Many disabled solicitors have downplayed the extent of their disability because they do not trust law firms to meet their needs, research has revealed.
The report by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) involved looking at 3,000 firms’ disability inclusion policies, consulting with experts and disabled solicitors, and reviewing existing research.
It found just 3% of solicitors declared their disability, a figure unchanged for a decade. The figure compared to 13% of the UK workforce, a proportion that rose to around 19% if disability was calculated according to the broader Equality Act 2010 definition.
Part of the reluctance of solicitors with unseen disabilities to declare the true extent of it was deep suspicion about the willingness of employers to make reasonable workplace adjustments.
The SRA suggested that missing out on support which could have been available was detrimental to everyone involved.
It proposed steps including ensuring a firm-wide culture that encouraged a positive working environment for disabled employees, such as openness in conversations about making adjustments.
However, an adjustment involving reducing billable hours targets carried risks, one disabled solicitor told researchers. “Whereas it might take a colleague half an hour to skim through a document, even with today’s technology I don’t have the luxury of being able to do that.
“But how can you reduce someone’s billable hours without them being perceived as less able?”
The SRA said it was important to challenge this perception that having a disability ‘lowered the bar’. This would be healthy for firms too.
It said: “We found that where leaders promote disability inclusion, not only do individuals thrive but firms do too.”
Recording, monitoring and evaluating the effects of workplace adjustments on solicitors and clients were also important, the regulator said.
But respondents showed suspicions abounded over attempts to gather such diversity information, with some firms meeting resistance from staff about the intention behind it and who would have access to the results.
Some solicitors said they feared disclosing their disability because it may negatively affect their careers.
The survey said: “Some decide not to mention they have a disability for fear they may be seen as ‘not being able to cope’ or ‘not good enough’.”
Research has repeatedly shown this fear to be justified, with disabled solicitors being victimised or a lack of understanding about their impairment, in some cases leading to them having to end their career in the law prematurely.
The report said ‘anecdotal research’ suggested disabled solicitor had left the profession in disproportionately high numbers due to disability-unfriendly practices.
It highlighted, in case studies, best practice that included firms which encourage staff to speak openly about workplace adjustments.
It pointed out that the government’s Access to Work scheme could provide grants to pay towards adjustments if support had a financial cost attached to it.
Among adjustment case studies were those by solicitors about British Sign Language support for deaf clients, which led to information on interpreters. Another highlighted a firm, Markel Law, which found an IT programme to help a colleague with dyslexia, and time was set aside for colleagues to assist with extra proofreading.
One large firm, Mills & Reeve, had an internal network that met once a month, whose activities included guidance for managers and providing reasonable adjustments.
Best practice on recruitment to ensure a good representation of disabled solicitors in the profession included firms making it clear to potential recruits that they had disabled-friendly policies in place.
For example, international firm Reed Smith actively worked with disability organisations to encourage disabled graduates to apply for work.
The SRA suggested firms engage with external disabled networks so they understood the barriers that existed for disabled people.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “It is important that people who need legal services have access to a profession that is diverse and inclusive. We know that diverse businesses are better businesses.”
Welcoming the report, the Law Society said it was working on guidance on how to support disabled people best and create more inclusive work environments.
President Simon Davis said: “The SRA report shows many disabled lawyers are reluctant to mention their disability to their employer – and are missing out on adjustments which may be available…
“Everyone should feel comfortable bringing their full self to work and supported in asking for any reasonable adjustments.”
In January, the Legally Disabled project reported that disabled lawyers faced both overt and ‘unconscious’ discrimination on a daily basis, such as “rituals, practices and attitudes that exclude or undermine them”.