A Lawyer's Worth
By Nicola Laver
I am partially deaf. It is merely a minor irritant. It means I try to make sure whoever I’m in conversation with is on my left, or I cock my head to maximise what I can hear – or if I’m in a group I might apologise in case I have to ask for something to be repeated.
My confidence, particularly in a group conversation, takes a battering at times; but to be frank, the worst I can report is a mere crick in the neck. So researching this month’s cover feature on the experiences of lawyers with disabilities was an uncomfortable revelation. What many of these remarkable individuals are battling must feel like wading in treacle upstream. The challenges they have met involve not so much physically navigating their workplace, rather the mental and emotional navigation around the attitudes and perceptions of others and, in some cases, discrimination. Significant research into the workplace experiences of disabled lawyers recently revealed almost half are being (or have been) ill-treated and bullied, often leaving them with mental health problems. But they are not to be pitied; they are worth more than that.
A typical characteristic of individuals who society applauds for overcoming adversity is to dismiss any suggestion that they are ‘brave’ and ‘inspiring’. Their perspective is undoubtedly that of anyone else with a disability in the workplace. Quite simply: they have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Giving up isn’t an option. So firms need to change their mindset and foster a culture of acceptance – creating an open environment where disabled staff are free to admit, without embarrassment, that they need support. This is particularly important for lawyers with invisible disabilities, such as Isobel Rogers who suffers a litany of invisible conditions including a brain tumour (on her return after neurosurgery colleagues assumed she’d been on an extended holiday). If a lawyer is good enough to recruit in the first place, don’t they deserve to be looked after and nurtured as one of your own? Aside from their legal obligations towards employees, employers ought not forget the business benefits of looking after them – even if that means implementing reasonable adjustments to enable a colleague to perform their role to the best of their ability.
The legal sector has already grasped that women lawyers are worth nurturing (though this took long enough). It has embraced racial diversity and is working to drive social mobility within the profession. Many firms are to be commended for their diversity programmes, improving access for young socially disadvantaged teens through the new apprenticeship schemes or through positive discrimination (Leigh Day, for example, advertised last year for six BAME applicants to train as solicitors via the non-university route).
Once these aspiring solicitors are recruited, firms should then pay them their worth. The number of firms who are not paying their trainee solicitors the Law Society’s recommended minimum salary signals that they’re not actually worth it (read more on p17).
Yet these are the trainees firms selected from probably hundreds of applicants precisely because they stood out as the best. They are individuals who have typically accumulated substantial debts to achieve their ambition. It’s taken resilience, determination and sacrifice. So are they not worth paying at least the recommended minimum salary?
It could be argued that it’s a false economy for firms not to pay a decent salary to trainees or junior lawyers. They’re less likely to feel valued by the firm; more likely to look to supplement their income to cover their debts; and more likely to look elsewhere for better paid employment where they will feel valued.
The message is clear: look after each of your lawyers and you will be guarding your firm’s future.