In this way, students with disabilities are being academically handcuffed by the very institutions that could benefit from their being accepted. Lawyers with disabilities have the unique capability of empathizing with clients, lawyers, judges, etc. They have had to advocate for themselves and their peers repeatedly throughout their lives, and as lawyers advocate and are active participants in legal organizations.
People with disabilities live life differently–they don’t live life incorrectly. For the state bar, the ABA, the MPRE evaluation committee, and law schools to assume that based on past challenges that were addressed by correct treatment, an individual is not of good character is discriminatory on its face.
Disability is one part of a person, it is not the whole person. To not allow a student with a disability to become a lawyer after he addressed and treated his disability is just plain wrong. Who can better serve clients going through hell, than a lawyer who went through hell and came out on the other side?
If the people evaluating individuals with disabilities for the character and fitness see a disability (mental or physical) as guilty of bad character, and make the student prove otherwise, the evaluators are not go good character themselves.
We need to encourage, accept, and support law students with disabilities. However, to historical legal systems apparently that is too much to ask. So at a minimum–just don’t discriminate.
Additionally, this level of discrimination discourages treatment. If you seek help for mental illness, you could be denied your dream career–so you don’t get help. Lawyers are known for heavy drinking and substance abuse. It’s a massive problem in the profession, so much so that law schools are talking with law students about it at their orientations. In fact, if many lawyers practicing in the field for years had to be once again evaluated for their character and fitness, they would fail. In this sense, the ABA and the state bar are not encouraging present or prospective attorneys to seek treatment out of fear of losing a career they worked so hard to obtain. They are also denying respect and fair treatment to students with disabilities, most of which are young and haven’t had decades to prove their stability, but have this used against them that they haven’t been managing their condition long enough for the bar to determine them to be of “good character despite their disabilities.”
It’s time for change in the legal profession, despite the system kicking and screaming in an outdated protest.
To read more about the case referenced above and the ABA recommendations: