CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, August 23, 2021

Tucker on Attorneys with Mental Health Disabilities and Criminal Defendants

Lisa A. Tucker (Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law) has posted Is It Crazy to Think that Attorneys with Mental Health Disabilities are Uniquely Situated to Help Prisoners? (North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 5, 1419) on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In the summer of 2013, I was a newly tenured law professor. I had just lived through the hardest year of my life, waiting for my tenure vote and the rubber stamp from the university. That the 2012–2013 academic year was the hardest of my life really meant something, because for the twenty-five years before that, I had been living with a psychiatric disability, a severe anxiety disorder.

I had spent all of my adult life “passing,” pretending to be someone who is calm and confident, competent and clear-headed, when in my mind I was terrified for just about every waking moment.

Why did I hide my disability? Because I was convinced that passing for “normal” was the only way I could succeed in my career.

The problem was that now, despite achieving a benchmark of success, I still did not always feel like I could get through the day.

During the summer after I earned tenure, I thought hard about how I had been coping. I had been hiding. I had been trying to assimilate. I had been passing. And while I may have fooled colleagues and friends, I had not fooled myself. I was just as disabled as I had been as a college student. I had to change my approach.

That summer, I published an essay on Slate describing my mental illness to the world.

Much to my surprise, the direct feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, many readers (some of them strangers, some of them colleagues and friends) suggested that I could be even more effective in my role as a law professor by becoming a role model for pre-law and law students who believed that the practice of law would be out of reach for them because they too lived with mental illness.

After living openly for the past two years, I have come to agree. What I had always viewed as a liability could, in fact, be a strength. Perhaps, I have thought, I can implicitly encourage and support others who strive to live an authentic life. Perhaps, in the words of symposium contributor Professor Frank Cooper (who expressed it far better than I could in his symposium talk), “It has to be incumbent on every one of us to lift all of us up.”

I welcomed the invitation to participate in this symposium, not because I am a criminal justice expert—far from it—but because I saw the parallels between my situation (a law professor teaching students) and that of a criminal defense lawyer (a lawyer with mental illness representing a criminal defendant with a similar disability). I wanted to explore these parallels, and in this Article, I describe my conclusions.

Part I explains the concept of “passing” and a parallel concept some scholars have called “covering.” It discusses reasons why lawyers in particular may decide to pass or cover their psychiatric disabilities. Part II summarizes the research on the number of lawyers and law students with mental health disabilities, as well as the issues they face. Part III summarizes that same data for inmates of U.S. correctional institutions. Part IV considers the intersection of the concepts laid out in Parts I through III and asks whether lawyers with mental health disabilities might be uniquely situated to help prisoners with psychiatric issues. Part V concludes and recommends that lawyers consider whether passing is a prerequisite to professional success and whether “coming out” about mental health disabilities could actually inform and support their representation of criminal defendants.

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