Best Practices for Making Your Law Firm More Inclusive for People with Disabilities
These four tips can help you make sure your diversity policies don’t fall short when it comes to accessibility.
Creating an inclusive workplace for people with disabilities should be a top priority for law firms — especially considering how many individuals in the firm may be living with a disability or may develop one in the future. Unfortunately, many law firms overlook this critical demographic when crafting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies and programming.
Mary Kate Sheridan, Esq.
Lawyer, Writer and Editor
“In comparison to the population of adults with disabilities in the workforce, a staggeringly low number of law firm lawyers self-identify as having a disability,” says Caren Ulrich Stacy, Founder and Chief Experimentation Officer of Diversity
Lab. “We should take a hard look at our profession and ask ourselves if we are doing everything possible to create a culture of inclusivity in law for people with disabilities.”
In working toward this culture of inclusivity, legal organizations should develop a strategy rooted in collaboration, trust, community and intentionality. Read on for best practices for bolstering disability inclusion within your organization.
1. BUILD POLICIES COLLABORATIVELY
The most effective inclusion strategies are not created in a vacuum, and firms should draw upon a variety of experiences when developing policies for people with disabilities. Ulrich Stacy recommends that firms use a diverse advisory board to collaborate on decision-making.
“Put a group of humans together who have different perspectives on creating diversity and inclusion in your workforce,” she says.
Also, rather than creating policies from scratch, firms shouldn’t be afraid to build from the successful ideas and practices of others.
“Borrowing from good ideas that others have had is always a good idea,” says Ed Marquette, Partner at Kutak Rock. “My first step is to do what lawyers do anyway: Look around, find some guidelines that look good, and start with those.”
2. CREATE AN ACCEPTING CULTURE THAT ENCOURAGES SELF-IDENTIFICATION
As firms strive to craft inclusive practices, one hurdle is the hesitancy to self-identify as having a disability, which in turn may make it difficult for administrators to understand the range of disabilities within the firm as well as the population of people with disabilities.
“It probably is the second largest form of diversity within the firm, but we’re not getting close to measuring because people don’t self-identify,” says Loren Gesinsky, Partner at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Co-Chair of the New York office’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Team, and Co-Founder and Chair of the firm’s All Abilities Affinity Group.
This lack of self-identification often stems from the fear of stigma. “People with a disability may believe they would be discriminated against by employers or coworkers if they were to disclose they had a disability,” says Michael Sabella, Counsel at BakerHostetler.
“We should take a hard look at our profession and ask ourselves if we are doing everything possible to create a culture of inclusivity in law for people with disabilities.”
Indeed, “people with a health condition or impairment, and who identify as a person with a disability, reported experiencing proportionately more overt forms of discrimination, such as bullying and harassment, as compared to people who do not have such conditions,” according to a recent study by the ABA and the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University.
It is imperative that firms establish a culture of trust to encourage individuals to self-identify. “As a starting point, all law firms should make it clear to their people that this is a safe place,” says Sabella.
Below are some steps firms can take in nurturing this supportive culture.
Provide equal resources.
One step toward creating an environment of trust is to demonstrate the firm’s commitment to people with disabilities. Gesinsky recommends providing the same resources — including affinity groups and employee resource groups — to people with disabilities that the firm provides to other underrepresented groups.
“If we use principles that make the firm as accessible to all, even if we don’t know if we have anyone with this special need at this point, we’re making it more welcoming for everyone, including potential future employees and including
guests. And [we’re] also doing it in a noninstitutional, universal way.”
Firms should build awareness via events like panels and presentations to bring the conversation to the forefront. For example, BakerHostetler hosts a Disability Awareness Month every October that includes panel presentations.
“You see it, you hear it, you learn about it, and it creates that environment in the workplace of accessibility and an invitation to be who you are,” says Sabella.
Share personal experiences.
As firms develop programming and events, they should consider ways to incorporate personal narratives or breakout sessions during which lawyers and other professionals with disabilities can share their own experiences.
“It takes the courage of some to give others courage, and then it has a multiplier effect,” says Gesinsky.
Embrace the value of affinity groups.
One important tool for building an inclusive culture within the firm is an affinity group. Affinity groups are particularly useful for people with disabilities given the variety of experiences within the demographic.
“Members of affinity groups learn from each other,” says Ulrich Stacy. “Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you understand everything about every disability, and even people with disabilities can learn from each other.”
In addition to providing a space for knowledge sharing, affinity groups also offer a structured setting to voice suggestions to firm management — and to do so collectively.
“Affinity groups really do help move the needle,” says Ulrich Stacy. “Oftentimes, they’ll be the voice to management if something isn’t going in the right direction, and as a group, they can talk about what the firm can do differently or better and offer suggestions.”
3. ENCOURAGE BROAD PARTICIPATION
Even in the most welcoming of environments, some people will not feel comfortable self-identifying, which is why firms should provide resources broadly. For example, in creating its affinity group, Seyfarth Shaw was purposeful in crafting it for all, not only people with disabilities — even naming it the “All Abilities” affinity group.
A broader approach such as this has the added benefit of attracting allies to participate.
“All affinity groups should welcome allies,” says Sabella. “It is fantastic for affinity groups to be for those who are involved in their respective communities, but you are a voice that is further enhanced by allies who are on the same page as you, who want to be involved and who want to do what they can.”
Also, don’t limit resources to certain subsets of the firm.
“Accessibility is affecting everybody that is part of your firm — attorney or not attorney,” says Gesinsky. “Give careful consideration to involving broader segments or your entire law firm population in these efforts.”
4. BE INTENTIONAL WITH POLICIES AND ACCOMMODATIONS
Another aspect of creating a more inclusive workplace is having an intentional approach to drawing up policies and accommodations — with intentional being the key word.
“In terms of planning strategies for dealing with diversity (including persons with disabilities), one should try to put oneself in the shoes of the person who has the disability,” says Marquette.
The following are some tips for shaping your firm’s approach to policies and accommodations.
As simple as it sounds, one best practice in offering accommodations is to be straightforward and ask.
“What is it that they prefer?” says Marquette, who emphasizes the importance of asking given that some decision-makers may not think of certain accommodations because of their own physical and mental capabilities.
Also, be sure not to limit the request to one isolated group.
“The firm should be offering to talk to everyone and anyone who wants an accommodation to make it a natural thing the firm cares about so individuals don’t feel they’re in the ‘out’ group,” says Ulrich Stacy, who recommends that firms send a monthly firmwide email inviting anyone to provide accommodation requests.
Firms also may consider approaching accommodations through a universal design perspective, focusing on accessibility for all.
“If we use principles that make the firm as accessible to all, even if we don’t know if we have anyone with this special need at this point, we’re making it more welcoming for everyone, including potential future employees and including guests,” Gesinsky says. “And [we’re] also doing it in a noninstitutional, universal way.”
Create an ongoing process.
Firms should adopt a fluid mindset when developing their accommodations policy. While an initial check-in when someone first self-identifies or joins the firm is important, the process should not stop there.
“People forget to create an ongoing practice to ensure they continue to check in with those people who previously requested an accommodation,” says Ulrich Stacy, who notes that any number of dynamic changes can occur after an accommodation
is offered. “Also, check in with the entire population, because there is a high-percentage chance that many people are living with a disability [that] they didn’t have when they joined or that has evolved over time.”
Disability inclusion should be part of every law firm DEI plan. With a collaborative spirit, environment of trust, broad reach and intentional mindset, you will be ready to hit the ground running.
With so much of today’s legal work taking place virtually and via technology, digital accessibility is a must for every law firm. Firms should assess their technology to ensure their lawyers and staff have optimal access to successfully do their jobs, from making sure the firm’s website is accessible to providing assistive technologies
like screen readers to being intentional about the execution of firm presentations. Focusing on digital accessibility will also benefit those outside the organization — including clients and prospective job candidates — who are
engaging with the firm’s resources.
While it may seem daunting to introduce new technological tools or approaches, the process doesn’t need to be overwhelming.
“Making technology accessible does not require a massive investment and does not require a complete overhaul of a laptop or a computer product,” says Ed Marquette, Partner at Kutak Rock.
Find the resources and strategies that work best for your firm to keep moving forward as digital accessibility continues to evolve.
About the Author
Mary Kate Sheridan, Esq., is the Communications Specialist at Diversity Lab. She is an attorney and former litigator with a JD from Columbia Law School. Mary Kate also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School and a BA in English from Mary Washington College.