We spoke to top lawyer Robert Hunter, himself profoundly deaf, about his charity City Disabilities
Making it into the City as a disabled lawyer, you might think, is the easiest it’s ever been.
In recent years, a profession-wide shake up of recruitment practices means ‘diversity’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘social mobility’ are the buzzwords of today. Graduate recruitment teams delight over their firm’s open-arms approach to students from all backgrounds — traditional and non-traditional — and are at pains to encourage applications from the widest possible pool of candidates. Gone are the days of the old boys’ club legal profession, right?
The picture is improving, but — having spoken to disabled lawyer Robert Hunter — it seems there is still a long way to go.
Hunter is a former partner at top City firms Herbert Smith Freehills and Allen & Overy, and now spends his days at boutique outfit Edmonds Marshall McMahon. He is an authoritative voice on disability rights issues: he is profoundly deaf himself. This is what he has to say about the reality of life as a disabled lawyer:
I was struck by the disconnect between the appearance some law firms were presenting regarding their disability-friendliness and the reality on the office floor.
Law firm PR/recruitment, he tells Legal Cheek, is often very disability-friendly, but the people doing the PR/recruitment are not the same people who work alongside disabled lawyers day-to-day. In many ways, disabled lawyers become “poster boys and girls” for the firm, yet once the PR guff is over and done with and it comes down to ensuring disabled employees are fairly treated in the workplace, “there is nowhere near the same enthusiasm”.
You’re unlikely to find a person, lawyer or otherwise, who will admit to being prejudiced against disabled people, and that’s because few believe they are. It’s more subtle than that, unconscious even, says Hunter, and often manifests itself in “hasty assumptions from non-disabled colleagues about a person’s disability and how this will affect their ability to work”. Because of this, it’s common for disabled lawyers to be sidelined into non-fee earning work, something Hunter is quick to condemn.
In an attempt to combat, or at least mollify, this, Hunter set up an organisation called City Disabilities about three years ago.
This registered charity acts as a network for disabled professionals, including people with long-term medical conditions and mental health issues, working across the City. Those with similar disabilities are matched up via a mentoring system, giving them the chance to share anecdotes and advice in a mentor/mentee set-up. This buddy system also helps combat the feelings of isolation and marginalisation some disabled people feel.
As well as this, the City Disabilities team spends time speaking to employers about what is sometimes termed ‘disability etiquette’, as well as going into universities to speak to disabled students.
On this, Hunter tells us there is a “huge” concern among aspiring lawyers that their disability will hold them back in their career hunt.
It can be difficult for students to choose between firms; as Hunter explains, the way firms describe themselves is sometimes no help in determining how the reality of life at the firm is going to be. “Don’t be discouraged if a firm doesn’t advertise its disability policy”, he tells us. “Many firms are fantastic with disability, but because they see it as a question of basic decency they don’t make a big deal of it.”
Ultimately, students wanting to make it big in the City need to trust their skills and their judgement:
Disabled students have years of experience in dealing with their disability and other people’s reactions to it. Have faith in yourself and your own judgments of the people you meet. Be wary of hype.
Hunter wants concerned students to know that being a disabled person gives you a whole host of skills through life experience alone, skills that non-disabled persons often don’t have. They are very weathered by the very fact of being the odd one out; the ability and confidence to stand up and question the norm rather than going along with the pack is vital for good business. This “independence of mind” is missing in the City.
With pro-diversity initiatives popping up left, right and centre, Hunter is confident the picture is improving for disabled people, but at what cost? He continues:
The diversity scene has become heavily commercialised. Firms will pay to be at disability open days or sponsor events, but that just buys appearance. Some come to believe they can publicise their way out of the disability issues and so fail to tackle the more thorny issue of what happens on the office floor.
Because of this, City Disabilities does not endorse specific firms or seek donations; it is “simply here to help”.
Hunter is determined to get his message across: it’s possible to have a very successful career as a partner with a disability. Some people make an assumption about disabled people, an assumption that they will not be able to perform in a professional setting. This assumption is obviously not correct; Hunter is living proof of that.