There are many reasons why we as a profession need to get better at accommodating people with disabilities.
One key reason is that disability is one of the few diversity groups which any of us might become a member of (whether temporarily or permanently) at any point in our lives and without warning. Only 17 per cent of people with disabilities are born with them – the other 83 per cent develop them during the course of their lives. Lawyers can develop physical or mental disabilities at any point in their careers and as employers law firms have a legal and moral responsibility to support those who find themselves in that position.
Bye bye 'manels'
Few law firms now doubt that having a diverse work force is better for business. Our clients tell us that they want to see women and diverse lawyers working for and leading law firms. Law firms who roll out a "manel" (an all male panel) of lawyers for a pitch now know that they risk being criticised for doing so, and that they possibly also risk losing a client. But how does disability fit into the diversity landscape and should law firms be doing more to recruit lawyers with disabilities?
18 per cent of working age adults in the UK have a disability
Although estimates suggest that around 18 per cent of working age adults in the UK have a disability, it has to date been a diversity strand that has perhaps attracted the least attention within the legal profession and is (or may be) the least represented in our profession. There are likely a number of reasons for this including:
misconceptions about the amount of support which might be required for an individual with a disability and about the cost of that support
- low levels of disclosure of disabilities within the profession
- the lack of role models in the profession.
These all serve to perpetuate the myth that people with disabilities are not "able" to work in law firms. In our experience, the truth is very different.
In 2012 we set out to begin consciously recruiting lawyers with disabilities through what was then our Disability Task Force and is now our global LEADRS Business Inclusion Group. We took the view that the skills that people with disabilities have, either as a result of their disabilities or as a result of the challenges that they have faced, were likely to be exactly the skills that we were looking for in our lawyers. It is no exaggeration to say that the people who we have hired with disabilities are amongst our very best recruits. Who would not want to recruit people who were good at lateral and creative thinking, resolving difficult problems, and who had demonstrated resilience in pursuing their goals?
There is a working theory that, given the current digital transformation taking place within the professions in general, there will be an increase in demand for the skills of individuals who think differently, creatively and laterally. That certainly resonates with us and with our experiences of working with people with disabilities.
The accelerated technological progress over the last few years also means that the barriers that might have been in place in the past for people with disabilities in the work place are in many cases simply not there anymore. People with disabilities can work remotely from home if travel is difficult, people with dyslexia can use spelling and grammar checks, and speech recognition tools can support those who have difficulties with vision or typing.
Consciously hiring people with disabilities changes culture and attitudes to disability, debunks myths about people with disabilities, and nurtures supportive environments for lawyers. Which of us would not like to think that we would find a supportive environment if we became ill or otherwise developed a disability during the course of our career and that, if we wanted to and were able to do so, our employer would support us to continue working?
The bottom line is that if you are not hiring people with disabilities you are missing out on some of the best talent and missing the opportunity to develop the kind of truly inclusive culture we would all like to see and which enriches and benefits us all.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.
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