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Mental Health in the Legal World

Many Americans are no strangers to having dealt with mental health problems, or knowing someone who has. Even before this past year of uncertainty and isolation, almost 20% of American adults were with a mental illness.[1] Additionally, suicidal ideation has increased by .15% (or over 460,000 people) over 2020.[2] Even in States with greater access to health care, 1 in 3 children go without treatment.[3] Also, since 2011, 24% of adults living with a mental illness have reported an unmet need for treatment.[4] Rates of suicide have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. In 2018 alone, 48,344 Americans died by suicide, 70% of those deaths being white males.[5] This problem is being tackled head on, but the battle is far from over. Slowing the battle down is the unnecessary and damaging stigma that hangs like a rain cloud over those suffering with mental illness or mental problems, as if the cloud over their head isn’t raining enough.

Attorneys are no stranger to stress, anxiety, depression, and a myriad of other mental health and substance use problems. Just like normal every day Americans, we too face such a stigma. The American Bar Association reported in 2018 that attorneys are 3.6 times as likely to be depressed as Americans who hold other jobs, 28% suffer from depression, 19% have symptoms of anxiety, and 21% are problem drinkers.[6] Kevin Chandler, an attorney and director of the legal professionals program at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation’s largest addiction treatment provider, explained the issue we are facing flawlessly:

The legal profession combines long hours, high stress, isolation, a trained need to never show vulnerability, and work that by its very definition is antagonistic and conflict-laden, and that makes for a toxic environment conducive to addiction and mental health issues. Legal work combines all the elements that contribute to substance abuse and other disorders into one toxic pot.[7]

This “toxic pot” leads to a dangerous stigma that causes people to lose their professional life, family life, and most importantly their living and breathing life. The stigma makes us afraid to speak up about what we are feeling, afraid that we may lose our jobs, our license, and our self-worth because maybe we aren’t able to be the attorney we so desperately wanted to be. Not only are attorneys fearful, but law students are also no stranger to this fear either. In 2014, a study called the Survey of Law Student Well-Being, administered by the ABA, found that while 42 percent of respondents said they needed help with emotional and mental health problems in the past year, less than half of those actually sought help. But why? One answer could be that expensive application we had to complete to become what we strived for:  the bar application.

The most current data available from the ABA Commission on Disability Rights indicates that 39 states and D.C. ask about the existence of a mental health condition or impairment and 32 states and D.C. ask about treatment. Not shockingly, many students feel that this does not encourage speaking out, rather, it deters them because they believe it will impact their dream of becoming an attorney. The questions can seem invasive, and many also believe that these questions are asked to protect the public and not the participants.[8] Luckily, there is a slow shift towards removing and replacing these questions throughout the country, with New York joining nine other states in removing their mental health questions earlier this year.[9]

Unfortunately, New Jersey still requires these questions.[10] Removing any mental healthcare questionnaire from our bar application is a step that should be taken immediately. Of course, these type of questions are not the only reason why many do not seek help, but it is certainly part of the problem.

It is time we begin to speak up about these issues. Not only will it save lives, but it will allow for a more inclusive environment across every facet of our legal world. Whether you are thinking about going to law school, currently in law school, or lucky enough to survive the bar exam and make it to your dream job, we all have valid emotions that deserve the utmost attention. The first step is to begin talking. When we hold in these emotions, they won’t go away, they will only become stronger, and when pressure builds and builds, it eventually explodes. Before something drastic occurs, we should have the reassurance that if we do discuss our mental health problems, just like a cancer patient discusses their cancer, there should not be a negative stigma that drags with it.  

One helpful resource is with the confidential organization, New Jersey Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL). Based out of Trenton, lawyers with mental health and/or substance abuse issues now have a support system, where they can learn and apply the appropriate tools to become the lawyer they want to be.  LCL offers support meetings and additional resources so lawyers have a place to turn to when needed. Knowing firsthand the impact that this organization can provide, New Jersey Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is one step towards the right direction to help those in the legal profession obtain a healthy lifestyle, both personally and professionally.

 


[1] https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/

[6] https://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/lawyers_weigh_in_why_is_there_a_depression_epidemic_in_the_profession

[7] Id.

[8] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/publications/bar_leader/2019_20/january-february/a-new-look-at-character-and-fitness-bar-leaders-lawyers-others-urge-elimination-of-mental-health-questions/

[9] https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/new-york-removes-mental-health-questions-from-state-bar-application

[10] https://www.law.com/njlawjournal/2020/03/15/bar-application-shouldnt-inquire-into-mental-health/

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Bostock v. Clayton County and the Further Protection it Provides New Jersey Employees

On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States held that in Bostock v. Clayton Cty., Georgia, 140 S. Ct. 1731, 2017 L. Ed. 2d (2020), an employer who fires an individual employee merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The majority opinion was authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, a dissenting opinion was authored by Justice Samuel Alito, which Justice Clarence Thomas joined, and a separate dissenting opinion was authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Gerald Bostock, a gay man, began working for Clayton County, Georgia as a child welfare services coordinator in 2003. Fast forward a decade to 2013, Bostock began participating in a gay recreational softball league. Bostock received criticism for his participation in this league, including hateful remarks about Bostock’s sexual orientation during a meeting where Bostock’s supervisor was present. Around the same time, Clayton County informed Bostock that it would be conducting an internal audit of the program funds he managed and shortly thereafter Bostock was terminated for “conduct unbecoming of its employees.” In addition to Bostock, two other cases were at play. One in which a man was fired for mentioning he was gay and the other where a transgender woman now wished to live and work as a woman. They were both consolidated under this decision and after years of battling through our court system, Gerald Bostock reached the Supreme Court in what would result in one of the most impactful decisions thus far in our country’s history.

Without having to delve into various dictionaries or biology text books from the past centuries defining the term “sex”, the opinion boiled down to this:

“Consider, for example, an employer with two employees, both of whom are attracted to men. The two individuals are, to the employer’s mind, materially identical in all respects, except that one is a man and the other a woman. If the employer fires the male employee for no reason other than the fact he is attracted to men, the employer discriminates against him for traits or actions it tolerates in his female colleague.”

In other words, since females would not be fired for being attracted to men, then why could men be fired for being attracted to men? In the same vein, if somebody was born a male and then transitioned at some point to being female or vice versa, neither alone would be discriminated against for simply being male or female, rather they are discriminated against for the transition. What both of these hypotheticals have in common, and how the majority sees it, is that they hinge on simply being male or female. The Court held that gender plays the main role in each scenario no matter whether you’re gay, born male then transitioned, born female then transitioned, especially as sex is protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This decision has an obvious impact on the various states who yet have protections for gay/transgender employees. However, how does this decision impact those states that already had these protections, including our beloved state of New Jersey?

In 1991, New Jersey amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, to bar employers from discriminating against their employees for being gay or lesbian. Years later in 2006, New Jersey once more amended LAD to bar employers from discriminating against their employees for their gender expression.

On the surface it seems that Bostock has no impact on the employees of New Jersey, but in reality many New Jersey employees still remained unprotected from sexual orientation and gender expression discrimination even after the amendments made to LAD. Those who remained unprotected were mainly workers employed in New Jersey by multistate companies. Some of these companies would have their employees sign agreements binding them to the laws of the state where their company is headquartered, or where the “never center” is located as held in Hertz Corp. v. Friend, 559 U.S. 77, 130 S. Ct. 1181, 175 L. Ed. 2d 1029 (2010). These binding agreements can still exist and apply to other areas of law, but now gay and transgender employees have this extra Federal protection of Bostock. Additionally, Bostock now protects federal contractors, who operate in New Jersey and were not covered by LAD.

It is difficult to say how this holding will impact other areas of the law where discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation is prohibited, such as in education, health care, housing, etc., but for now, all employees of our home state of New Jersey may continue to work without fear of being terminated because of who they love or how they identify.