From February 2018 to February 2019, University of Richmond T. C. Williams School of Law graduate Gray O’Dwyer devoted considerable time and energy to getting the mental health question removed from the Virginia bar application. 

The question, which asked about applicants’ mental health treatment and condition histories, had the effect of discouraging law students from seeking mental health treatment, as described in a recent Collegian article.

The entire question is quoted in that Collegian article.

O'Dwyer's work came to fruition on Feb. 5 at the Law Student Wellness Summit at the University of Virginia when Catherine Hill, secretary-treasurer for the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners (VBBE), announced the question’s removal.

O’Dwyer’s investment in the issue began when a law school friend of hers wished to seek mental health treatment in early 2018, according to a Collegian article about the letter-writing campaign.

The harder O’Dwyer pushed for the question’s removal, the broader her motivations became.

“This meant a lot to me from a ‘We can do better’ standpoint,” O’Dwyer said.

Of course, she had her own mental health stories, she said, but “it became more about the fact that everyone has mental health stories.” 

And as she “scatter-gunned” her outreach efforts in the lead-up to the Summit, O'Dwyer "got an overwhelming response from people in the field," she said. “Practicing attorneys, people who I went to class with and are now clerking. … People came back to us and said, ‘Yes, please, this made a difference. [The mental health question] was something that scared me. This is something I struggled with.’”

Now, the mental health question is gone.

The letter-writing campaign for the question’s removal began in February 2018. In May, O’Dwyer mailed copies of the letter with seven signatories to the VBBE.

Shortly after mailing the letters, O’Dwyer met with VBBE secretary-treasurer Hill. At the time, the VBBE was resistant to removing the mental health question, O’Dwyer said.

Hill could not be reached for comment.

The VBBE was “declining to recognize the significance of the stigma attached to the question,” O’Dwyer said. “All they see is the rise in mental health issues. They don’t necessarily see that perhaps there’s something causing people to hide [mental illness] until they can’t.”

However, O’Dwyer suspected Hill was actually one of O’Dwyer’s biggest advocates on the VBBE and a true architect of change.

“It was a fine line [the VBBE had] to walk between protecting public safety … and acknowledging that the question was a barrier to mental health treatment,” O’Dwyer said.

O’Dwyer’s outreach efforts went beyond the VBBE, though. She contacted justices on Supreme Court of Virginia, which oversees the VBBE. She spoke with Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons and Justice William Mims last summer, not long after she graduated from the law school. Both men, known advocates for mental health awareness among legal professionals, offered her their full support, O’Dwyer said.

“Chief Justice Lemons was incredibly responsive and was really excited about what we were doing,” O’Dwyer said.

Both Lemons and Mims declined to comment for this article.

On Lemons’ advice, O’Dwyer said, she decided to take the administrative route and petition the Supreme Court of Virginia, which oversees the VBBE.

O’Dwyer then sought Kurt Lockwood’s help. Lockwood was at the time and is currently UR's Student Bar Association president.

O'Dwyer contacted him in late August about writing a petition and continuing the effort to get the mental health question removed or changed, Lockwood said. He readily agreed and put together a team of four other third-year law students from the Student Bar Association, he said.

Those four people could not be reached for comment.

Between September 2018 and February 2019, O’Dwyer and the Student Bar Association team wrote the petition’s first draft; scrapped it; wrote the petition’s second draft, which they nearly completed; and engaged in massive community outreach, Lockwood and O’Dwyer said.

The law school’s Dean Wendy C. Perdue and Associate Dean of Students Alex Sklut were incredibly important guides for the team’s efforts, O’Dwyer said.

As the Summit drew nearer, O’Dwyer began contacting news organizations and members of the larger legal community, while Lockwood contacted Student Bar Association presidents at other Virginia law schools. The petition was on track to be published shortly after the Summit, Lockwood said, and once it had been published, he hoped UR’s Student Bar Association could rally Virginia law schools to the cause.

In the end, there was no need to publish the petition.

On the day of the Summit, Hill announced that the VBBE had eliminated the mental health question and replaced it with another question focused on conduct and behavior, O’Dwyer said. The change had been in place since January 1 and no one knew, O’Dwyer said. 

“This is really becoming a serious issue, and it’s so great to see everyone really getting behind it. And now it feels like, with this question changed, the floodgates are open,” O’Dwyer said. “This was the first big crack in a big barrier.”

O’Dwyer hopes the Student Bar Association will continue advocating for wellness and other issues relevant to the legal field, such as changing law firms’ hiring practices, she said.

Perdue, reflecting on the advocacy campaign, said: “I’m really proud of our students and our alums who took this project on. I think they had an impact.”

Sklut praised O’Dwyer, Lockwood and the rest of the students involved. O’Dwyer in particular deserved considerable recognition for the time and effort she put in, Sklut said.

“She really, you know, is just a great example of one person…making a difference and making a change,” Sklut said. “Mad props to her for sure.”

Contact contributor AJ Quinlen at addie.quinlen@richmond.edu.