Witten LLP champions law students' mental health initiatives

Michael O'Boyle Mental Health and Wellness Fund meets fundraising target with generous donation

Sarah Kent - 11 March 2020

Law students are part of a profession that is at high risk for experiencing mental health distress, so the University of Alberta Faculty of Law is grateful to a local law firm for stepping forward to help remove the stigma for students who need support.

Thanks to Witten LLP, the Michael O'Boyle Mental Health and Wellness fund has now met its fundraising target and will support student-led mental health initiatives starting in the 2020-2021 academic year.

"The fund struck me immediately as meeting a need that, in our society as a whole, is underfunded and often swept under the rug," said Howard J. Sniderman, QC, a partner at Witten LLP.

The fund honours the late UAlberta Law alumnus Michael O'Boyle, '04 JD, who privately struggled with depression. With a goal of raising awareness, the fund will provide support to students and help them develop the skills they need to cope with the demands of the legal profession.

Sniderman hopes that the O'Boyle fund helps students recognize the signs of mental illness and seek support by "getting rid of the stigma that surrounds the reticence to say, 'I need help.'"

Making the O'Boyle fund possible has been a community effort. The O'Boyle family provided the initial seed gift, and other donors include members of the Class of 2004 and the Law Society of Alberta. The fund took shape under the leadership of the Faculty's former Dean of Law, Paul Paton, QC, who committed considerable time and effort to enhancing mental health resources for UAlberta Law students during his tenure of 2014 to 2019.

"The Michael O'Boyle fund and its focus on mental health is one of the most important innovations in the recent history of the law school," said Dean David R. Percy, QC. "The donation from Witten LLP provides us with a firm foundation upon which we intend to build on in the future."

Sniderman was "blown away by the positive response" at his firm when he announced the donation. "Hearing from the staff, our students and associates, and from my partners, and hearing them talk about the situations in their own families - that ratified and corroborated how important it is for us to make this commitment … this really resonates," he said.

Witten LLP's pledge marks the first major donation from a law firm to the fund, but they have contacted other firms "to let them know that we want them to follow suit," said Sniderman.

He hopes that news of the donation will be "a signal, not just of our commitment, but of a need for the entire legal community to commit to improving conditions for students."