Improving Disability Diversity and Inclusion in the Legal Profession

One aspect of diversity that is often overlooked in our conversations about improving diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and beyond is the issue of disability diversity. While our profession continues to struggle with diversity in general, attorneys with disabilities face unique challenges and prejudices. The physical challenges can be obvious (participating in a deposition with paper exhibits can be a challenge for a sight-impaired attorney) or hidden (an attorney suffering from a rare blood disease may have less physical stamina than others). But what is consistent is the level of prejudice that attorneys with disabilities can face in the legal world.

As of the last U.S. Census, almost 1 in 5 people (over 55 million people and almost 20% of the population) had a disability. Yet NALP reports that the percentage of lawyers who report being disabled is a mere fraction of that. According to NALP, only 1-2% of law school graduates self-identify as having a disability. It is little wonder why students would be reluctant to self-report: “Graduates reporting having a disability were the least likely to be employed after graduation compared to men, women, minorities or graduates identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual,” according to NALP’s report. The numbers in law firms are even more dismal—only 0.39% of associates and 0.30% of partners in the 2015-2016 NALP Directory of Legal Employers reported having a disability. Clearly, having a disability is a barrier to becoming a practicing attorney, but that does not explain the 20- to 60-fold difference between disability rates among the population as a whole and that of lawyers. Part of the gap must be made up of lawyers who hide their disability because of the negative prejudice they would face if they were to reveal it.

Fortunately, a number of groups are working to combat this prejudice and to advance the cause of lawyers with disabilities, including the ABA’s Commission on Disability Rights and the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. These organizations work to raise the profiles of lawyers with disabilities and to combat the prejudices they face. In 2017 and again in 2018, these organizations teamed up with a group of partners, including The Young Lawyers.

Section of the Chicago Bar Association and the ABA Law Practice Division’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee to put on an event designed to help break down the stereotypes and preconceptions people have about lawyers with disabilities while providing opportunities for lawyers with disabilities to grow their networks.

Recognizing that technology has done wonders to improve the lives of people with disabilities, the sponsoring organizations looked at how to use technology to help lawyers with disabilities overcome the prejudice they face. The result was Access Success, a combined live and online event that has taken place in March of the past two years in Chicago. Sponsors for the events included Microsoft and Accenture. The live portion of the events included CLE seminars and networking receptions in Chicago. Presenters were attorneys, with and without disabilities, with particular experience and expertise in issues faced by lawyers and others with disabilities. Attendees learned about the challenges facing attorneys with disabilities, as well as some of the practical ways they are able to overcome these challenges. Attendees also learned about the legal framework of the Americans With Disabilities Act and related laws, and what they could do to improve disability diversity in the legal profession and in the workforce in general. After the presentations, attendees were able to mingle over cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres to get to know one another on a personal level, which is key to overcoming prejudice.

Spearheaded by the Chicago Bar YLS, the live events served as the kickoff for the two-week online portion of the events. Using LexVita.com, an online networking platform for lawyers and law students, the online events allowed attorneys and law students with disabilities to connect with attorneys around the nation via video conference. By removing the barriers that sometimes accompany travel for those with disabilities, the online events allowed participants to search and find others with similar interests or backgrounds, and to connect face-to-face without having to leave home or the office. These face-to-face connections are critical to helping drive better understanding and awareness of the strengths and talents of attorneys with disabilities.

Increasing disability diversity is not only the right thing to do, it makes business sense as well. The 55 million people with disabilities in the US have hundreds of billions in spending power, and the number grows even larger if you include family, friends and other allies. Law firms and their clients would be well advised to remember that fact. But beyond the sales and marketing benefits of disability diversity, consider the legal requirements. For example, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires every federal contractor doing more than $10,000 worth of business with the government to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain individuals with disabilities. By allowing companies and law firms to connect directly with lawyers with disabilities, the online portion of Access Success presented an opportunity not only for the lawyers but also for the companies and firms that have to meet the requirements of Section 503.

The event was a great success. During both the 2017 and 2018 events, the online portion was extended for an additional two weeks to allow people to continue to connect and talk. All in all, dozens of connections were made each time, both in person and online. The success of the event was recognized by the ABA’s Young Lawyer Division when the Chicago Bar YLS won the YLD’s Embracing Diversity Challenge in 2017 for putting on Access Success.     The legal profession has a long way to go to improve its record on disability diversity. But by using technology and working to create meaningful connections between lawyers with disabilities and their colleagues in the profession, we can make strides towards better representation for lawyers with disabilities at all levels of the profession.

About the Author

Jason Goitia is a former chair of the Lawyers with Disabilities Involvement subcommittee of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the ABA Business Law Section and was named by the ABA President to be a Commissioner of the ABA’s Commission on Disability Rights.

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