Change in the law and law firms' growing commitment to diversity creates bright future for lawyers with disabilities.
Until the introduction of the Equality Act four years ago, the only legal protection that people with disabilities received in the workplace was from an act dating back to the Second World War that was designed to help injured soldiers gain employment. Discrimination was, sadly, common.
An event at the Law Society earlier this month on disability and employment provided an insight into this world. Various tales were told of law firms treating disabled prospective recruits unfavourably. Pre-2010, it was, regrettably, often better for disabled future lawyers to try to minimise or even hide their disabilities.
The enshrining in the law of the right of disabled people not to be discriminated against has thankfully changed the situation dramatically, with employers now acting far more supportively. Law firms, particularly of the large international variety, have been among those leading the way. Today, many embrace the opportunity to help talented graduates with disabilities develop their careers. Accordingly, the advice from disabled lawyers to students is that it is now best to be open about their disabilities in expectation of a positive response.
‘This is a very different environment for prospective solicitors with disabilities. Now I cannot see a good reason for students to hide their disability. Large law firm human resources departments are very supportive indeed in my experience,’ said one lawyer at the Law Society event.
Nevertheless, it can be argued that even with legal protection, starting a legal career as a disabled person is tougher than it is for a non-disabled person. Tribunal judge Jon Holbrook, who has cerebral palsy, believes that law students with disabilities continue to face a particularly tough challenge to gain training contracts and pupillages.
‘That first step has, and always will be, the most difficult challenge,’ Holbrook told theGuardian. ‘With experience, you develop a track record that makes it easier to demonstrate that your disability doesn't affect your ability as a lawyer. But for someone in their 20s, proving yourself is much harder.’
This has been the experience of in-house lawyer Arunima Misra, who has a permanent physical disability called paraparesis which affects the muscles in her legs. Misra, who trained with Allen & Overy, points out that firms often fail to realise that it is only the very confident people with disabilities who apply to them. ‘When you attend a graduate recruitment fair in a wheelchair you end up spending a lot of time looking at people's bums, which puts many people with disabilities off going,’ she says.
Gradually, law firms are realising this and have begun to respond by organising recruitment events specifically aimed at lawyers with disabilities. One such event is taking place on Wednesday 2 April at Reed Smith in central London in association with EmployAbility, the disability charity. It offers students with disabilities the chance the meet lawyers and graduate recruiters at Reed Smith and a host of other top firms in an informal environment. More information can be found here.
The advantage of joining such large firms, says Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer associate Feargus MacDaeid, who is registered as blind, is that the cost of providing a supportive environment is less of an issue than it is for smaller organisations.
‘There seems to be a myth that the bigger a place, the less disabled-friendly it is,’ MacDaeid told Chambers Student. ‘Actually, the advantage with a big firm is that cost is less of an issue – they don't mind paying for you to be able to do your work. The attitude generally is: 'If you need it, we can afford to buy it.' Smaller firms can provide support, but they are much more dependent on government schemes.’
With the right support lawyers like MacDaeid – who got a First and won three academic prizes in his undergraduate law degree at King's College, London, where he studied with the help of a human reader and a dictaphone – can thrive.
Indeed, in a positive environment, a disability can, in some instances, help lawyers to develop in other ways that can be very helpful to their professional lives. At the recent Lawyers with Disabilities Division event, one deaf lawyer revealed how not being able to hear people's voices had made him very perceptive in gauging people's moods and feelings from their body language and even the vibrations emitted from their tone of voice. Reflecting on whether he would choose to lose his disability if he could, he said he wouldn't, explaining that it had made him the lawyer who he is today.
Eight practical ways in which law firms assist lawyers with disabilities
Dedicated typists who type out telephone conversations to assist hard of hearing and deaf lawyers
2. Flexible working hours
Firms will accommodate lawyers who suffer from fatigue by allowing them to work flexibly
3. Document checkers
Individuals who will assist blind and partially sighted lawyers in picking up typos in documents they have drafted
Primary role to assist lawyers in their day-to-day tasks and reduce the impact of fatigue
5. Specialist equipment
Items can include height adjustable desks, voice activated software and pen/graphic tablets
6. Building modifications
Examples include power assisted doors and ramps for wheelchair using lawyers
7. Home office facilities
Firms provide home office equipment allowing lawyers to work from home
8. Continuing reviews of lawyer's needs
Regular trip hazard reviews for members of staff who are either blind or partially sighted