New study reveals the everyday barriers facing disabled lawyers
Academics call for action to address inequalities
Disabled people working in the legal profession face a culture and outmoded practices that hamper efforts to build successful careers, according to a study published today.
Many of the participants – drawn from across the legal profession – told researchers they hide their disability when applying for training places or jobs. They also encounter hostility and discrimination at work – including when seeking the ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their working environment or practice they are entitled to under the law.
The report, Legally Disabled? The Career Experiences of disabled people working in the Legal profession, draws on focus groups, interviews and surveys with solicitors, barristers, trainees and paralegals. The research was commissioned by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) a £5 million research programme led by disabled people.
Drawing their evidence together, the report concludes: “Disabled people in the legal profession face – on a daily basis - rituals, practices and attitudes that exclude or undermine them in their roles as trainees, advocates and employees.”
More than half (54%) of disabled solicitors and paralegals involved in the study thought their career and promotion prospects inferior to their non-disabled colleagues. Some 40% either never or only sometimes tell their employer or prospective employer they are disabled. Just 8.5% of respondents who were disabled when they started their training disclosed their disability in their application.
This concern at the likely response to their disability means many legal professionals do not seek the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to under the law.
Yet some requests for – often inexpensive – adjustments were met with ignorance and resulted in ill-treatment or discrimination. The study suggests a significant proportion of disabled people in the profession have experienced forms of disability-related ill-treatment, bullying, or discrimination.
The report says: “A poverty of imagination, bureaucracy, belligerent managers and outdated working practices prevent often minor adjustments that would make a huge difference for disabled people.”
This highlighted the impact that line managers and supervisors can have in the working lives of disabled people in the profession, according to Professor Debbie Foster from Cardiff University.
Professor Foster said: “Line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in the reasonable adjustment process and in the management of sickness absence, performance management and promotion. However, we found the quality of the relationship between line managers and disabled employees often depended on ‘good will’, ‘luck’ or personality rather than a good understanding and professional training.
Sue Bott from DRILL added: “That is clearly an unsatisfactory situation in 2020 – nearly a quarter of a century after the Disability Discrimination Act first guaranteed the right to reasonable adjustments in the workplace.”
The study was undertaken by a research team based at Cardiff Business School, working with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society.
Some 60% of solicitors and paralegals said inaccessible working environments limited their career opportunities, while 85% reported pain and fatigue associated with their disability that could be made worse by inflexible working arrangements and long hours.
Some participants complained that recruitment agencies had failed to pass on requests for reasonable adjustments for interviews or to identify any accessibility issues.
The report says: “Only 9.7% of disabled solicitors/paralegals had a good response from recruitment agencies - suggesting that contracting out this process may impede diversity and inclusion.”
Dr Natasha Hirst from Cardiff University added: “Often exclusion or discrimination in the legal workplace is not intentional but comes from behavioural codes, rituals and assumptions that date back to when few disabled people were working in the profession.”
Dr Hirst cited the importance placed on long hours and networking – particularly amongst barristers – as an example of the failure to adapt to meet the needs of disabled colleagues. Inflexible criteria for partnership status can also make it “impossible for disabled people to reach partner status” in even the most enlightened firms, the report suggests.
The report’s recommendations include:
The report says: “A generous interpretation of our findings suggests employers and recruitment agencies are ‘risk averse’ when considering disabled applicants for training or employment. Work placements would provide ‘low risk’ opportunities for disabled people and employers to learn about each other.”
Rhian Davies from Disability Wales said: “Employers must trust and listen to disabled people and exercise the same imagination that most disabled people employ in their everyday lives. They should support disability networks – both in their own organisation if it has several disabled employees – and across the profession. It is also clear that disabled law professionals need to see more people like themselves at the top of the profession.”
Copies of the report are available from www.drilluk.org.uk.
Notes to editors:
1) Legally Disabled? The Career Experiences of disabled people working in the Legal profession is published as part of the DRILL programme (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning).
The report incorporates findings from 55 interviews and nearly 300 survey responses from legal professionals at all levels of the sector.
Case studies are available.
2) To arrange an interview or for more information please contact Ben Furner from DRILL on 07946 355795 or email@example.com; or Chris Mahony on 07812 692722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
3) DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) is a 5 year programme funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and led by disabled people. It aims to build better evidence about approaches to enable disabled people to achieve independent living, which is used to inform future policy and service provision, as well as give a greater voice to disabled people in decisions which affect them.
It is managed by Disability Rights UK, Inclusion Scotland, Disability Wales and Disability Action Northern Ireland.
4) Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. The 2014 Research Excellence Framework ranked the University 5th in the UK for research excellence. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans. Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise encompasses: the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences; the College of Biomedical and Life Sciences; and the College of Physical Sciences and Engineering, along with a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning. Cardiff’s flagship Research Institutes are offering radical new approaches to pressing global problems. More at www.cardiff.ac.uk
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