Law students helped remove mental health question from N.H. Bar exam

  • Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick speaks during a press conference urging the U.S. Senate to hold hearings and vote on the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland outside the Warren B. Rudman U.S. Courthouse in Concord on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. He appeared with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and UNH Law professor Erin Corcoran. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Former Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court and current Senior Director of Public Affairs at Dartmouth-Hitchcock John T. Broderick, Jr., talks to students at Bow High School about his family's experience with mental illness on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 6/27/2020 5:29:43 PM

New Hampshire has joined other states in removing questions from its bar application about mental health history, diagnosis, or treatment when determining character and fitness for bar admissions.

For people like Sofia Hyatt – co-founder of the Mental Health Alliance at the UNH Law School – and former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, this was a long time coming.

Sofia Hyatt and her co-founder, Victoria Saxe, began their initiative to change the bar’s character and fitness test in their first year of law school two years ago.

“On Day 1 of orientation, we had a professor – Mitch Simon – do a character and fitness presentation… And one of the things that you learn is that some states, including New Hampshire, ask about mental health and substance abuse history. So, to me, this was a huge shock… So we decided to submit a formal request” to change this, Hyatt said.

Getting mental help shouldn’t carry a penalty, Hyatt said, and the court system agreed.

“A 2014 Survey of Law Student Well-Being sponsored by the American Bar Association reported that applicants’ perception that mental health and substance abuse treatment would have a negative impact on admission was a primary factor in the students not seeking help,” the N.H. Judicial Branch said in a press release.

Broderick further pointed out the extreme stresses that lawyers and law students experience.

“The ABA (American Bar Association) did a report on mental health and depression in 2016. And it’s true that the legal profession – and I’m sure the medical profession and others – have a higher incidence of depression,” Broderick said. With the undue stress of the job, lawyers and law students are more likely to suffer from mental illness. But, because of various state jurisdictions, law students remained reluctant to seek help.

For Hyatt and the Mental Health Alliance, the motivation was so that “people applying to the bar in New Hampshire, don’t have to worry,” and they can get the assistance that they need, Hyatt said. “We hope it’s one step towards the beginning to de-stigmatize mental health challenges and substance use challenges in New Hampshire.”

For Hyatt and Broderick, mental health isn’t something to be ashamed of, nor is it particularly relevant to the fitness of a potential lawyer. To put things into perspective, Broderick compared the relevance of mental illness to a lawyer’s sexuality.

“It would be like saying to someone in 1958 on a character and fitness test, ‘Are you gay?’ It’s irrelevant,” Broderick stated.

Broderick said that in his 22 years of being a trial lawyer and his experience as Chief Justice some of the best lawyers he has met experienced mental health issues. “And – you know – I would never know or care because they’re highly successful people,” Broderick said.

Just like sexuality, race or gender, mental health has no bearing on a lawyer’s ability, Broderick said. Broderick’s passion for ending the stigma around mental health is what made him work with Hyatt, and the MHA to make this change.

“Our mission is to facilitate communication, increase awareness and reduce stigma about mental health challenge, (both) in law school and beyond,” Hyatt said.

Although Hyatt and Saxe accomplished this change in their first year of law school, their fight isn’t over.

“There’s a lot more work to be done… It’s pretty cool that this change happened… and (that we could) show people that the legal profession is willing to change,” she said.

Broderick, who’s retired, has dedicated himself to ending the stigmas around mental health through Change Direction NH.

“It’s an issue that we need to just bring out into the sunlight. The way we have treated mental health, for most of its life, has been unfair and based on ignorance and fear,” Broderick said.

Four years ago, Broderick would have resisted this change. “I was probably in the same boat, (but) I don’t have those (biases) now… What I’m doing now, in the last four years, is the most important work I’ve done in my entire professional life,” Broderick said.

Broderick expressed nothing but pride and appreciation for Hyatt and Saxe.

“These students are pretty brave… (They) saw something that seemed unjust, and they acted. And I applauded that… I’m really proud to be a small part of it. It’s the right thing. It’s one step forward,” he said.

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