Let’s be OPEN about disability requirements at work

Josh Richman - Let’s be OPEN about disability requirements at work

We were happy to attend this year's OPEN event, which brings representatives from leading international law firms together with aspiring lawyers who have disabilities for a day of networking, workshops and group discussions. The event took place among plush surroundings on the 30th floor of Clifford Chance's offices in Canary Wharf, and the host firm was joined by representatives from Allen & Overy, Ashurst, Freshfields, Hogan Lovells and Linklaters.

The day focused on what law firms and disabled applicants can do to ensure that candidates' disabilities are neither a disadvantage nor an advantage in the application process, and the practical steps that firms and employees can take to minimise the impact of disabilities in the workplace and cater for any specific requirements necessitated by an employee's disability. Addressing delegates at the start of the event, Clifford Chance's Karen Hodgson was at pains to point out that the occurrence of crises, issues and disappointments of all kinds do not form a barrier to building a legal career. She argued that issues as disparate as clinical depression, physical disability and childcare responsibilities can all be perceived as disadvantages or difficulties to a high-pressure career in commercial law, and that potential applicants should not be discouraged; such issues are common and all people, including practising lawyers, have to cope with them. This was reaffirmed by Ashurst's Deborah Dalgleish, who rightly reinforced that diversity concerns are not a matter of positive discrimination, but an ethical and business imperative - particularly because an increasing number of commercial law firms' clients will only work with organisations that have an effective diversity policy.

A crucial piece of advice that was repeated throughout the day was that it is important for candidates to disclose their disability to the law firm at an early stage of the application process. This is certainly easier to say than do - it should be remembered that such personal disclosures must be made to relative strangers, a fact that could make anyone uncomfortable - but it nonetheless makes sense. Not only is disclosure necessary so that employers may take steps to cater for any specific requirements that the candidate may have, it is hopefully part of a wider cultural change that embraces openness, difference and fairness, and no longer treats disability as a taboo subject.

I got the chance to chat with some of the student attendees. Many appreciated the day's message of an open and diverse culture among law firms, and felt reassured and more comfortable with the idea of disclosing their disability to potential employers. However, some voiced a lingering suspicion that disclosing a disability to a fast-paced commercial law firm may result in their application being rejected. This shows that the legal profession, along with the wider professional community, still has some way to go to reassure everyone that this shift to a more open and diverse culture is genuine. When speaking to me, more than one highly perceptive student was concerned that the practical requirements of disabled employees cannot fit easily with the reality of the long hours, high-pressure working cultures at many international commercial law firms. This ties in with one student's opinion, derived from personal experience, that while law firms' HR and recruitment teams are well versed in diversity requirements, there is still work to be done to ensure that everyone at partner level is sensitive to, and accommodating of, these issues.

We thoroughly enjoyed a highly successful day and it was great to speak with so many interesting lawyers and students about issues that are crucial to the profession's present and future. We also shot some videos of our conversations with both legal professionals and student delegates, which you can watch to gain a more textured understanding of what the event was about. This year's OPEN event continued the long process of opening up the issue of disability within the legal profession and bringing diversity to the fore, and we hope that the issues it raised continue to be taken seriously by law firms.

To watch our video interviews with students, recruiters and leading lawyers, click here.

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