For The Record

Photograph by Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Supreme Court of Virginia can be an imposing and impersonal institution, from its origins as part of the 17th-century House of Burgesses to the significant and controversial role it played in civil rights cases that shaped our nation.

But Justice Stephen McCullough, L’97, who was appointed to the Commonwealth’s highest court in 2016, hopes to be remembered for having bettered the lives of everyday people — and the lawyers who serve them.

Law is a high-stress profession.

“I’m very blessed to work with exceptionally bright, hard-working colleagues who believe, in addition to fairly resolving the cases before us, in advancing broader goals,” McCullough said. “We’re focused on two areas: to ‘close the justice gap’ [by raising] standards and awareness for the legal profession to live up to its ideals of equal justice, especially for those who cannot afford a lawyer, and to advance lawyer wellness.

“Law is a high-stress profession, and there are alarming statistics about mental health and substance abuse among young lawyers. I’m proud that Virginia has taken a prominent role in promoting the need for life balance.”

McCullough’s own wellness journey began in an unlikely place. Born in Marseille, France, McCullough intended to become a diplomat after graduating from the University of Virginia. He interned at the U.S. Department of State, but when budget cuts waylaid his plans, he enrolled at Richmond Law. After graduation, he served as a law clerk to Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr., Virginia’s first African American chief justice.

“I was sort of haphazard about fitness, and here was Justice Hassell — who was twice my age — regularly putting me to shame,” he said. “So, I started working out, being more active in my church, and volunteering.

“In addition to making me think about physical, mental, and spiritual health, Justice Hassell certainly opened my eyes to deficiencies in how minorities were sometimes treated by the legal system.”

McCullough is similarly committed to inspiring the next generation of judicial leaders. He volunteers his time in a variety of ways, including at the Fredericksburg Boys and Girls Club.

“At the club, they just call me Mr. Steve; many don’t understand what I do,” he said. “These kids are very bright and capable, but they don’t see a path to a legal career. I’m devoted to helping them see that path.”