Quick — think of diversity in the legal profession. What comes to your mind?

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Diversity Dialogue

5 Things to Know About Lawyers with Disabilities

Quick — think of diversity in the legal profession. What comes to your mind?

Women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ people might be your immediate thoughts. You might think of diversity discussions you’ve had at your law firm, affinity groups you’ve participated in, or bar association meet-ups that highlight the traditional narrative of diversity. The problem, however, is that traditional narrative of diversity more often than not leaves out one very significant group: lawyers with disabilities.

Figuring out how many lawyers with disabilities exist in the United States will always, at best, be a guessing game. The range of disabilities is so broad, and often the stigma attached to self-reporting is so strong, that there are many who might prefer to not openly reveal their disabilities. The most recent NALP Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms identified one-third of 1 percent of law firm associates and partners as having a disability — a number that, while low, is much higher than reported in the past. NALP also estimates that between 1 and 2 percent of law school graduates identify as having disabilities.

Both of those numbers need to change. Haben Girma, a Harvard Law graduate and Deafblind lawyer, was recently profiled as an ABA Legal Rebel. “When companies increase their hiring of people with disabilities, they benefit from the talents of people with disabilities,” she told the ABA Journal.

I reached out to a prominent disability rights advocate for his thoughts on lawyers with disabilities and how legal organizations can improve both education and inclusion. Barry Taylor is the Vice President for Civil Rights and Systemic Litigation at Equip for Equality. As a nonprofit organization providing free legal advocacy services, Equip for Equality advances the civil and human rights of people with disabilities in Illinois. It focuses on five areas: special education, discrimination, abuse/neglect, community integration and self-determination. What follows is a lightly edited version of my conversation with Barry.

A major thing that law firms can do is to include disability as part of its diversity plan, including recruiting new attorneys and supporting existing attorneys.

Q: What do you think are the biggest hurdles facing lawyers with disabilities?

A: One of the biggest hurdles lawyers with disabilities face is the incorrect perception that you cannot be an effective attorney if you have a disability. Many of our attorneys have visible and invisible disabilities and they are incredibly effective advocates, and for our work, their disability often informs their advocacy and is a basis for developing a trusting relationship with the client. Educating law schools, law firms, opposing counsel and the judiciary is key for attorneys with disabilities to be treated with respect.

Q: Can you give examples of accommodations law firms have provided lawyers with disabilities?

A: Reasonable accommodations must be based on an individualized assessment and an interactive process. What works for one attorney with a disability may not work for a different attorney with the same disability. So communication is a key. For deaf attorneys, accommodations could include providing a sign-language attorney or captioning for meetings. For attorneys who are blind or have low vision, accommodations could include providing information in alternate formats like Braille, electronically or in large print. For attorneys who use wheelchairs, accommodations can include ensuring that the workplace and the individual’s workspace are both physically accessible. For attorneys with mental illness, accommodations could include providing leave or a modified work schedule to allow attendance at therapy sessions.

Q: What advice would you give to a new law student who has a disability on how to navigate the next three years, particularly when they may feel sensitive about disclosing their disability status in the competitive world of law school?

A: Disclosure of disability is a very personal decision that each person must make. There is still a great deal of stigma in our society about certain disabilities — such as mental illness — and people have the right to keep their disability confidential. The key question is: Do you need an accommodation to be successful in law school? If so, it’s important to ask for one, typically through the university’s disability services department. Unfortunately, some students wait until things aren’t going well to ask for the accommodation, and that often can be too late. Many law schools have started disability affinity groups that can be a place for support and for building community and awareness.

Q: What more would you want law firms and bar associations to do to assist people with disabilities?

A: A major thing that law firms can do is to include disability as part of its diversity plan, including recruiting new attorneys and supporting existing attorneys. Many law firms have enhanced their diversity for women, racial and ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community, but often disability isn’t included in a firm’s diversity efforts. Once disability is included, then the firm needs to make a commitment to provide the accommodations and support for those attorneys to be successful, including putting the cost of accommodations into the firm’s budget.

Many bar associations, including the Chicago Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association, have designated committees to focus on disability issues. These forums are typically focused on disability law rather than issues facing lawyers with disabilities, so expanding the focus to include programming for attorneys with disabilities would be very helpful.

Q: Thank you for speaking with me. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: There are many good resources available on this issue, including the EEOC’s publication on reasonable accommodations for lawyers with disabilities, the Job Accommodation Network, and the Burton Blatt Institute Employer Toolkit for including workers with disabilities in the workplace. Finally, in Chicago an Equal Justice Works Fellowship has been established for a new attorney with a disability to do a two-year post-graduate fellowship with a legal aid organization. McDermott Will & Emery sponsored the inaugural fellowship, and Dentons is sponsoring the current fellowship.


Michelle Silverthorn is the Diversity and Education Director for the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. Through the commission's online platform, 2Civility, Silverthorn works on blog posts, social networking sites and online discussion groups focusing on legal education, diversity and young lawyers. She also works with law schools, law students and other legal groups, developing education courses and workshops.