Forty percent of recent law school graduates say that their school is not doing enough to support students’ mental health and assist students struggling with the stress and pressure of law school. An additional 31 percent do not know, while only 29 percent answered favorably, saying that they feel their school is doing enough. This is according to the Kaplan Bar Review survey results released earlier this month, which include data gathered from over 300 recent law school graduates. Despite the well-documented struggles that law students face and the recommendations for sweeping reforms put out by the American Bar Association in August 2017, there have been few noted improvements. Tammi Rice, vice president, Kaplan Bar Review commented on the survey results saying, “What students are telling us is that law schools need to do a better job of providing the kinds of services that they need for self-care, and also communicating how those services can help them. This is an important conversation to have. We have to conquer the stigma traditionally associated with mental health, particularly in the legal community… May, in particular, can be an emotionally taxing month in the life of law school graduates, as it is when they begin preparing to take the July bar exam…”
The Kaplan Bar Review survey also asked students for their opinions on the state bar examiners’ ability to inquire about past mental health and addiction issues. Seventy-four percent of students were opposed to the bar examiners’ application asking if the applicant has ever been treated for a mental health issue. At 61 percent, there were fewer, but still a strong majority who were opposed to the bar application asking about past treatment for a substance abuse issue.
These high numbers were no surprise in the wake of last year’s successful movement to update the mental health questioning on the Virginia Bar application. Law school students, who saw the questioning as a barrier to getting treatment because of the stigma, organized and sent letters to the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, who were examining the mental health questions. After receiving a recommendation from a Supreme Court of Virginia committee coupled with “valuable input” from lawyers, judges, law school deans, and students, the bar has—as of January 1, 2019—eliminated the question asking applicants to disclose past mental health treatment. The board also edited another question to focus on conduct and behavior. “Knowing that the students who hope to one day join the Virginia Bar will not have to experience fear of ramifications for disclosing any treatment they sought during law school on their bar applications is a wonderful thing,” said Catherine Woodcock, last year’s Student Bar Association president at Washington and Lee University. “The more we normalize and encourage sound mental health and wellness, the better we will be as a profession.” In January, the Michigan Supreme Court also gave notice that it is studying “whether questions regarding mental health should be included on the personal affidavit that is part of the application for the Michigan Bar Examination, and if so, what form those questions should take.”
Law schools and legal professionals still have considerable ground to cover in increasing awareness of mental health needs within the profession. However, kicking off this month, is “Minds Over Matters,” a year-long deep dive into the mental health and well-being of law professionals by Law.com and its affiliate professionals. This site and its affiliate ALM partners, which cover a wide-ranging scope of legal topics are looking to “more deeply cover stress, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues affecting the legal profession. We aim to create a place for open dialogue, to shine a light on these issues that have so long been stigmatized, and to hold the profession accountable to work toward change. With ALM’s broad coverage of the legal profession, we think we are uniquely situated to address these issues.”
All prospective law students, recent law graduates, and legal professionals should stay abreast of these trends and follow the work showcased on law.com. Prospective law students will want to be conversant on these issues for interviews and as they consider the cultural fit of various law school programs. Current students and recent law graduates will want to educate themselves on how to begin cultivating their own wellbeing despite the stress of law school and their upcoming professional lives. These groups may also want to look out for opportunities to engage with and make changes within their own state’s board of bar examiners. As seen in Virginia, a group of engaged students can make a difference.