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Disability policies are the legal profession’s disconnect

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GDL student David Mant explores what firms can do to combat substantial underrepresentation of disabled lawyers

A layperson could be forgiven for holding that law firms’ diversity policies represent substantive progressivism. Representation from marginalised groups has, fortunately, increased: the number of female partners rising from 25% in 2014 to 29% in 2017, while law firms have seen a seven percentage point increase in black, Asian and minority ethnic lawyers working in firms.

The figures, from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), do not indicate a paradigm shift (fundamentally, underrepresentation still endures). But they do, inter alia, provide reassurance of change and tempered optimism. This is fractured only when the elephant in the room, disability, is factored in.

The statistics here are stark. Since 2014 there has been a net increase of one percentage point of disabled lawyers, with only 3% of lawyers self-identifying as having a disability (10% of the UK workforce has a disability).

Are these statistics the product of how law firms and chambers treat their disabled lawyers? Robert Hunter, a former City partner, notes he was “struck by the disconnect between the appearance some law firms were presenting regarding their disability-friendliness and the reality on the office floor”. Commercial barrister Diego Soto-Miranda, a wheelchair user, reveals he was carried up the stairs of his chambers for his first year of practice because the building was not wheelchair accessible.

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If we grant that the profession is committed to increasing diversity, including disability, then what can be done to address the deficit?

Let’s recourse to the Equality Act. The act creates a provisional duty for employers to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate greater access to jobs. The point of contention concerns what constitutes ‘reasonable’. Apologists may note it’s sine qua non that surgeons have a steady hand; while it may be possible to employ a person with a hand tremor, it isn’t cost effective by any means. But, what of less integral adjustments: flexibility, reduction in hours worked and remote working?

This potential flexibility is caveated by the reality that in some areas of law, flexibility is not always possible. In commercial law, there may be a genuine need for bodies in chairs till the contract is completed in the early hours. However, corporate lawyer Arunima Misra, who has a disability called paraparesis, notes that in other areas such as corporate trusts, regular hours may entertain greater flexibility.

Even so, lawyers, notoriously, are gluttons for work and the jobs market is constructed around this ethos. Very few part-time roles exist and those that do mandate experience.

David Merkel, a member at the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Committee and himself visually impaired, highlights another concern: lawyers with disabilities have to demonstrate a “particularly strong commitment to the job”. Merkel mentions he would personally work an extra hour than his colleagues — this perhaps informed by an attitude that disabled lawyers must do more to justify their employment, as employers are taking a risk on them. Without conjecturing on the pervasiveness of this complaint, it seems prima facie that if the attitude was to change then to some level employment will increase.

Law firms also need to recognise that disability is not synonymous with inability. Solicitor Jocelyn Cockburn, speaking at a recent event, adds that “adversity forces us, as disabled lawyers, to be creative and resilient in a way able-bodied lawyers are not”.

Another positive manifestation of this adversity can be found in the huge amounts of compassion and empathy disabled lawyers have for others who are experiencing hardship. This compassion could be hugely beneficial in the likes of family law and human rights practice. This tough mind-set combined with strong empathetic qualities could be advantageous to employers. But, if firms and chambers don’t realise this, they’ll continue siphoning those with disabilities into other areas of employment.

David Mant is a University of Nottingham law graduate who is currently studying the GDL. He is an aspiring family lawyer.

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