How accessible is a legal career to someone with a disability? Read on to find out.
The law is a profession that's all about ensuring justice, fairness and equality for all. Since the 2010 Equality Act entered the rulebooks, its host of protections for disabled people have made it easier for them to enter and thrive in the workplace. Below we give a rundown of the legal and professional protections offered to those with disabilities, and share the views of some individuals with a disability.
The definition of disability is a lot wider than many people realise. You're disabled under the 2010 Equality Act if you have a 'physical or mental impairment, and the impairment has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on [your] ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.' Long-term illnesses – cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis – are covered by this definition, as are illnesses like diabetes, and mental health conditions. More common conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD are also included. Here's the government's official guidance on the definition of disability.
More common conditions such as dyslexia and ADHD are also included.
In all around 18% of the population are covered by the Act, yet only 1% of solicitors identify as disabled.
What's the law on disability in the workplace?
There are a host of legal protections for disabled people in the workplace, but the ones most likely to apply to trainee solicitors and pupil barristers are the principles of equal recruitment and reasonable adjustment.
Recruiters are only allowed to ask questions about whether you are disabled for a limited number of reasons, including:
to help decide if you can carry out a task that is an essential part of the work;
to help find out if you can take part in an interview;
to help decide if the interviewers need to make reasonable adjustments for you in a selection process;
to help monitoring.
In summary, you are under no obligation to disclose your disability unless it will affect your ability to undertake the selection process, or your ability to carry out vital parts of the role. Recruiters are not allowed to ask open-ended or intrusive questions about your disabled status.
The 2010 Equality Act also enshrines the concept of 'reasonable adjustment', which means that employers are obliged to accommodate disabled workers' needs, unless it's unreasonable for them to do so. An employee can take their employer to an employment tribunal if they fail to make the required adjustments. The principle of reasonable adjustment exists to prevent disabled people from being put at a disadvantage compared to non-disabled people in the workplace.
“We have several people working for us who have a visual impairment and we provide them with different computer screens, and give them a lower fee-earning target."
In the context of a legal career, reasonable adjustments could theoretically mean flexible working patterns for employees with chronic pain, voice recognition software for the visually impaired, or making a workplace fully wheelchair accessible. Frances Swaine, managing partner of human rights firm Leigh Day, tells us: “We have several people working for us who have a visual impairment and we provide them with different computer screens, and give them a lower fee-earning target. We also have one severely physically disabled senior solicitor, and we've made a lot of adjustments, working with our local authority, so she can get to and from work.”
Issues of access don't apply to many disabled people. But for disabled people who use wheelchairs or have limited mobility, a career in the law can present some challenges.
Zoe Johnson QC is a barrister who uses a wheelchair. She tells us: “I've been in the profession for 25 years and I would definitely say things have improved a lot over that period of time. But although attitudes have changed markedly, the facilities still need to catch up. Even in relatively new courts, you can find heavy doors that don't open automatically, or that there aren't enough lifts. I sit as a Recorder [a part-time judge] and I am incredibly limited in the courts I can go to. They might be accessible on the public side, but then you'll discover that there are steps up to the judge's seat!”
"I make it clear what I can do and what I can't, rather than having that swathed in a cloud of mystery.”
While big commercial firms tend to have a large bank of lifts and decent disabled access, smaller law firms may not have the funds to put a lift into an old building with multiple flights of stairs – or might not be willing to do so. Criminal lawyers are expected to visit police stations and courts, which may not have full disabled access. For example, a candidate with dyslexia might get 25% more time to complete a written test, while a trainee with a hearing problem can expect to be provided with an adjusted phone and a quieter working space.
But although there are still difficulties, Zoe Johnson reassures us that “people don't jump to the same sort of assumptions they did 20 or so years ago.” Her advice for thriving as a disabled barrister? “Make sure the clerks know what your disability actually means. I make it clear what I can do and what I can't, rather than having that swathed in a cloud of mystery.”
Getting a job
The same openness which Zoe Johnson talks of is relevant when you're applying for vacation schemes and training contracts. Although candidates might be reluctant to disclose their disabilities for fear of being discriminated against, letting a firm's HR know well in advance about any adjustments you need will enable the interview process to run as smoothly as possible. For example, a candidate with dyslexia might get 25% more time to complete a written test, while a trainee with a hearing problem might expect to be provided with an adjusted phone and a quieter working space.
There are a whole host of initiatives designed to make life easier for disabled applicants. Open to Law holds annual interactive sessions in December for disabled students and those with long-term health conditions, run by representatives of eight leading law firms. Profoundly deaf Herbert Smith Freehills partner Robert Hunter has founded the charity City Disabilities, which has a mentoring scheme for aspiring young professionals who are disabled. And there's also a program of disability networking events and conferences courtesy of the Law Society's Lawyers with Disabilities Division, which has a mentoring scheme of its own.
Which law firms do best?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority requires law firms to provide statistics on disability in the same way they do with ethnicity and gender, but their equality monitoring report for 2013 warns: 'The disability data should be treated with some caution as there is still significant under-reporting of disability in the profession.' Still, the survey found that the larger the firm, the lower the proportion of individuals who report being disabled, meaning that whereas 1.6% of sole practitioners are disabled, small firms of 26 to 80 lawyers are 0.9% disabled, and firms with 81 or more lawyers are 0.7% disabled.
"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."
These figures run counter to the experience of registered blind lawyer Feargus MacDaeid, who we interviewed in 2011 while he was a trainee at Allen & Overy. He told us: “There seems to be a myth that the bigger a place, the less disabled-friendly it is. 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.” Still, employers of any size are able to apply for the government's Access to Work scheme, which covers 100% of the costs of supporting a disabled lawyer's needs. Feargus MacDaeid has, since we spoke to him, qualified as a solicitor and now practises at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “Something that has impressed me very much here at Freshfields has been the 'no fuss' way in which they have made their adjustments,” he told us in 2015.“An example of this is that I am getting my first guide dog – Clover – this week. The partners had a meeting about it, and HR have even rung me to ask what the Guide Dogs Association recommends in the office. Clover will be pampered.”
Other anecdotal evidence supports Feargus' comments about large firms being supportive of employees with disabilities. During our 2014 research we spoke to a trainee at a large commercial firm who has dyslexia, a condition which can go unnoticed for years. They told us: “I really struggled in my first seat – my performance was rubbish and I had a huge problem with attention to detail. I couldn't figure out why.” So far the bad news, now the good: “The firm suggested I take a dyslexia assessment. And it turns out that I am dyslexic. I had contact with the HR team to figure out the best approach. I took some leave and spoke to other solicitors who are dyslexic. Now I'm back at work. I have a special computer and facilities and am performing at full capacity. It's been hard for me, but the firm was very supportive.”
The stories above suggest individuals with a disability can and should proceed with confidence into the legal profession. Be aware of your rights, and know that many firms will make an explicit effort to include those with a disability.
This feature originally appeared in our February 2015 newsletter.