Disabled lawyers “benefit from homeworking during pandemic”

Hirst: Adjusting billable targets makes a big difference

The suspension of office working under lockdown has helped improve the mental and physical health of disabled lawyers, research has indicated.

Preliminary findings from Cardiff University’s business school, revealed at an online briefing this week, showed that home working was often refused by law firms to disabled people as a statutory ‘reasonable adjustment’, but that had changed since March.

Professor Debbie Foster and her independent co-researcher, Dr Natasha Hirst, surveyed 108 disabled members of the Law Society during July and August about the impact of homeworking during Covid-19.

The work follows on from the groundbreaking Legally Disabled? report the pair published in January, which highlighted the overt and ‘unconscious’ discrimination disabled lawyers faced on a daily basis.

Professor Foster said that, before the pandemic, many disabled people working in law firms had been subject to “particularly rigid and traditional practices such as office based working, [and] high levels of supervision, [with] tight performance management through billable hours”.

Also, many had reported they were not trusted to work from home and when they had suggested it as a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to working conditions, this had been refused.

The academic concluded: “Many disabled people have said that homeworking has become a game changer for them, that they can now do the job that people told them they could never do, from home.”

However, Dr Hirst cautioned that the survey had been a “snapshot” and that one “can’t necessarily make large-scale observations on the basis of that”.

The survey found that remote working during the pandemic led to a improvement in physical and mental health.

More than 80% of people said they were trusted to get on with their work remotely and a similar number said that not having to travel for work had helped.

Large numbers said it had been easier to manage their impairment from home rather than in the workplace, they felt optimistic about their careers, and were “stressed” over possibly having to return to the office after lockdown.

One participant said: “Before lockdown I worked from home part of the week and endured constant remarks about how disruptive [and inefficient] it is… Working from home all the time has dramatically improved my quality of life…

“Before lockdown all my energy was taken by work and travel and the pain was constant… I feel like a human being again.”

Another respondent said: “Remote working has revolutionised the industry… Accessibility of virtual working experiences and networking events has been a game-changer…

“I can now attend any events I need to develop my career without worrying about how my condition will be impacted by travel, if I will be able to use my wheelchair, and if there are seats at a standing event.

“Most importantly, I haven’t had to rearrange the two to three days after an event due to increased pain and fatigue… I now feel like I can fit in… I just needed the right tools to succeed.”

Dr Hirst said changes to performance targets were very important for disabled people. Billable hours were “quite a blunt system that measures quantity rather than quality”. The research had found this was an area where employers often struggled to find an alternative.

But where targets and billable hours were adjusted, this made “a massive difference to how disabled people are able to fulfil their role”, she said.

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