Supporting Law Students and Lawyers with Disabilities

Published: Apr 28, 2021

 Diversity       Law       
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How can the legal profession be more supportive of students and lawyers with disabilities? This was one of the topics presented during day one of this year’s NALP Annual Education Conference. In “Level Up: How to Support Your Law Students and Lawyers with Disabilities,” attendees heard from Tonya Gaskins, Assistant Dean for Career and Professional Development at the Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law; Danielle Liebl, Associate Corporate Counsel at Amazon Web Services (and former associate at Reed Smith); and Mark Crestohl, Senior Counsel, Labour and Employment Law Canada, at Accenture.

According to the 2020 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey Report, of the 233 law firms surveyed, only 0.65% of total lawyers identify as disabled. This tracks with broader workplace statistics that were shared during the NALP presentation. Accenture’s Getting to Equal 2020: Disability Inclusion report indicates that while an estimated 15% of the world population identifies as disabled, 80% of these individuals are not employed. Looking at just the U.S., only 31% of people with disabilities are employed—and this is compared to 75% of non-disabled peers.

It seems clear that there is room to improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities, including within the legal industry. For lawyers, this begins in law school and continues through the bar exam and in the workplace. Here are some of the important takeaways that Tonya, Danielle, and Mark shared about supporting lawyers and law students with disabilities throughout their legal journey.

Connect law students with resources early.

To kick off the discussion, Tonya discussed the importance of connecting students with the necessary resources on campus as soon as possible. Schools and universities have disability resource centers that can provide support beyond what career services and professors can, and they can step in where needed to help navigate issues such as classroom and exam accommodations. But it’s important not to stop with in-school resources. There are many outside organizations that students with disabilities can turn to for support in their career development. Some examples include: the ABA, the National Disabled Law Students Association (NDLSA), the National Business & Disability Council, the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), the Disability Rights Bar Association (DRBA), and the Job Accommodation Network (JAN). Letting students with disabilities know there is a network for them both within and beyond the walls of the law school is an important way to help them feel supported from the get-go and as they navigate the challenges of law school.

Remember that disabilities are a form of diversity.

Tonya also shared how important it is to remember that, when seeking career opportunities available to students with disabilities, being disabled is a form of diversity. While it may seem obvious, this can sometimes be overlooked because people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ candidates tend to make up larger portions of the diversity-eligible population. Remember that disabled students are able to apply for and take advantage of diversity programs and scholarships too, which opens the door to opportunities such as law firm and state diversity fellowships and internships and the 1L LCLD Scholars program. That said, there are also a number of programs that specifically seek law students with disabilities, including ABA Internships, the AAPD summer internship program, and the Workforce Recruitment Program.

Seek bar exam accommodations early.

Seeking accommodations for the bar exam can be difficult, which adds a lot of stress to an already stressful process. Danielle shared her own journey seeking accommodations as a bar taker with cerebral palsy, and her experience provides some important takeaways—notably, that it is important to submit accommodation requests and supporting documentation as early as possible. This is something that applicants can easily overlook because the application for accommodations is separate from the bar application itself. When Danielle applied, the bar initially insisted that she get re-diagnosed with cerebral palsy to meet their requirement of receiving the diagnosis within the past three years. But the diagnosis for cerebral palsy is lengthy and expensive, and it would not have been covered by Danielle’s insurance—so a long, drawn-out process between the bar and Danielle’s doctor ensued. Another takeaway from Danielle is to consider all of the “smaller” accommodations that might be required on exam day. For example, Danielle needed a straw to drink water during the exam, but examiners almost didn’t allow her to use them due to her not requesting the accommodation.

Bottom line: When it comes to bar exam accommodations, be early and be thorough. And note that every state has its own requirements when it comes to requesting accommodations—so be sure to become familiar with the correct set of instructions. (Note: The ABA maintains a directory for bar exam applicants with disabilities, which includes links to each state bar’s accommodation request information.)

Respect students’ disclosure decisions.

When it comes to conversations with employers, it is important to remember that it is up to students to decide whether to disclose disability status, as it can be a sensitive topic. Tonya discussed how important it can be for career services professionals to help students by walking them through the decision-making process. Some questions to consider in the discussion are whether accommodations are necessary and how comfortable the student is in disclosing. An important point to remember is that a student only needs to disclose what is necessary—not their whole life story—which might help ease the stress for some students. Deciding when to disclose is another strategic decision. Some law students wait until after they have a job offer, while others decide to disclose during the interview process—this is an individual decision too. Either way, it’s important to understand the process and reiterate with students that a disability and the need for an accommodation is not “problem”—it is part of a candidate’s identity along with everything else an employer learns during the hiring process.

Get creative with workplace accommodations.

From the employer perspective, Danielle pointed out that in the legal industry, some accommodations can be tricky given the need for confidentiality and the attorney-client privilege. For example, she received the help of a note taker in law school, but at the law firm, a note taker brought up confidentiality concerns. So the firm worked with her to come up with alternative solutions. For example, when Danielle received a work assignment from a partner, she would follow up with an email summarizing her understanding instead of taking notes during the conversation, which detracted from her ability to follow along. The partner would then correct or add any necessary details, and Danielle proceed with the assignment.

Mark also commented how this need for creativity is why it’s important to have a specified workplace liaison who can help brainstorm accommodations and take some of the burden off the employee and their immediate supervisors. Where applicable, he also recommended that accommodations come from a “central fund” so that managers aren’t worrying about their own budgetary goals when considering what accommodations to approve.

Don’t forget about the “inclusion” part of diversity and inclusion.

To round out the discussion, Mark stressed the importance of inclusion and quoted Verna Myers, a disability advocate, who said, “Diversity is like being invited to the party; inclusion is being invited to dance.” Mark shared eight factors that employers should consider to create an inclusive workplace culture: role models, employee resource groups, parental leave, fair transparent pay, training, flexibility, innovation, and mental health resources (you can read examples of each of these factors in the Accenture report). To further demonstrate the importance of inclusion, Mark discussed statistics from the Accenture report that show how companies focused on disability engagement are growing faster than their peers: The companies included in the research have a sales rate 2.9 times faster and a profit rate 4.1 faster than companies that don’t focus on disability engagement. Why is this? Because there is a lot of talent in the disabled population! Sometimes it takes few extra resources to tap an individual’s full potential, but when a company puts forth the resources to create an inclusive environment, it’s a win-win scenario for individuals and for the company. This is an important takeaway for legal employers to keep in mind as they develop programs and initiatives to support lawyers with disabilities.

Kudos to Tonya, Danielle, and Mark for the thorough presentation about this important topic!


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