The legal profession has come a long way with diversity and inclusion. There is more gender equality, more BAME people in the profession and LGBT+ people are starting to feel more open about their identity within the workplace. Many firms use contextualised recruitment to try and improve social mobility within the profession. Today, if you have a look at a firm’s career page, it looks like all firms are super diverse and inclusive. Various organisations appear to increase access to the legal profession. But I feel like one intersection is lacking from these efforts and that is people with disabilities.
I’ve been to only a handful of open days that specifically support disabled people with a career in the profession. The number of such open days is so low that I can perhaps count them on one hand. Considering 19% of working age adults are disabled, only 3% of solicitors have disclosed a disability – this is a really low percentage! For those of us who are disabled hoping to enter the profession, the lack of focus and representation makes us question whether we can really do this. Whether the career is for us.
CHANGES THAT NEED TO BE MADE
We need to do more to help disabled candidates get into the profession. We need to encourage more disabled lawyers to come forward, even if it means they must share their journey (or disability) independent from a firm event. Why can’t there be more open days specifically aimed at students with disabilities? That would provide a real insight into the range of disabled people working for the firm and allow us to get answers to the questions we need answers to.
Open days can often be competitive and some disabled people may not have the grades or breadth of experience that our abled-bodied peers have. Holding more open days/firm events will give disabled people a greater chance of being able to gain an insight into the firm. Disability-specific events will encourage us to apply to more firms. We’ll have the confidence to disclose our disability to graduate recruitment in order to get adjustments in the recruitment process (e.g breaks, extra time, taking the online tests on paper and any wheelchair access at the assessment centre venue). With the reasonable adjustments we need, we can have a chance of getting the training contract.
EMPLOYERS NEED TO BE TRAINED
Alongside events for aspiring disabled lawyers, partners and graduate recruitment need robust disability awareness training. We aren’t talking half an hour e-learning programmes or an hour in a hot stuffy room. While they may both be good starting points, the learning needs to continue beyond this. Although the Equality Act 2010 prohibits employers to reject disabled prospective applicants, it is far too easy for recruiters to do so (consciously or unconsciously) and justify the rejection on other grounds such as the application not being strong enough (I’m pretty sure it’s happened to me when I’ve applied to graduate jobs). Only once employers start believing in the capability of disabled people (and that we’re fun to work with) then these concerns will be raised less frequently (if at all).
I can only hope that we are able to see more openly disabled professionals in the legal industry.