The first time I entered the Brooklyn offices of Disability Rights New York (DRNY) in February 2020, I had no idea I had entered a space and organization that would change the direction of my legal career. I had applied for a spring semester internship to spend the second half of my 2L year with DRNY after hearing Marc Fielder on a panel event at my law school, St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, NY.
After connecting with Marc and discussing my internship goals, I found myself settling into an office culture unlike any I had previously experienced. Here, attorneys of diverse backgrounds, including those with various disabilities, were not just tolerated as the ADA requires, but actively supported. Differences here were not seen as a challenge—they were powerful tools for effective advocacy. Alongside this office culture, throughout February, I became invested in the work of DRNY. As the federally authorized protection and advocacy (P&A) agency for all of New York State, DRNY provides legal representation and other advocacy services under federal and state laws to all New Yorkers with physical disabilities, mental illnesses, intellectual and developmental disabilities.
In working on mental illness cases, I began to understand what terms like “manic depression” and “bipolar disorder” really meant. Working on these cases reminded me of the therapist who said I “might be bipolar” toward the end of my 1L year. I had thought I was just depressed, not understanding what bipolar disorder really was. Indeed, my mood shifting from severely depressed to a passionate, energetic, but unsustainable mania felt like an appropriate response to the stresses of 1L year. Instead of dealing with the reality of my mood disorder, I stopped going to therapy and found a doctor who would prescribe me a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), a type of antidepressant that, I later learned, could trigger manic episodes.
Through my work with DRNY, I began to feel empowered, building my confidence as an advocate—confidence that had been shaken by the 1L grading curve. While completing my first full month at DRNY, I used this newfound sense of empowerment to address issues in my personal life, such as leaving the house I had shared with an abusive ex-boyfriend. In doing so, I began to reclaim my own power.
Then COVID-19 happened. DRNY leaped into action, handling everything from the need for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in government coronavirus briefings to pushing back against proposals for ventilator rationing protocols that discriminated against disabled folks. I assisted with this work from home via Zoom calls and emails. Law school classes shifted online. The traditional grading system was abandoned in favor of a pass-fail grading system for the semester. Everything felt like a blur, as my mind fixated on the refrigerated trucks holding bodies outside hospitals. Still, this work inspired me and led me to stay on with DRNY throughout the summer before my 3L year.
I then had what I now understand to be the longest manic episode I have ever experienced. I had experienced similar mood swings throughout my 1L year. However, all the rapid changes happening personally and globally due to COVID-19, the incorrectly prescribed antidepressant pills, and the world seemingly falling apart around me triggered a weeks-long manic episode. I didn’t sleep properly, and I would get unhealthily invested in work assignments, school work, or a creative idea, working for hours at a time with no breaks. I wrote a three-act play over the course of two days. I outlined a law school course in a frenzied weekend before passing out because I had not eaten. This was not productivity, this was not creativity—this was dangerous. Having already reclaimed some of my power, I was finally able to really attempt therapy, accept my bipolar diagnosis, and get the help I needed.
During my 1L year, I did not disclose my disability, or even accept it within myself, for fear of it making me a “weaker” law student. However, by my second week at DRNY, I came to understand how the thing I was most scared of was one of my greatest strengths as an advocate for people with mental illness. Pursuing a treatment plan—which included medications, regular exercise, and a strict sleep schedule—I could control my mood swings. This newfound control made manic depression feel like a car I could drive to my destination, rather than a self-driving car I was trapped within as it headed toward a cliff. The supportive office environment I’d experienced and the empowerment I’d felt through my time with DRNY was what pushed me into accepting my diagnosis, starting treatment, and beginning the disclosure process with my university’s Office of Disability Services.
I was lucky in that the disclosure of my disability by my summer employer was a very easy process, involving a discussion with my HR representative, who noted the disclosure down on my record. Because of the remote nature of my summer work during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to navigate my diagnosis with the built-in flexibility of working from home, rather than having to request a specific accommodation. However, the HR department of DRNY made it very clear they were supportive of their employees’ needs.
The ease of my experience with the HR office also stems from DRNY’s focus on helping people with disabilities. It is my sincere hope that more law schools, firms, and organizations take the approach of DRNY with an open, supportive disclosure process. There is already such a stigma associated with mental illness within the legal profession that many state bars still ask questions related to mental health on their character and fitness surveys. When states like New York remove these questions, and employers create a safe and supportive disclosure environment, clients and lawyers alike are better off.
Although disclosure of your disability may bring with it the risk of stigma or even discrimination, it can also allow you to find others who have faced similar struggles and connect with other attorneys who have overcome similar obstacles. My biggest piece of advice for any law student struggling with the “invisible” disability of mental illness is the following: You deserve to know that you are not alone. You belong in law school, and the struggles you are facing now will make you a stronger advocate in the long run. Use resources like the National Disabled Law Students Association, fight stigma wherever you can, and hold close to the fact that plenty of lawyers with this invisible disability came before you, passed the Bar exam, and fought to make the legal profession more accessible. You can do the same. You have the capacity to push the profession even further toward a future where justice is not simply an ideal but a lived reality for all.