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New study reveals the everyday barriers facing disabled lawyers

24 January 2020

Mind the gap train station sign

Disabled people working in the legal profession face a culture and practices that hamper efforts to build successful careers, a study concludes.

The research by Cardiff University academics draws on focus groups, interviews and surveys with solicitors, barristers, trainees and paralegals from across the UK. It was commissioned by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning), a £5 million research programme led by disabled people. Researchers also worked with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society.

Findings reveal many participants – drawn from across the legal profession – hide their disability when applying for training places or jobs. They also encounter hostility and discrimination at work – including when seeking the ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their working environment or practice they are entitled to under the law.

More than half (54%) of disabled solicitors and paralegals involved in the study thought their career and promotion prospects inferior to their non-disabled colleagues. Some 40% either never or only sometimes tell their employer or prospective employer they are disabled. Just 8.5% of respondents who were disabled when they started their training disclosed their disability in their application.

Academics say this concern at the likely response to their disability means many legal professionals do not seek the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to under the law.

Professor Debbie Foster, of Cardiff Business School, said: “Line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in the reasonable adjustment process and in the management of sickness absence, performance management and promotion.  However, we found the quality of the relationship between line managers and disabled employees often depended on ‘good will’, ‘luck’ or personality rather than a good understanding and professional training.”

Sue Bott from DRILL added: “That is clearly an unsatisfactory situation in 2020 – nearly a quarter of a century after the Disability Discrimination Act first guaranteed the right to reasonable adjustments in the workplace.”

Some 60% of solicitors and paralegals said inaccessible working environments limited their career opportunities, while 85% reported pain and fatigue associated with their disability that could be made worse by inflexible working arrangements and long hours.

Some participants complained that recruitment agencies had failed to pass on requests for reasonable adjustments for interviews or to identify any accessibility issues.

Often, exclusion or discrimination in the legal workplace is not intentional but comes from behavioural codes, rituals and assumptions that date back to when few disabled people were working in the profession.

Dr Natasha Hirst Cardiff Business School

Dr Hirst cited the importance placed on long hours and networking – particularly among barristers – as an example of the failure to adapt to meet the needs of disabled colleagues. Inflexible criteria for partnership status can also make it “impossible for disabled people to reach partner status” in even the most enlightened firms, the research suggests.

Key recommendations from the report, Legally Disabled? The career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession, include:

  • Reserving some training places in law firms and chambers for disabled candidates
  • Employers need to re-design roles and working practices – including flexible and remote working
  • The profession should establish a minimum standard for employers and agencies to provide information about accessibility and the process for requesting adjustments at recruitment and during employment. This must include clear complaints procedures
  • Law should become the first profession to introduce disability pay gap reporting
  • Staff and managers need to complete disability awareness training and have access to information on disability management
  • A zero-tolerance policy is needed to address ill-treatment and bullying of disabled people in the workplace
  • The profession should ensure that disabled people’s voices are sufficiently represented in policy-making and considered when developing new practices by supporting and working with disabled people’s networks.

Rhian Davies from Disability Wales said: “Employers must trust and listen to disabled people and exercise the same imagination that most disabled people employ in their everyday lives. They should support disability networks – both in their own organisation if it has several disabled employees – and across the profession. It is also clear that disabled law professionals need to see more people like themselves at the top of the profession.”

The report is available here.

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