Professor Debbie Foster of Cardiff University Business School, and independent researcher Dr Natasha Hirst are conducting groundbreaking research into the experiences of disabled people in the legal profession. The independent research is funded by Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning (DRILL), which delivers the world’s first major research programme led by disabled people.
Initial findings from focus groups of disabled legal professionals highlight a mixed bag of experiences:
- Disabled people seeking employment or working in the legal profession are an untapped resource. They have often been attracted to law because of a strong passion for human rights and fairness. Lived experience of disability means they have strong ambition, tenacity, determination and excellent problem-solving skills. However, findings suggest positive experiences of support, good attitudes and appropriate reasonable adjustments are a lottery.
- The profession is generally poorly equipped to anticipate reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled candidates who apply for a training contract or pupillage. This increases disadvantage and blocks talented disabled candidates from entering the profession. Lack of part-time training contracts is one such barrier.
- Discrimination, and a poor understanding of reasonable adjustments and how impairments and health conditions can vary, impacts heavily at the interview stage. This also reduces opportunities for career progression.
- There is a reluctance to declare an impairment due to fear of discrimination. A large proportion of focus group participants reported instances of discrimination associated with their impairment.
- The legal profession continues to operate traditional working patterns and career expectations. Inflexible, often outdated working practices and the absence of imaginative job design, limits access opportunities for disabled people and career progression.
- Profitability and competition drives vast sections of the profession, disabled people feel they are unfairly viewed as not being ‘profitable’, productive or capable of meeting targets. The value added by disabled people can be overlooked.
- There are early indications that examples of good practice are influenced by the sector of the profession, the size and location of the firm and the role of equality clauses in procurement contracts.
- Strong role models, supportive senior colleagues and the presence of mentors and networks are important factors for enabling career progression.
The project is now seeking disabled legal professionals from England and Wales for one-to-one interviews. Researchers are keen to speak to people with impairments or long term health conditions who are working in, or seeking work in the legal profession, and those who have since retired or left.
The premise of this project is that disabled people are both ambitious and talented, and their experiences in high-skilled occupations need understanding.
Lead researcher, Professor Debbie Foster said; 'disabled people in professional occupations are largely absent in academic literature and are seemingly unexpected. Much research and social policy is concerned with getting disabled people off benefits and into entry level employment. There is limited aspiration to support disabled professionals to progress their careers or return to high-quality work after time out.'
There is research into gender and racial disadvantage within the legal profession but disability is notable by its absence. Disability is also increasingly enveloped by the wellbeing agenda, which can serve to depoliticise the issue. Professional and regulatory bodies are interested in the findings since they recognise the need to improve access and inclusion.
The researchers work in co-production with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society and a research reference group consisting of disabled people from across the legal profession. Co-production ensures that disabled legal professionals are able to identify priorities and shape the design of the research.
Jane Burton, Chair of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division said; 'our members are talented individuals, yet many employers fail to recognise the valuable skills and experiences that disabled people can bring to their workplace. Some firms still seem to fear employing disabled people. Co-producing this research is a great opportunity to influence culture change across the legal profession.'
The intention is to produce reports and publications that will be solution focussed, with recommendations to support employers and regulators to improve policy and practice in recruiting and supporting disabled legal professionals.
The researchers can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
More information on the project and the funder can be found on the 'Legally Disabled?' website and on the Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning (DRILL) website.
The project works to the Social Model of Disability which states that a person with an impairment or health condition is disabled by barriers in wider society.
Published on 25 May, a TUC report on disability employment and pay gaps 2018 demonstrates quantitatively that workers in professional occupations, and those who are managers, directors and senior officials are less likely to be disabled people.