One of my favorite stories is about three bricklayers. A young girl walks up to the first, asking him what he's doing. "Laying bricks," he says gruffly. She walks up to the second. "I'm building a wall." Finally, the girl shuffles over to the third bricklayer. The man replies, "I'm building a castle, of course."
I came to law school because I wanted to build a castle out of words, or "palaces out of paragraphs," as my favorite line from Hamilton puts it. I wanted to stack enough jargon-y Latin phrases on top of each other until I had a solid foundation of legal knowledge to help others cross the moats that diverted their paths in life.
After my first semester of law school, however, I temporarily lost sight of the castle. Talking to my peers, I learned a lot of us felt the same way. Sometimes, it felt like we were all just laying brick upon brick, learning contract upon contract, tort upon tort, forgetting why we were working so hard in the first place.
When we returned to school from winter break, I received an email from an upperclassman who had become a peer mentor to me and some of my friends. He told us that he had personally found it hard to return to school in January when he had been a 1L. Grades were coming out, summer job interviews were coming up, anxiety levels were high.
My mentor pointed to a range of resources that the law school offered, encouraging us to take advantage of them. He casually mentioned that the law school had drop-in counseling and that you probably wouldn't have to report going to counseling on the character and fitness questionnaire that is part of the New York State bar application.
Probably? What did that mean? Curious, I began asking my friends if they knew anything about having to report seeking mental health treatment on the bar application. "Oh yeah," one of them said. "That's why I haven't gone to therapy." I was shocked. As the daughter of a psychiatrist, this required mental health disclosure seemed so archaic and wrong to me.
Why would a student have to tell a New York bar examiner if they had "any condition or impairment including, but not limited to a mental, emotional, psychiatric, nervous or behavioral disorder or condition, or an alcohol, drug or other substance abuse condition or impairment or gambling addiction, which in any way impairs or limits your ability to practice law?"
Why, if they answered yes, would they then have to answer if they had sought treatment and be told that they might have to reveal their health information to the Committee on Character and Fitness? Why were we still stigmatizing mental health? After all, the bar was not asking candidates if they had a physical health issue that could impact their ability to practice.
This question still bothered me when I returned to law school for my 2L year. My sister had just taken and passed the New York bar exam herself. I began to do research, and learned that in 2014, the American Bar Association conducted a survey of law student well-being. The ABA found that 42% of respondents stated they needed help for an emotional or mental health issue within the past year, but only about half received treatment. Forty-five percent of respondents feared that seeking assistance could threaten their admission to the bar. Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated they were discouraged from seeking treatment for alcohol or drug use due to the potential threat to bar admission. These numbers should astound all of us.
As a member of Columbia Law School Student Senate's Wellness Committee, I decided to start a petition asking for judges across the country to remove mental health and substance abuse questions from state bar applications. With the support from one of our deans, our student Senate emailed the petition out to the whole school. Soon, other law school student bodies, from Harvard to Stanford to New York University, wanted to sign on, too.
It turns out that the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) has had a task force working on this issue since June.The group recommended that the questions on mental health be removed from the character and fitness questionnaire. I was delighted to learn that NYSBA's House of Delegates voted on November 2 to urge the state to remove the questions from the application.The administrative board of the New York State Unified Court System is considering the recommendations.
The legal profession talks a lot about how we can make others feel "whole" through providing a discrete remedy---whether that's damages, an injunction, a change in policy. Why aren't we asking this question to ourselves? How can we ensure we are getting the support we need as we help others cross the moats in front of them?
The castle isn't yet built. Maybe it never will be, for if there's one thing I've learned in law school, it's that the law is constantly changing, despite stare decisis and all those other jargon-y phrases. But we can make laying brick upon brick a bit easier for all of us. We can encourage each other to ask for help without fear of retribution. We can stop the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse treatment. No one should have to carry their weight entirely alone.
Sign the petition here.