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Assuring diversity: accessibility and disability in the legal profession

updated on 15 March 2022

As part of LCN's increased focus on diversity in the legal profession, we have been looking at the relationship between candidates and firms when it comes to diverse talent. 

Reading time: eight minutes

Sadly, it is undeniable that the makeup of the legal profession is not representative of the UK workforce, and those of us seeking to improve diversity must be careful to not ignore any minority group. One group in need of consideration are those who identify as having a disability.

For more information on what firms, chambers and legal education providers are doing to improve diversity and inclusion within the profession, head to LCN’s Diversity hub, sponsored by Gowling WLG (UK) LLP.

Recognising the problem

According to government figures reported in December 2020 and currently under review, the number of people with a disability in employment has not risen in proportion to the population. This means that as the number of disabled people has increased, the proportion has decreased. Just one in two people of working age (16 to 64) with a reported disability are in employment, compared to four in five of those who did not report a disability. It seems the pandemic also had a disproportionate effect; from July 2020 to November 2020, 21.1 per thousand disabled employees were made redundant, compared to 13 per thousand of those without a disability.

In the legal profession, figures are harder to find. However, The Bar Standards Board and Solicitors Regulation Authority report discouraging figures, with 3.5% of those at the Bar declaring a disability and 5% of all lawyers. The number decreases as seniority rises and as firm size increases. This is before you factor in that not all employees will reveal their disability to their employers. The conclusion was that “disability remains the most under-represented diversity strand in the legal profession.”

Simon Stephen, legal director at Gowling, opens up about how being honest about his mental health over the years has made for a better working environment in this Q&A.

Why should law firms be concerned?

Beyond the obvious moral implications of the matter, poor representation is also bad for business. Studies have shown that a diverse workforce is a better workforce, producing staff who are more productive and innovative. On top of that, diverse companies show higher retention rates, saving vast amounts of money for firms. In addition, potential clients have started seeking to hire and instruct firms with diverse workforces. Yet prejudices die hard, even if we don’t notice them or want to. The good news is that firms are moving in the right direction, with a number joining campaigns and adding disability inclusion to boardroom agendas. 

Showcasing acceptance

It might sound basic, but it’s important for firms to present themselves as open, accepting environments that are willing to have difficult conversations and tackle discrimination where they can. Firms are missing a trick if they’re not flagging their commitments to an inclusive atmosphere across their websites, or on profiles like the ones we have here on LawCareers.Net – these are the resources candidates use to learn where they want to work. If firms are improving their processes then they should make sure prospective candidates know about it.

At the same time, firms must practise what they preach. It is misleading and hypocritical to bang the diversity drum while doing nothing to set up initiatives within a firm, or seeking out work that could help those with a disability to have improved levels of access to the system. People can see through a purple Twitter image celebrating people with disabilities if there’s no intent behind it. Follow-up is key.

Phil Steventon who has written for LawCareers.Net previously about neurodiversity, made this point – seeing it as “admirable that firms and companies are putting on events targeted at particular groups of candidates such as from underprivileged backgrounds, of diverse heritages and ancestries, with a range of disabilities and difficulties, and our LGBTQ+ friends and colleagues” but noting that what matters after these events is crucial. If employment figures don’t change, these events become mere PR exercises. 

Read ‘LGBTQ+ history: how the legal profession can be a better ally’ for more on LGBTQ+ representation in the legal profession.

Firms that back up their claims successfully will have internal teams or committees that can present issues, enact initiatives and raise awareness within the firm. Candidates can research the presence of these and use the information to identify target firms LCN blogger Demi Rixon has noted.

Such teams may also have an impact on the legal representation offered by their firm or, where applicable, conduct some of the face-to-face events firms often run as part of the big training contract recruitment drive, be it law fairs or open days. The internal benefits of this are huge but, to the outside eye, the firm appears as a positive place to work, as long as there is real substance there.

The recruitment process

Of course, a firm cannot improve the diversity of its workforce without hiring a broad pool of candidates, and it’s crucial that candidates don’t drop out of the recruitment process at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons. Job hunting is an incredibly stressful process, so any opportunity to remove barriers should be seized.

For more information on what makes recruiters tick, read the Meet the Recruiter profiles.

Recruiters must keep in mind that disability might not be obvious. Under the UK Equality Act 2010, an individual is considered disabled if they “have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities”. This, therefore, encompasses a wide range of impairments, not all being visible. Firms therefore need to avoid assumptions and listen to candidates about their requirements and their preferred language.

One way to teach this to staff and ensure good practice is through the increasing number of commitments and networks firms can join. We spoke to two firms who advertise to candidates that they are Disability Confident employers. 

Disability Confident is a government scheme designed to encourage employers to recruit and retain disabled people and those with health conditions. This means they commit to offering an interview to applicants who disclose a disability and meet the required minimum criteria for the role of a trainee solicitor. Employers must meet a number of criteria in order to receive the accreditation. 

Florence Van Schependom-Brown, resourcing and talent acquisition manager at DWF Group Plc, a 'Disability Confident Leader' says the firm has seen clear benefits from this, as well as their status as a Clear Assured employer. For firms concerned about the practicalities of accreditations however, Danielle Owens, head of talent attraction and recruitment at Shoosmiths says simply checking and reviewing your language can help.

As an example, Shoosmiths used to offer candidates a way to request adjustments in the same section of their application forms that they offered candidates a chance to highlight mitigating circumstances. They found this was not the appropriate place for it. The reason, they realised, was that a disability shouldn’t be seen as a mitigating circumstance, and therefore the association caused by having it on the same section of the application was discouraging to candidates. They chose to make it more palatable by moving the question to a more generic page.

Other firms too have found success with this. AllHires has seen a number of firms giving candidates a space to disclose any disability, but also the option to call firms for a private conversation. This shows a level of care and adaptability that will help candidates to present themselves in their best light.

Listen to episode 27 of the LawCareers.Net podcast where we speak to Demi Rixon about her experiences pursuing a career as a disabled candidate.

Danielle also notes that showing a point of contact on the application form is pivotal, and something candidates keep an eye out for. Giving the applicant a human to speak to, possibly one not involved with the screening of the application, is important. 

DWF also makes sure to stress the possibility of reasonable adjustments on their application form, as well as at other stages. They’ve found that candidates may be reluctant to disclose such information in writing on their application. The common theme here is empathy and being willing to learn and reconsider traditional practices.

However, it goes beyond the recruitment teams, as interviewers must keep informed too. This involves self-scrutiny from firms, as well as internal training. As Phil explains, when discussing neurodiversity, not all candidates will interview in the same way. Indeed some “may struggle with maintaining eye contact, but we're still brilliant at the technical work” adding that it isn't fair “to demonise us because we're struggling in one particular area that others take for granted and see as just a typical fact of life.”

The firms we speak to are increasingly running unconscious bias training for staff –  a positive that again shows partners and boards recognise the importance of this. Unsurprisingly, such actions have a knock-on effect and help to tackle the issue of retention and lateral hiring.

The future – increased access in the pandemic

The positive is that firms seem driven to change and that the pandemic has provided opportunities for improved access to interviews and the office via remote working. The danger, though, is firms resting on their laurels and not continuing to grow.

They should invest in new drives and technology and not be afraid to ask for outside help or consultation. It's in recognising the failings of the past and resolving to improve that firms will see a more accessible and diversified legal progression that those with a disability can feel comfortable approaching.

Charlie Hooper (he/him) is the senior customer success executive at AllHires