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Legally Disabled – researching into the career experiences of disabled people within the legal profession

by Natasha Hirst
10 December 2019

Why are disabled people seemingly unexpected in the legal profession and what can we do to create a culture of inclusion and access?

These are the questions that our Cardiff University based “Legally Disabled?” research team have set out to answer. Working in coproduction with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society we held a series of focus groups around the UK with disabled legal professionals.

This helped us to identify the key issues experienced by disabled people in trying to get into the profession and then progressing their careers once there. The key themes formed the basis of the questions asked in the 55 one to one interviews with legal professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, at different stages of their career.

The third stage of data collection was in the form of online surveys, one for barristers and one for other legal professionals including solicitors and paralegals. 288 survey responses were received, helping us to quantify people’s experiences and paint a more robust picture of working life for disabled legal professionals.

The DRILL programme

The research is funded by the DRILL programme (Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning). This is a Big Lottery funded initiative that is thought to be the world’s first major research programme that is led by disabled people. It's a £5m, four-nation project, running across five years to allocate funding to disability research projects.

Co-production is at the core of both the DRILL programme and the projects it funds, ensuring that disabled people are leading and co-producing the design and delivery of research in equal partnership with academics. This is crucial to ensure that research is conducted with the social model of disability at its heart and seeks to produce evidence that will impact on the priorities identified by disabled people themselves.

The research is independent of any professional association, regulator or employer although we have engaged with the stakeholders throughout the project.

Disability and employment, the importance of aspiration

Disabled people working in other professions may well experience similar barriers to career entry and progression as those in the legal field. We hope that the findings of this research will be transferable to other occupations. Much policy attention is focussed on getting disabled people off benefits and into any work, regardless of whether the work is suitable, accessible or good quality.

It’s crucial that employment policies support disabled professionals to progress their careers and retain high-quality employment. Policy aspirations such as reducing the disability pay gap and employment gap, cannot be realised unless disabled people are able to progress into senior roles and to retain leadership roles if they acquire an impairment during their career.

We believe that disabled people seeking employment or working in the legal profession are an untapped resource with strong ambition, tenacity, determination and excellent problem-solving skills – all qualities that bring great benefits to employers.

However, our findings suggest positive experiences of support, good attitudes and appropriate reasonable adjustments are something of a lottery.

Key Findings

Entering the profession

Much work needs to be done to improve the fairness of recruitment processes and to open up work experience opportunities which are significant in securing training and job offers.

Disclosure and seeking reasonable adjustments

A large proportion of research participants reported instances of discrimination and a poor understanding of reasonable adjustments. This creates a reluctance to disclose an impairment or health condition or to request support.

Working culture and expectations

Inflexible, often outdated working practices limits opportunities for disabled people and career progression.

The good practice

We identified many positive factors that enable career progression but their presence is very patchy. Our conference workshops will support attendees to understand how this good practice can be implemented in their own organisations.

What’s next?

The research report with findings and recommendations for the legal profession will be launched at our conference on 24 January 2020, at the British Academy in London. If you're a senior decision-maker and change agent in your organisation, this conference will improve your understanding of the barriers faced by disabled people trying to get into and progress in the legal profession. Disabled legal professionals and stakeholders will also be in attendance.

Workshop sessions will allow for participation and problem-solving with other key stakeholders, enabling the discussion of project findings and recommendations and identifying practical ways to improve the inclusion of disabled people in your organisation.

Our data suggests that organisations already employ a significant number of disabled people who have chosen to conceal their identity for fear that this will have negative repercussions on their career. This suggests that talented and already productive disabled employees are more than likely under-performing and under-achieving and the profession is failing to properly utilise their skills.

See the Eventbrite page for more details on the programme of the event and to book tickets.

Spaces are limited, so book soon.

There will be a smaller scale event in Cardiff during the Spring, details to be confirmed.

You can find out more on the Legally Disabled website.

Sign up to the Legally Disabled mailing list, follow them on Twitter @LegallyDisabled or email the researchers at HirstN2@cardiff.ac.uk.


Authored by Natasha Hirst

Natasha is a co-researcher working on the Legally Disabled project alongside Debbie Foster.