Disabled wannabe lawyer uses discrimination battle to fire training contract mission

He has come a long way, but now Josh Hepple must confront his biggest challenge yet. Legal Cheek‘s Katie King reports

Katie-josh

Like many legal hopefuls, City University Legal Practice Course (LPC) student Josh Hepple (pictured above with Katie King) wants to pursue a career in human rights law. What marks him out from the crowd is that he is severely disabled.

Hepple, who has cerebral palsy, made headlines this summer following a tireless campaign to improve disabled students’ access to law school facilities — and he’s not done yet.

With a 2:1 law degree from Stirling University and a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) under his belt, Hepple is now studying for his LPC in the pursuit of becoming a human rights solicitor.

Legal Cheek caught up with Hepple to find out what it’s like to study law as a disabled student, and to hear what his plans are.

When asked why he chose to pursue a career as a solicitor, Hepple was frank in admitting that his initial ambition was to become a barrister. However, given that his speech impairment could make communication difficult during the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) advocacy sessions, he chose to pursue the LPC instead. He explains:

Every word carries weight in court, and it wouldn’t be fair for jurors and others in court to try to understand me.

The City student is yet to meet a barrister with speech problems as severe as his, and he’d like to change this. Despite opting against a career at the bar for himself, he is keen to kickstart a training opportunity for would-be advocates living with disabilities to give them the chance to practice speaking in the courtroom.

I’d like to see systems put in place to give people with speech impairments the chance to practice speaking in court,” says Hepple. “I’ve raised this with the Bar Standards Board, and they’ve been very receptive. They’re doing an overhaul of the entire training system at the moment.

Currently Hepple is studying the LPC, and is continuing to face challenges along the way.

The LPC tests more practical skills than the GDL, such as interviewing — which the aspiring lawyer is finding tough. Hepple also often requires assistance from his aide to complete certain handwritten forms which are a feature of the course. This eats into his student interaction time and makes it harder for him to socialise. However, communication with his lecturers is not a problem, while reasonable adjustments are being made for upcoming exams.

One lingering complaint from Hepple is his access in and out of the university, or lack of. Though City University recently held their hands up to problems with their library accessibility and improved its entry system, the LPC student now says that his teaching rooms are, while accessible, difficult to get to. Though the university have been notified, Hepple reports that the improvements he has requested have not yet been put in place.

Despite these obstacles and the intense workload, Hepple is enjoying his studies. At the same time, he is conscious of the pressure to line up a job at the end of the course.

Hepple’s goal is to follow up the work experience stint he did at top London civil liberties law firm Bindmans by bagging a training contract in human rights law. In order to further that aim he has been bolstering his CV by writing a host of articles on disabilities, which have been published in a range of academic journals and The Times Educational Supplement.

As he works on applications, the young wannabe lawyer is also keen to use the story of how he has overcome his disability to prove the steely determination that he possesses. He comments:

I do state in my TC applications that I’m disabled, but I use this to my advantage. I say ‘yes I am disabled, but look how much I’ve achieved.’

As he moves forward, Hepple holds close the words of encouragement given to him by Doughty Street barrister Jonathan Cooper OBE, who he has worked with on LGBT events and who inspired him to pursue legal practice. While Hepple had been considering an academic legal career, Cooper encouraged him not to view his disability as a barrier to a life in practice.

The training contract application process aside, Hepple’s big concern is that his target employers will be unable to accommodate his disability, because smaller firms are often wheelchair inaccessible — especially those in the Temple area. When asked about this in the context of the diversity demography of law firms and chambers, Hepple says:

A regulatory board will always encourage diversity, but compared to women and BME lawyers, some disabled lawyers require resources and how this would be funded I don’t know.

Disability access tends to be much better at corporate law firms, many of which go to great lengths to ensure their lawyers with disabilities have a comfortable and easily accessible working environment. Of course, big budgets of the type not possessed by human rights firms play a part.

But big business isn’t the area of law that drives Hepple, who wants to work personally with individual clients. Certainly, as far as reasons to go onto law go, they don’t come much better this his. Hepple explains:

I experience discrimination everyday, and I have an empathy, a frustration and a desire for justice.

It would be a great shame if this young lawyer-to-be’s passion was allowed to go unharnessed by a few access and communication issues. Compared to everything that Hepple has overcome, these practical hurdles are easily solvable.

56 Comments

Lucas

“I’d like to see systems put in place to give people with speech impairments the chance to practice speaking in court” This is a bit like saying “I’d like to see systems put in place to give people with visual impairments the chance to practice surgery in an operating theatre” Being able to speak properly, at least to a reasonable standard, is a sine qua non of the job. If you don’t have it, for whatever reason, you can’t do it. That’s not discrimination. That’s life.

(81)(12)
Lord Justice Rambleson

Indeed. They’re are just some things people with certain disabilities can’t do, and it’s well beyond the scope of “reasonable provision” to remedy.

If you can’t speak clearly you can’t be an advocate. If you can’t see you can’t be a surgeon. If you’re in a wheelchair you can’t work on a building site etc…

Some disabled lobbyists refuse to accept this though. Even installing a stairlift at Mount Everest is not beyond the scope of their arguments.

We all have limits, we all know our limits, so why should disabled people be any different in having and knowing their limits?

(14)(6)
Jack Straw

“We all have limits, we all know our limits, so why should disabled people be any different in having and knowing their limits?”

‘Knowing their limits’? This is unhelpful drivel. You’ve added nothing to this conversation by saying this I’m afraid. The interviewee likely understands very well what his limits are, but believes they exceed, on an intellectual level anyway, the minimum requirements of the system as it currently stands. Given the right access tools, he thinks he can succeed. Who are we to deny this to him?

Cram your notion of ‘limits’ where the something don’t something…

(7)(3)
MalcolmX'sMum

Not sure I completely agree. And your analogy doesn’t work in my opinion. While surgery requires an expert human hand, so long as you have a functioning brain, there are surely means for communication which at the very least assist someone with a speech impediment/impairment, particularly given modern technology.

You haven’t responded to his point really. He said he’d like to see systems in place to etc etc. Are those systems available? Might they be available? If you’re point is that they’re unrealistic, then fair enough. But back it up.

Granted, having people speak like Hawking in court mightn’t make great TV, but that, or something like it, is surely possible, and if accessible should be made available.

(15)(11)
Lucas

“Granted, having people speak like Hawking in court mightn’t make great TV, but that, or something like it, is surely possible, and if accessible should be made available.” Award for understatement of the year? No one in their right mind would pay someone several hundred pounds an hour to try and convince a judge/jury of certain complex legal and factual points Hawking style. The jury will fall asleep, the judge will fall asleep, everyone will get annoyed and the client will probably develop depression. Get real. Please.

(9)(5)
Anonymous

I think you miss the point. Hawking was just a funny example methinks. The point was about technology/assistance

(1)(1)
One legged oaf

I would like to climb Everest but am not physically able to do so.

DISCRIMINASHUN!!!!! BUILD AN ESCALATOR FOR ME!!!!!!

(12)(4)
Anonymous

In court, you are required to interact in real time. Hawking composes answers to pre-agreed interview questions well in advance. You can’t really compare the two.

(2)(0)
Anonymous

I think this is quite a naive presumption to make. For all we know a disabled barrister may be very knowledgable on a certain area and to not make a few adjustments would be detrimental to all

(7)(4)
Lucas

What ‘adjustments’ ? Ban oral arguments and just have written submissions? Then the point of hiring a barrister is???

(12)(1)
Anonymous

Surely one would instruct based on the skills of the barrister and not on their impairment p

(1)(4)
Sir Ponsonby Smythe-Smallpiece

Nonsense! A blind surgeon could have an assistant to guide them with voice commands and utilise their sense of touch in appropriate cases.

A speech impaired barrister could have a translator or text-based translation software to relay their submissions to the court.

I have seen a sign in the back of a car that said “Caution! Blind driver” before.

With reasonable adjustments, and the assistance of modern technology, anything is possible!

(3)(7)
Anonymous

Who is going to fork out for a disabled barrister and his carer for a week long trial at the Old bailey?

(11)(4)
Disgusting of Tonbridge Swells

The Legal Aid Agency?

Speech synthesizers are no longer Hawking-esque.

He chooses to keep his dated robo-voice as it is now his trademark. His system was developed over 20 years ago.

Speech synth is now far more natural sounding and would work well in a courtroom setting.

If Hawking can give lectures and write books, those with similar disabilities but brilliant brains can sure as heck be fine advocates!

(3)(1)
Anonymous

I think the car sign you saw was a joke. You cannot drive with any sight impairment that cannot be corrected with glasses.

(0)(0)
Anonymous

What an inspiration. I’m dyslexic dyspraxia partially sighted and have lots of medical problems. Many a time I have wanted to pack it all in and not bother because I just feel like I’m not good enough. Although I would say although aiming high is amazing we who have disabilities have to be practical and realistic. I struggle with speech and Other issues so I’m applying for local high street rather than city.

(16)(2)
Anonymous

Does Matrix still guarantee a pupillage (sorry, “traineeship”) interview to anyone with a 2.1 who is disabled?

(1)(1)
Anonymous

Sorry but with advocacy a lot of it is to do with pacing and intonation. A robot voice will not cut it. The jury will not be engaged.

I wouldn’t pay for a barrister who used a talking machine. It’s tough but it’s life. Not everything is achievable for everyone. It’s unfortunate but that’s just the way things go.

(8)(0)
Anonymous

I don’t think this guy is stating his only option is a monotone speech synthesiser

(0)(0)
Anonymous

How many barristers dedicate 100% of their time to jury trials?!

(0)(0)
Daniel Holt

These negative comments are disappointing. The legal professions, including the courts that they work in, are obliged to make reasonable adjustments. A person’s skill set often varies from another. It will be a challenge for Josh to make oral arguments but that is no reflection on his ability or competence as a legal professional. It’s the sad truth of a society that fails to meet diverse needs. The legal professions should set a good example and stand by its diverse professionals.

There will be some men who wouldn’t be inclined to instruct a female legal professional because of perceived incompetence but that isn’t acceptable. There are some people who wouldn’t want a black lawyer because of perceived competence but that isn’t acceptable. Some people would worry about having a disabled lawyer because of perceived competence but that too isn’t acceptable.

I wish Josh all the best in his career and I hope that he’ll be instructing me as his barrister.

(7)(0)
Daniel Holt

‘Obliged’ should be obligated and ‘ perceived competence’ should be perceived incompetence! Good luck Josh.

(2)(0)
Anonymous

‘It will be a challenge for Josh to make oral arguments but that is no reflection on his ability or competence as a legal professional.’

Surely difficulty with oral arguments is a reflection on his ability as a legal professional, given that ability to deliver oral argument is a fundamental part of the job?

(3)(3)
Daniel Holt

Not necessarily. Rhetoric only has its value in front of a jury, whom are more interested in the delivery of the argument than its legal foundations, and, as a result, a restricted practice of law. There are several, if not numerous, ways in which the system could be adjusted to allow Josh to share his legal competence. One barrister will often be able to communicate their thoughts much more effectively than another but that has no bearing on the legal reasoning that is being verbalised, nor does it always achieve the preferred outcome.

(0)(1)
Anonymous

Agree – I have a speech impediment and a barrister I was interning with, now a QC, said that a speech impediment was no barrier to a career at the bar… his view was that it would command attention.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

Probably doesn’t help when some people still don’t believe anybody with disabilities should be doing something like law. I had a trainee from a firm laugh and tell me “you shouldn’t even attempt to be a solicitor ” with my dyslexia and that when I pointed out i just needed her to explain things to me a bit more clearly that “they don’t take into accounts disabilities as they are just excuses” don’t get me wrong I don’t stand q hope in hell of ever getting a TC with a big firm but I’ve come out with a 2:1 so why did she think I couldn’t get a TC with a high street firm.

(1)(1)
Anonymous

oh yeah. I have a mild hearing impairment and consequently (mild) speech impairment (for which I’ve had extensive speech therapy). Several people have laughed in my face when I’ve told them I want to be a lawyer. Joke’s on them, though- I work hard and I’ll be graduating in a year and a bit.

(3)(0)
Anonymous

I also have a speech impediment – I was at a training contract assessment day at a City firm and a female partner who I had to give a presentation to said she couldn’t imagine putting me in front of clients. I won’t name the firm as I’m sure it was just a single-partner issue rather than a firm issue.

Anyhow. I secured a TC at another, perhaps “better” firm, and I’m now qualified. Clients seem ok with it.

(3)(2)
Anonymous

That’s fantastic well done. Your post really cheered me up because the comment telling me to not bother going into law has honestly stopped me even bothering applying anywhere as I don’t see the point if as soon as I disclose disabilities and they hear my speech they will reject me

(2)(0)
Anonymous

Just be open about it from the start of the process and you will be fine – some firms won’t, to be honest, be willing to make accommodations, but all it takes is finding the right firm (basically just the right partner who interviews you and sees your potential). I think you’ll make it (provided you’ve got all the other elements you need to get a TC of course!).

Most people genuinely won’t see it as an issue, irrespective of how mild or not it is.

(0)(1)
Musiaca

We have an adversarial legal system. It means that the ability to have good oratory and rhetoric is an important part of the role. This is very unfortunate as it disadvantages those who can deliver arguments more effectively than others, whether that is because of a speech impairment, anxiety issues, a lack of charisma or something else. It seems that those who defend Josh, and those who criticise him all agree that the system disadvantages him, they just disagree how much it does so.

In an inquisitorial system or a more radically alternative system the substance of the argument matters far more than the delivery. It provides the opportunity to collaboration and is far more inclusive.

This debate highlights the issues with an adversarial system, it is discriminatory and needs to change, for this and so many other reasons.

The system needs an overhaul. It must be inclusive. That being said, as the system currently stands, Josh can be a great legal professional. He will have to deal with some prejudiced clients not wanting representation and he will have to deal with sneering people like the one’s in this thread. But I have no doubt someone with his disability, despite the system disadvantaging him, can still be a talented and effective lawyer.

Go for it Josh!

(3)(9)
Anonymous

I’m mentally deficient, and it bothers me to no end. I hope the law society can make the necessary concessions to allow me to accomplish my dreams of being an advocate in court, no matter how inefficient this career would prove to myself, my clients, and the justice system in general. In the name of non-discrimination of those with characteristics that clearly make certain occupations almost impossible for them to achieve on their own, I must have anything I set my mind to because I want it. So bad.

The world’s unfair. I can’t be a doctor because I’m not good with blood. I can’t be a basketball player because I’m not genetically programmed to throw a ball into a basket. I can’t be an engineer because I don’t get math. I understand some truths are harder to swallow than others, but even if I really wanted to go to the NBA I would never have a right to ask them to lower their standards for me.

And that’s not just because it’s not helpful for myself or the organization. It’s for the rest of society who depend on the quality of those in that occupation. The faster people realize this, the more productive and happy the world will become.

(9)(7)
Daniel Holt

It seems like you are blinkered by your privilege. It’s not about lowering standards. It’s removing unnecessary prejudice and obstacles. But no doubt you wouldn’t understand because you will never have to face them.

(4)(4)
Anonymous

But it’s not lowering standards its reasonable adjustments ? I don’t stand a chance at passing any psychometric tests due to being dyspraxic it’s a physical impossibility. I’m not stupid though I’ve got a 2:1 in my law degre I’ve got vac schemes it seems bloody unfair to loose out on a TC as my brain doesn’t seem to be able to fit certain shapes or work out word patterns

(1)(1)
Anonymous

I think this demonstrates how closed minded some people are. He has the mental ability to do the LLB and GDL so surely is half way there. He can’t fly a plane whatsoever and doubts he disputes this.

(0)(4)
Disgusting of Tonbridge Swells

The haters are closed-minded scum-bags, in my respectful submission!

(3)(3)
Anonymous

I am colour blind. This means I cannot fly a plane or be an electrician. Shit happens. I deal with it and wrote them off as a career option. Sometimes it is a case of best person for the job. If others are better than me then good luck to them.

(9)(1)
Anonymous

There appears to be rather a lot of outright discrimination on these postings from – really – people who ought to know a lot better.

Who are you guys? Don’t you want to be lawyers?

Don’t you know that just because somebody has a speech impairment, it doesn’t mean that a) they can’t speak and b) you can’t understand them c) they aren’t good communicators.

Many of you frankly don’t know a lot about life. Many of you don’t really understand what makes a good lawyer. Plus many of you appear to be outright discriminatory. Think harder. Come on.

Josh, I wish you all the best – you will get a TC if you are any good so hang in there.

(3)(7)
Anonymous

Isn’t it compassionate to be realistic rather than telling someone something they want to hear, but which isn’t true?

(4)(0)
Anonymous

Spot all the whiny lefties who believe you can do anything you want to ever…

(5)(1)
Scouser of Counsel

Spot the right wing nutjob who believes that everyone should know their place!

(1)(1)
Anonymous

There is a certain irony to this post which focuses on this gentlemans ability to be an advocate. In almost all areas of law now if he wanted to bring his own case he would (unless he had funds for private representation) be a litigant in person. Any judge worth his or her salt would listen with patience and make any adaptations required for him to get his case across. Why is it different if a client chooses him as the person to speak for him?

(2)(1)
Incognito

>”I think this demonstrates how closed minded some people are. He has the mental ability to do the LLB and GDL so surely is half way there. He can’t fly a plane whatsoever and doubts he disputes this.”

Almost anyone can pass an LLB or GDL. They are merely the very minimum standard to be *eligible* for consideration for a training contract. To actually be competitive you need to be as good as, or better than alternative applicants who firms are choosing from. Firms will take the best applicants to fill their places, notwithstanding a certain quota of minority candidates recruited to satisfy diversity criteria (not my creation: the observation of a senior magic circle associate who is baby sitting a trainee solicitor, who is due to be binned at the end of her training contract, but is useful in the interim for diversity statistics).

Surely the only sensible metric here is, “How competitive are you compared to other applicants?”. If someone isn’t going to be competitive, then surely all the ‘follow your dreams’ advice is no more credible than someone encouraging me to strive for a 2:15 marathon – patronising and counterproductive, as my time would be more usefully employed pursuing something achievable?

(3)(1)
Anonymous

The problem with the oral advocacy argument is straightforward – many non disabled people can’t do oral advocacy properly, so if you are disabled (any kind of disabled) and you’re as good as others in terms of advocacy, no one will have a problem with it. I think making an excuse for those who cannot do it – either because they are disabled, or average or really just rubbish at advocacy, is not a good reason. You’re dealing with people’s liberty and/or their money and they deserve the best. That doesn’t mean a disabled person cannot be a barrister! You have to focus on giving a disabled person the best chance but be realistic – and this applies to those who are also not disabled. There’s no need to have a double standard: either you meet the standard or you don’t, irrespective of the reason.

(1)(0)
Anonymous

If there was an edit button above I’d point out that disability isn’t just a physical thing – many may be disabled in a non-obvious way who would not make good barristers. Do we therefore allow them too? Course not. You have to meet the standard.

This is, however, DIFFERENT from saying “what reasonable adjustments can we make so X can do his best” – that is something employers and the system should be doing and I fully support that.

(0)(0)

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