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The Oracle

How accessible is the legal profession for lawyers with disabilities?

updated on 15 March 2022

Dear Oracle

Should I disclose my disability when I apply for a vacation scheme? Are careers in the legal profession accessible for candidates with disabilities?

The Oracle replies

Reading time: four minutes

For this question we asked Jane Burton, chair of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD), for her advice. Jane says: “I know many disabled people, particularly with invisible disabilities, who don’t disclose if they can possibly help it out of fear of being discriminated against. In my opinion, it is better to disclose a disability at the outset. A growing number of firms are much more clued in on reasonable adjustments and are really trying to recruit from the disabled community.

“Unfortunately, disclosing one’s disability may still bar a candidate from certain firms because there are still people out there who have this terrible fear of disability and what it entails, even though very often the reasonable adjustments that have to be made are minor. Even so, it is better to disclose at the start – I wouldn’t want to work at a firm with a hostile attitude toward disabled members of staff.

“When applying, remember to sell the positive case for yourself as a disabled candidate – your achievements and qualifications. I know people who have been so worried about how their disability is perceived in interviews that they have forgotten to talk about everything else that makes them great. Also, being disabled means, on a daily basis, having to find ways of doing things that put you on an even playing field with non-disabled colleagues. The resourcefulness, determination, problem solving and resilience involved are great attributes that can set you apart. Disabled People are incredible because they have to be.” 

Accessibility of facilities

“Accessibility remains a big issue. Big City firms such as Reed SmithMayer BrownHogan Lovells and Norton Rose Fulbright tend be very accessible, but many smaller firms are based in inaccessible buildings. Although some small firms make a huge effort to be inclusive and accessible, this is not the case with all of them. That means that situations still arise where, for example, someone who is a wheelchair user wants to go into family law, but the firm is based on the first floor with no lift access so the candidate simply cannot work there. In another example, one of our members worked at a big firm in a department that decided to leave as a group and set up on their own. But the building her team moved to was inaccessible, so she couldn’t go with them – sadly, this problem of accessibility is not uncommon.

“Courts can also present problems for disabled lawyers. The LDD was consulted by the court service over the design of the new Supreme Court building, which is highly accessible and has amazing facilities. However, this does not reflect the reality of many older court facilities – we receive queries from members about not being able to get into their local court because the lifts have broken. People have even had to be carried up flights of stairs in some cases, or use public lifts that are not appropriate. Many court buildings are not well maintained.

“Getting to and from court can also be an issue. In my own experience of working in London, I used to receive so many parking tickets because courts do not have enough disabled parking spaces.”

Reasonable adjustments

“Flexible working is an important and helpful tool, but it is not always viable or desirable to work from home constantly as a lawyer, so it is not the only answer. Often, people don’t realise that they can get help with making reasonable adjustments through Access to Work, which provides grants to pay for equipment and other adjustments, as well as transport to and from work. Sometimes the adjustments required for accessible working are so minor - candidates do not need to - and should not - feel as if they are causing a problem.”

The Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) provides informal mentoring for disabled lawyers and students. Following the publication of the Legally Disabled? Research in 2020, the LDD has also produced an Easy Wins Action Points for Disability Inclusion for firms.

LDD works with the profession to increase accessibility. Membership of the LDD is free to anyone who is interested in disability inclusion – you can apply to join here.