Disabled lawyers bullied and disadvantaged
By Nicola Laver
The legal profession has a long way to go to address poor behaviour, said a report that revealed many disabled lawyers experience bullying, pain and fatigue in the workplace.
The report, Legally Disabled? The Career Experiences of disabled people working in the profession, concluded that disabled lawyers daily face rituals, practices and attitudes that exclude or undermine them in their roles.
The report was published today and revealed 85 per cent of disabled solicitors and paralegals reported disability-related pain and fatigue that could be exacerbated by inflexible working arrangements and long hours.
It follows a study commissioned by £5m research programme Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL).
The research was conducted over two years by a team based at Cardiff Business School working with the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division.
It investigated the experiences, choices and views of disabled people working or seeking to work in the legal profession, including solicitors, barristers, trainees and paralegals.
The results reveal that disabled people working in the profession “face a culture and outmoded practices that hamper efforts to build successful careers”.
Some lawyers hide their disabilities when applying for a position, said the report’s authors, who called for firms to reserve training positions for the disabled.
The report said “they chose to conceal their disability on application for fear that they would not secure an interview, but then had largely negative experiences when presenting for interview, at which point it became apparent they were disabled.
“Some referred to the eyes of the interview panel ‘glazing over’ once they entered the room, others felt at the application stage they were being ‘screened out”.
Bullying in the workplace was a further concern.
A significant proportion (80 per cent) of disabled solicitors and paralegals reported experiencing disability-related ill-treatment, bullying, or discrimination; and 37 per cent said they never reported ill-treatment.
As a result, some individuals sought psychiatric support and counselling, and some even left their careers.
“A poverty of imagination, bureaucracy, belligerent managers and outdated working practices prevent often minor adjustments that would make a huge difference for disabled people”, the report said.
Many research participants from across the profession reported encountering hostility and discrimination at work - including when seeking reasonable adjustments.
Over half (54 per cent) of disabled solicitors and paralegals felt their career prospects were inferior to their non-disabled colleagues and up to 40 per cent do not tell their employer or prospective employer they are disabled, suggesting many fail to request reasonable adjustments.
Inaccessible working environments also limited the career opportunities for around 60 per cent of disabled solicitors and paralegals.
Some participants who had requested reasonable adjustments said their requests were sometimes treated with ignorance and resulted in ill-treatment or discrimination.
Cardiff University Professor Debbie Foster, one of the report’s authors, commented: “Line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in the reasonable adjustment process and in the management of sickness absence, performance management and promotion.
“However, we found the quality of the relationship between line managers and disabled employees often depended on ‘good will’, ‘luck’ or personality rather than a good understanding and professional training.”
Recruitment agencies were also in the firing line with just 9.7 per cent of disabled solicitors or paralegals acknowledging a “good response” from agencies when they asked for reasonable adjustments for interviews, or in identifying accessibility issues.
On-line application processes proved a particular accessibility concern for some of the participants.
Co-author and disability campaigner Dr Natasha Hirst, also from Cardiff University, commented that exclusion or discrimination in the legal workplace is often unintentional “but comes from behavioural codes, rituals and assumptions that date back to when few disabled people were working in the profession” including long hours and “inflexible criteria for partnership”.
Unconscious bias can, said the report, also “unintentionally, produce disabling effects”.
However, it said: “We found disabled people face a reluctance to adapt, reform, or address exclusionary practices and an unwillingness to listen to suggestions for adjustments based on lived experiences.
"Most adjustments requested involved little cost but were sometimes refused with little justification. There is limited knowledge of adjustments and equipment available due to under-use of specialist providers.”
The report makes a range of recommendations, notably calling for firms and chambers to set aside training places for the disabled, the introduction of a minimum standard for employers and agencies, and a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying disabled people in the workplace.
It also called for the review of mental health initiatives in the profession to ensure they adequately address disability issues, and they are accessible to disabled people; and for the legal profession to become the first to introduce disability pay gap