The legal sector is renowned as a rigorous environment where some of the finest minds do battle. We investigate how the sector helps disabled people to have a successful career.
If there is one word that describes the ongoing relationship between the legal sector and disability it might be ‘transitional’. Ironically, a brief internet search will bring up a host of law firms keen to help support and prosecute, where necessary, the rights of disabled people in public places and in the workplace. Curiously, the results seem far less numerous when searching for material relating to success stories about disabled lawyers.
Legislation protecting disabled people’s rights under the Equality Act, 2010 gave lawyers a real foothold in defending disabled people against discrimination and underlying prejudices but it seems that it has taken the sector a little more time to fully respond to the challenge of creating a properly diverse workforce. Nevertheless, it is happening and there are strong examples voices within the sector asking questions that take the issue beyond legal compliance and into the realms of making use of the largely untapped talent-pool and simply, treating disabled people fairly and properly. Perhaps the scales of justice are finally levelling out.
Two organisations that are clearly enthusiastic about creating a sector wide (above and beyond specific firms) response to the challenge are The Law Society and City Disabilities. These provide a sensible starting point for any disabled person looking into using their talents and qualifications to forge a career in law.
The Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division promotes equality of opportunity for solicitors, would-be solicitors and clients with disabilities and provides a range of information and contacts designed to provide practical solutions to disabled people and employers.
City Disabilities meanwhile, is a website that supports people pursuing professional careers (of all kinds). Whilst they recognise the many positive things that are happening in the broader professional world they point out that: “It is still possible to encounter a range of assumptions and prejudices that can be hard to deal with.” They aim to collect experiences and share solutions and tips on best practice to help move the issues along and strengthen the professional chances of disabled people.
One of the current challenges that the legal sector faces is that not enough disabled employees actually disclose their disabilities to their employer. This might be down to the traditions of the sector whereby lawyers show neither ‘weakness’ nor fear, or it might be that individuals are worried that disclosure would risk their professional progress. (Again, without disclosure and subsequent discussion on the matter, we might never know.)
At the end of 2015, The Lawyer, a leading website for the legal profession, published research findings on disability. According to their figures, 1% of individuals at smaller law firms report having a disability, with that figure falling to 0.7% at larger firms. This is an unlikely reflection of the real scene given that estimates suggest that around 20% of the UK population have a disability. The conclusion of The Lawyer was that disability remains the most under-represented diversity strand in the legal profession. When challenged about this employers tend to point out that they cannot put reasonable adjustments in place for disabled employees if they do not know they are there.
Of course, there is a flipside. Writing for the lawyer website, Robert Hunter, a partner at Edmonds Marshall McMahon, says: “Let’s be clear. Many city firms are great with diversity and inclusion. Hook up with one of these and you can just get your head down and get on with the job, like everybody else”.
Waqas Zaib, of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division writing at the end of last year said that membership stood at close to 800 individuals, but that “this does not give an accurate reflection of the number of disabled individuals in the profession,” he said.
Perhaps as a result of the positive guidance issued by The Law Society, others firms are beginning to take positive action on the matter by establishing support groups and networks of disabled legal professionals. Again, this is about sharing information, advice and also showing success stories – that point to the fact that disabled professionals don’t need to have the bar lowered to accommodate their needs, but rather that a certain flexibility would be beneficial to both employees and their respective firms.
There are plenty of firms taking a practical stance on the issue including (but not exclusively) CMS, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and Reed Smith leading the way in this regard.
Zaib concludes that: “As a profession we still have a distance to go before we become fully inclusive, but we are headed down the right path.”
The Law Society: www.lawsociety.org.uk
City Disabilities: www.citydisabilities.org.uk