CHARLOTTESVILLE—Less than a year after Virginia law students began asking for a change to the mental health question on the state bar application, change has come.
The new wording on the application to take the bar exam will make it easier for students struggling with mental health and addiction issues to seek help, according to those who sought the change.
Before the change, students were required to report any “condition or impairment” related to substance or alcohol abuse or “mental, emotional or nervous disorder or condition.” The revised question, according to Catherine C. Hill, Virginia Board of Bar Examiners secretary-treasurer, no longer asks about specific disorders, but instead focuses on behavior.
“The current question asks only: ‘Within the past five years have you exhibited any conduct or behavior that could call into question your ability to perform any of the obligations and responsibilities of a practicing lawyer in a competent, ethical and professional manner,’” Hill said. “That’s it.’”
The first step
The announcement came at the First Annual Virginia Law Student Wellness Summit which was held Feb. 5 at the University of Virginia law school. Many Virginia legal heavy hitters were in attendance and spoke at the event, including Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, Justice William C. Mims, Virginia State Bar President Leonard C. Heath Jr. and all eight deans of Virginia law schools.
The message that everyone was trying to convey was that lawyers in the state have a problem.
“If the statistics are right, our profession is in deep trouble,” Lemons said during his remarks.
While lawyers from across the commonwealth struggled to define the exact cause of lawyer dysfunction, citing everything from long hours, an oversaturation of technology and demands of clients, few could argue with self-reported statistics that suggest high rates of alcoholism, depression and anxiety within the profession. And most agreed that at least part of the solution must start in law school. One of the major themes of the event was giving students and lawyers a way to seek help without forcing them to risk the potential ruin of their careers.
“The efforts that have worked the best have been those efforts that protect that confidentiality,” Lemons said. “It’s got to start at the law school level … It has to start and continue well into practice, including lawyers and including judges.”
Mental health question revisited
Also in attendance at the event was Gray O’Dwyer, a University of Richmond law grad who last April sent a letter to the Board of Bar Examiners asking for an end to the practice of requiring disclosure of mental health conditions. She said that while she’d still prefer for there to be no reference to mental health on the state bar application, this new question seems to be a good compromise.
“I want to say this change takes it 90 percent of the way, making it about behavior and conduct instead of mental health,” she said.
O’Dwyer referred to the change as “an incredible shift.” Previously, she said, there had been a persistent fear among law students that their chances of getting admitted to the bar would be better if they hid their problems. Now, she said, that problem is at the least significantly diminished.
Hill, for her part, said that the Board of Bar Examiners wants students to seek help, which is why they changed the wording to make it more clear that a mental health issue is not a bar becoming a lawyer.
“Law students worry that seeking treatment will be a bar to licensure later,” Hill said. “On behalf of the Board, I say to you, if you need any type of help, please seek it. The Board has never denied someone licensure because they have a substance abuse or mental health disorder or because they sought treatment of any kind.”
What else are law schools doing?
Several of the law deans, speaking during a panel discussion on wellness opportunities for students, cited new initiatives on their campuses to have paid on-site therapists and counselors to increase accessibility to help, while also destigmatizing therapy.
O’Dwyer said the increased accessibility, in addition to the rule change, will go a long ways toward making it easier to seek help.
“Now we have professional staff who are able to help people out,” O’Dwyer said. “Before, if you needed to go on medical leave, the schools would make accommodations … Now mental health is on the same par as that.”
Another hot topic amongst the deans, beyond weekly wellness initiatives, was the emphasis on the importance of grades at law school.
“Your value as a human does not depend on how you do,” said Dean Davison M. Douglas of the William and Mary law school during a panel discussion. But when it comes to getting a high-paying job to pay back large law school debts, many law students feel pressure to excel.
While the consensus among deans was that grades cannot be done away with, O’Dwyer said she believes the impetus is on firms to change the culture around grades in law schools.
“It’s important to recognize that law school culture encourages you to see your value versus someone else,” she said. “The impetus is on law firms to say ‘I don’t care about grades, I care about what you’ve done, what you can actually do, how well you can write.’”
Ultimately, the consensus in the room was that talking about the problem is just the first step, but it is an important one. O’Dwyer said that while it’s good that people are more open about their problems, it’s also important to recognize that the problem is not one that can be easily “fixed.”
“It’s reasonable that so many people want to fix the problem,” she said. “But the reality for law students is it won’t go away. We need to accept it and embrace it and treat it.”
Correction Feb. 12: A previous version of this story used the headline, “Bar changes mental health question on bar app.” The Virginia bar exam is administered by the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, not the Virginia State Bar. The board is responsible for questions on its application and any changes. Virginia Lawyers Weekly regrets the error.