In a vocation as rigorous and demanding as the legal profession, lawyers with non-visible disabilities have felt the need to cover up the true extent of their impairments, or to hide the fact that they are disabled altogether, out of fear that their employment prospects and career progression will be negatively impacted.
In March 2020, The Solicitors Regulation Authority conducted a study which found that just 3% of solicitors declared they had a disability, a figure which has remained stagnant over the past 10 years. This is in sharp contrast to the 13% of the workforce in the UK who have declared a disability, however through the lens of the Equality Act 2010, which uses a broader definition, this figure is estimated to be around 19%. Non-visible disabilities can include Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, visual and hearing impairments, and health conditions such as auto-immune disorders and Diabetes.
The study commissioned by the Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) and conducted by Cardiff Business School titled “Legally Disabled? – Career experiences of disabled people in the legal profession” was released. The study drew on focus groups, 55 interviews and approximately 300 survey responses from solicitors, barristers, paralegals, and trainees, where 70% exclusively reported having non-visible impairments and 20% reported having both visible and non-visible impairments. This survey found that of those questioned, 60% of solicitors and paralegals had experienced some form of ill-treatment or bullying at their place of work, and 80% of them believed it was a direct result of their disability. With barristers, 45% of them reported experiencing the same, and 71% believed it was a result of their disability. Over 80% of both groups reported that “poor attitudes/lack of understanding towards am impairment or health condition” was the most significant form of ill-treatment.
Of those surveyed who were disabled when they began their careers, only 8.5% of solicitors and paralegals and one barrister felt confident enough to disclose their impairment when they initially applied. 86% of solicitors and paralegals who have requested adjustments or support reported that doing so “created stress and anxiety for them”.
The implication of these statistics is that there are solicitors and barristers who should have been receiving reasonable adjustments to accommodate their impairments, but they are not asking for them. This could be due to a lack of confidence in their employers to adequately provide these accommodations, or out of fear of creating negative attitudes surrounding their ability, which might impact their careers overall. Either way, the stigma around asking for reasonable adjustments remains a massive barrier in allowing those with disabilities in law to preform to the best of their ability on a daily basis. Even when these lawyers felt confident enough to broach the subject of reasonable adjustments with their superiors, the negative emotions that were consistently associated with the experience do not inspire the confidence needed to continue to be self-advocates, and to champion the need for inclusivity across the spectrum.
Overall, 71% of barristers and 56% of solicitors, paralegals, and trainees felt that they did not have the same potential for career progression as their non-disabled colleagues. The SRA’s study found that there was an overwhelming feeling that their disabilities ‘lowered the bar’ and was “perceived as reducing the standard of competence”. Even in a seemingly inclusive working environment, disabled solicitors and barristers can still be subject to unconscious biases, which can take the form of “rituals, practices, and attitudes that exclude or undermine them”; even if there is no overt intention of discrimination.
It is clear that only “radical positive intervention” can begin to cope with the “uneven playing field” that disabled lawyers are dealing with on a daily basis. There have been a number of recent strides towards promoting inclusive accommodation. Many firms have begun to develop their own Neurodiversity Networks within the firms; these networks can range from focus groups which work on tackling diversity issues, intranet systems which provide educational information on different visible and non-visible disabilities, as well as detailing the accommodations that can be requested and utilised within the firm. These networks have also allowed lawyers who are not neurodivergent themselves but might have neurodivergent or otherwise impaired family or friends receive additional information or support where needed.
Perhaps the most radical recent change is the initiative called ‘Project Rise’, developed by the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) as a direct result of the “Legally Disabled?” study, aims to promote part-time training opportunities for candidates who might benefit from them. Both Osborne Clarke and Eversheds Sutherland have committed to offering all trainees the ability to work on a part-time basis from September 2024, although both firms currently employ some part-time training candidates.
There is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to reasonable adjustments and accommodating different impairments; where a part-time training opportunity might help one person, it is not guaranteed to have the same positive results for another. Firms must continue to promote environments which encourage lawyers to come forward where they need adjustments made to help them realize their full potential. In September, the Law Society released a guidance on reasonable adjustments, which detailed the different ways that firms could offer their disabled employees more support. Some of the suggestion include: a ‘passport’ which would detail the needs of that specific employee; continuing to promote flexible work arrangements; physical changes to the offices such as sound-proofed rooms or more suitable furniture; disability equality/awareness training, and; making appropriate changed to billable hours where appropriate.
The legal profession as a whole has been promoting Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) initiatives across the board, seeing an upswing in racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity in firms nationally and internationally. However, disabled people are often invisible in these D&I programmes, which has only intensified the issues that they face day-to-day and is a major barrier in creating a truly inclusive and open work environment for everyone.
UK Disability History Month aims to celebrate the lives of all people with visible and non-visible disabilities, challenge disablism, and achieve equality.