A guest post by Dr Natasha Hirst and Professor Debbie Foster, a researcher and lead of the Legally Disabled? project respectively
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, funded by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) set out to answer. We issued our report  in January.
Led by Professor Debbie Foster working in co-production 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 big 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. Some 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.
Co-production is at the core of the research, ensuring that disabled people from the legal profession have led and co-produced the design and delivery of research in equal partnership with the researchers.
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 believe that the findings of this research are transferable to other occupations.
Much policy attention is focused 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.
Entering the profession
The profession is generally poorly equipped to anticipate reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled candidates who apply for a training contract or pupillage. Lack of part-time training contracts is one such barrier. 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 ill-treatment associated with their impairment. Coupled with a poor understanding of reasonable adjustments and how impairments and health conditions can vary, this creates a reluctance to disclose an impairment or health condition which in turn prevents individuals from accessing support.
Working culture and expectations
Inflexible, often outdated working practices and the absence of imaginative job design, limits opportunities for disabled people and career progression. Support from managers, HR and colleagues is highly variable and good policies do not necessarily translate into good practice.
The good practice
Strong role models, supportive senior colleagues and the presence of mentors and networks are important factors for enabling career progression. Targeted recruitment initiatives were important for levelling the playing field and provide opportunities for disabled people.
Open conversations, a willingness to find solutions and trusting disabled people to know what works for them is crucial for supporting people to reach their potential
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 indicates 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.
We ran a conference to mark publication of the research, which was a platform for the voice of disabled legal professionals and there will be a small event in Cardiff during the spring (details to be confirmed).
Over the next few months we will be visiting stakeholders and networks to share and discuss our research findings and recommendations. The aim is to support the profession to create strategies for change to improve access and inclusion for disabled legal professionals.
Anyone who would like us to visit can get in touch.