“Significant barriers” exist for disabled lawyers

Foster: Disabled people seemingly unexpected in professional occupations

Disabled people seeking employment or working in the legal profession are “an untapped resource”, according to ground-breaking research.

It found a profession not set up to accommodate the needs of disabled people in or wanting to join the profession.

The results are the first to come out of the Legally Disabled? project being conducted by Professor Debbie Foster of Cardiff University Business School and independent researcher Dr Natasha Hirst, funded by DRILL (Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning).

The initial findings from focus groups of disabled legal professionals highlighted “a mixed bag of experiences”, the researchers said.

“Disabled people seeking employment or working in the legal profession are an untapped resource.

“They have often been attracted to law because of a strong passion for human rights and fairness. Lived experience of disability means they have strong ambition, tenacity, determination and excellent problem-solving skills.

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

The profession was “generally poorly equipped” to anticipate reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled candidates who apply for a training contract or pupillage, they said – the lack of part-time training contracts was one barrier to entering the profession.

There was also a reluctance to declare an impairment due to fear of discrimination. “A large proportion of focus group participants reported instances of discrimination associated with their impairment,” the researchers said.

“The legal profession continues to operate traditional working patterns and career expectations. Inflexible, often outdated working practices and the absence of imaginative job design, limits access opportunities for disabled people and career progression.”

With profitability and competition driving much of the profession, “disabled people feel they are unfairly viewed as not being ‘profitable’, productive or capable of meeting targets. The valued added by disabled people can be overlooked”.

Factor enabling career progression included strong role models, supportive senior colleagues, and the presence of mentors and networks, and while there was evidence of equality clauses in procurement contracts having an impact.

Professor Debbie Foster explained: “Disabled people in professional occupations are largely absent in academic literature and are seemingly unexpected.

“Much research and social policy is concerned with getting disabled people off benefits and into entry level employment. There is limited aspiration to support disabled professionals to progress their careers or return to high-quality work after time out.”

The researchers are working with the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division and a research reference group consisting of disabled people from across the legal profession.

Division chair Jane Burton said: “Our members are talented individuals, yet many employers fail to recognise the valuable skills and experiences that disabled people can bring to their workplace.

“Some firms still seem to fear employing disabled people. Co-producing this research is a great opportunity to influence culture change across the legal profession.”

The intention is to produce further reports and publications with recommendations to support employers and regulators to improve policy and practice in recruiting and supporting disabled legal professionals.

The project is now seeking disabled legal professionals for one-to-one interviews for the next stage of the research. The researchers can be contacted on info@legallydisabled.com. The website is here.

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