Newsletter – October 2020

Spotlight on… being a lawyer with a disability

Why are disabled people seemingly unexpected in the legal profession and what can we do to create a culture of inclusion and access? These are the questions that our Cardiff University based “Legally Disabled?” research team have set out to answer. Funded by the DRILL Programme, we co-produced findings and solutions with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of The Law Society. Our evidence is the first comprehensive study of disabled people’s experiences of working in the legal profession and draws on discussions from 8 focus groups, 55 individual interviews and 288 questionnaire responses from across the legal profession, including Costs Lawyers.

The research is independent of any professional association, regulator or employer although we have engaged with stakeholders throughout the project. We launched the research reports at our conference in January 2020 and this has been followed by a series of online roundtables to disseminate and discuss the findings and recommendations. Our research reports, presentations and other resources can be found on our website: www.legallydisabled.com.

We believe that disabled people seeking employment or working in the legal profession are an untapped resource with strong ambition, tenacity, determination and excellent problem-solving skills – all qualities that bring great benefits to employers. However, our findings suggest that positive experiences of support, good attitudes and appropriate reasonable adjustments are something of a lottery.

Entering the profession

  • The profession is generally poorly equipped to anticipate reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled candidates. A key finding from our research was that the overwhelming majority of disabled people had negative experiences of recruitment agencies. We recommend that firms and organisations pay greater attention to the fairness of recruitment processes and closely monitor those they contract-out, consider reserved places for disabled candidates on work experience programmes to improve representation and understanding and ensure that training programs are flexible enough to accommodate disabled candidates.

Disclosure and seeking reasonable adjustments

  • A large proportion of research participants reported instances of discrimination and ill-treatment associated with their impairment. Coupled with a poor understanding of reasonable adjustments and how impairments and health conditions can vary and fluctuate, this creates a reluctance to disclose an impairment or health condition, which in turn prevents individuals from accessing support they are entitled to.

Working culture and expectations

  • Inflexible, often outdated working practices and the absence of imaginative job design limits opportunities for disabled people and career progression. Support from managers, HR and colleagues is highly variable and good policies do not necessarily translate into good practice. We are hoping that some positive benefits may come from the increased use of home-working during COVID-19; we found this had been the most requested but refused reasonable adjustment.

Good practice

  • Our findings suggest that too few talented disabled people are achieving their potential and this is reflected in their absence in senior roles. Disabled people require strong role models, supportive senior colleagues and mentors to support career progression. Those with access to these and relevant networks were better equipped. Change needs to be supported at all levels in an organisation, but particularly at senior levels. It is not enough to leave diversity to HR. Targeted recruitment initiatives were important for levelling the playing field and providing opportunities for disabled people. Open conversations, a willingness to find solutions and trusting disabled people to know what works for them are prerequisites for developing a more open and inclusive culture. Campaigns aimed at tackling the stigma related to mental health need to be extended to all non-visible impairments.

Our data suggests that organisations already employ a significant number of disabled people who have chosen to conceal their identity. This suggests that talented and already productive disabled employees are likely under-performing and under-achieving because they fear requesting workplace adjustments. The profession is not only failing them, but there is an economic cost because their skills are under-utilised. Proactively creating an inclusive and welcoming workplace is key to encouraging disabled people to feel safe to discuss their needs with their employer.

Below we suggest some short-term recommendations from the Legally Disabled? findings that organisations can use to begin conversations around disability inclusion.

  • Ensure your organisation understands and uses guidance and services provided by bodies such as Access to Work and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
  • Read the full Legally Disabled? report to gain a better understanding of disabled people’s experiences in the profession. Use the report and its findings to start debate or a new disability network in your organisation and engage with the Cardiff team about how this worked.
  • Equality impact assess your organisation’s recruitment, work experience, training, sickness absence, appraisal and promotion processes and practices. Ensure that you consider reasonable adjustments as a part of all these processes and procedures. We found that few people in the profession recognised that reasonable adjustments should apply to promotion criteria.
  • Introduce a disability passport scheme and a disability leave policy, if you don’t already have these.
  • Think about how unconscious bias may be preventing talented disabled people reaching their potential in your organisation. Does your organisation use Artificial Intelligence in recruitment or performance evaluation? Does this perpetuate unconscious bias?
  • Are your policies and practices on reasonable workplace adjustments robust enough? Are they regularly reviewed and is consultation undertaken with disabled people in your organisation concerning their effectiveness? Is there anything your organisation can learn from this period of enforced remote working that could contribute to job redesign or facilitate adjustments for disabled employees in the future?
  • Are senior personnel in your organisation responsible for disability inclusion? If not, why not? Suggest your organisation launches a new disability inclusion campaign. Identify disability champions able to take this agenda forward who have access to channels of decision-making. Ensure that disabled people are fully involved in identifying priorities and solutions for disability inclusion.

We welcome contact from disabled people, staff groups, potential disability champions, HR teams, stakeholders or leaders in the Costs Lawyer profession wanting to take the disability inclusion agenda forward. The Legally Disabled? team are also happy to give talks about our research or provide further advice so please feel free to contact either Debbie Foster (FosterD1@cardiff.ac.uk) or Natasha Hirst (HirstN2@cardiff.ac.uk). You can also follow us on Twitter @LegallyDisabled.

Professor Debbie Foster and Dr Natasha Hirst, Cardiff Business School

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