Disabled people in the legal profession

When referring to a profession in law, your first instinct is that it is a role which provides justice, equality and fairness for all. With the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, it is also presumed that that all disabled people who enter into a workplace will be protected and able to thrive. However, a survey conducted by the SRA, of around 3,000 firms, found that only 3% of solicitors declared that they had a disability, with the main reasoning behind failure to disclose due to fear and their thoughts on the impact it would have on their careers. According to a recent research report published by the Cardiff Business School, in conduction with DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living), only half (54%) of disabled solicitors and paralegals during their studies and promotion prospects felt that they were inferior to their non-disabled colleagues.

The report labelled “Legally Disabled?” surveyed 288 disabled lawyers in the UK of which included 241 solicitors and paralegals, and 47 barristers. The report found that one of the most significant reasons why disabled people were failing to advance in their role and career was due to their fear and anticipation of discrimination. Some 40% of those who were surveyed, either never or only on some occasions notified their employer or perspective employer that they were disabled. Furthermore, only 8.5% percent of those respondents also stated that they disclosed their disability when applying for training contracts. This suggests that many disabled people who have entered into the legal profession, and have not declared their disability, may have potentially missed out on support and adjustments that could (and should) have been available to them.

The report stated that this proves the notion “that disabled people are failing to advance, not because of their talents, but because the anticipation of discrimination is limiting their progression”. It should be noted however that some firms have started to place measures to ensure the sector becomes more inclusive and less discriminatory. An example of this would be Herbert Smith Freehills, whose partner Robert Hunter, has founded the charity ‘City Disabilities’ which provides a mentoring scheme for aspiring young professionals who want a career in law. The Law Society also has its own programme called ‘Lawyers with Disabilities Division’ which allows disabled students to build their network with firms through events and conferences. This programme includes a mentoring scheme that involves helping disabled people secure work placements and training contracts.

Diversity and inclusion in the legal profession should no longer be seen as an added bonus but instead a necessity. A clear directive should be set throughout the field ensuring that the voices of legal students with disabilities are represented and that they have access to the same opportunities and advances as those who are non-disabled. Not only does promoting inclusivity formulate new approaches and tactics for firms, but it also helps to enhance the quality of the service provided.

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