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Law Students Challenge Need for Mental Health Question



Law students around the state are demanding a change in Virginia’s Bar Exam. They say a question that asks for mental health history has a chilling effect on future lawyers. The push comes after the American Bar Association recently recommended states re-evaluate whether to ask for the sensitive information.


In her second year of law school at University of Richmond, Gray O’Dwyer went through a bad break up. She was under stress and decided to get professional help.

“I almost didn’t get treatment when I needed it, and I know that many people just don’t even go that route,” O’Dwyer says. “They avoid treatment.”

O’Dwyer and other law students from across the state are now saying that’s in part because of a question on the state bar’s Character and Fitness Evaluation.

The exhaustive questionnaire asks applicants if they have any mental health condition that could affect their ability to practice law. And although the questionnaire specifies that "situational" counseling does not count, students are often reminded it’s important to be open and honest in their disclosures.

If a student answers yes they have to provide documentation from any medical professional they’ve sought help from.

“The issue is that people are not seeking treatment. They’re avoiding treatment, they’re avoiding any sort of interaction with mental health services because they’re afraid to report,” says O’Dwyer.

On Tuesday Catherine Hill, Secretary-Treasurer of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, wrote a letter in response to the student’s requests. She says the Board didn’t deny licensure to anyone last year because of the mental health question, and that the Board encourages applicants who may benefit from treatment to seek it.

“The Board will continue to review its inquiries on the CFQ to determine if they should be further revised to properly balance the Board’s duty to protect the public with the important student well being issues raised in your letter,” Hill writes.

In the meantime, O’Dwyer plans on formally asking the state Supreme Court to drop the question. Nineteen other states have already done so.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.


Mallory Noe-Payne is Radio IQ's Richmond reporter and bureau chief.