Disabled lawyers face both overt and ‘unconscious’ discrimination on a daily basis, such as “rituals, practices and attitudes that exclude or undermine them”, according to research published today.
It recommended reserving some training places in law firms and chambers for disabled candidates to counter some of the problems after many of the those questioned – drawn from across the profession – told researchers they hid their disability when applying for jobs.
Having had a largely positive experience at university, they went on to encounter hostility and discrimination at work, including when seeking the ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their working environment or practice they were entitled to by law.
“Exclusion of disabled people was not always intentional but arose from expected behavioural codes, rituals and assumptions,” the report said.
“The level of emphasis placed on physical networking, which some disabled people find difficult and are excluded from, is common across the profession.”
The research indicated that disabled people were failing to advance “not because of their talents, but because they anticipate discrimination. Our study suggests these ‘fears’ are often well-founded”.
Legally Disabled? The career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession, draws on focus groups as well as 55 interviews with, and nearly 300 survey responses from, solicitors, barristers, trainees and paralegals.
The research was commissioned by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning), a £5m research programme funded by the National Lottery. It was conducted by Cardiff Business School, part of Cardiff University, working with the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division.
Some 60% of solicitors and paralegals, and 45% of barristers, reported ill-treatment in the workplace, and most believed it was related to disability.
Common experiences included “ridiculing or demeaning language”, and exclusion or victimisation.
The report said: “Examples of ill-treatment suggest the legal profession has a long way to go to address poor behaviour and those on the receiving end of the ill-treatment need to feel confident that they can report it.”
Among solicitors and paralegals, 37% said they never reported ill-treatment, a figure that rose to 54% of barristers.
“Our research found some extreme instances of ill-treatment but more prevalent was a lot of what is classified as ‘unconscious bias’, which in reality is usually unquestioned behaviour that is often ignorant, inconsiderate and offensive.”
More than half (54%) of disabled solicitors and paralegals thought their career and promotion prospects inferior to non-disabled colleagues.
Some 40% either never or only sometimes told their employer or prospective employer they were disabled. Just 8.5% of respondents who were disabled when they started their training disclosed their disability in their application.
This meant many did not seek reasonable adjustments, and even when they did, some requests – even if inexpensive – “were met with ignorance and resulted in ill-treatment or discrimination,” the research said.
Professor Debbie Foster from Cardiff University, who led the research, explained: “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.”
There were significant problems with trying to get a job in the first place, amid complaints that recruitment agencies failed to pass on requests for reasonable adjustments for interviews or to identify any accessibility issues.
Information about the accessibility of potential employers was rarely available, while online application processes were a particular accessibility concern for some.
The report said: “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…
“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.”
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.
Researchers also encountered a widespread misconception among disabled people in the profession that reasonable adjustments did not apply to promotions criteria.
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.”
She 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 could also make it “impossible” for disabled people to reach partner status in even the most enlightened firms, the report said.
The widespread continued use of billable hours as a measure of performance across the profession “disadvantages” disabled people.
The report observed: “Where billable hours had been replaced or were used as a threshold for a bonus, rather than a hard target, disabled people found it easier to request and secure adjustments.”
HR departments, meanwhile, “seem to pay less attention to disability and targeted initiatives are less well developed, with activities focused in compliance”.
The report’s recommendations included:
- The profession engaging in significant outreach work with schools, parents and careers advisors to attract disabled people to the profession;
- Reserving some training places in law firms and chambers for disabled candidates;
- Employers re-designing roles and working practices;
- The profession establishing a minimum standard for employers and agencies to provide information about accessibility and the process for requesting adjustments at recruitment and during employment, as well as a clear complaints procedure;
- Introducing disability pay gap reporting;
- Providing all staff and managers with disability awareness training and access to information on disability management;
- A zero tolerance policy on ill-treatment and bullying of disabled people in the workplace;
- Ensuring that disabled people’s voices are sufficiently represented in policy-making and considered when developing new practices by supporting and working with disabled people’s networks.