Disability rights and wrongs - Nicola Laver

The number of lawyers with disabilities is still woefully low, yet it is often the mindset of lawyers without disabilities that needs to change and recognise the talent available.

On Christmas Eve 1979 while skiing, 20-year-old Kathi Pugh had an accident that changed her life forever. She has had quadriplegia ever since, but despite its challenges, she became a successful lawyer and champion for disability rights. She is in charge of the pro bono department at Morrison Foerster in San Francisco, where she has spent her entire 20-year career.


It’s no surprise that when she first entered the profession, she faced huge prejudices. ‘This is partly to do with the fact that there wasn’t a [discrimination] law in place’, she explains. ‘The biggest barriers were physical rather than mental.’ There was also the lack of technological advances that exist today.

But she was determined: ‘Getting into the profession before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, I had to learn to be an advocate for myself and then thought I could be an advocate for other people. So I thought the law would be a good profession to get into – it would use my mind.’

Prejudice remains endemic within the legal profession, and the inherent problem seems to reside within the mindset of lawyers without disabilities. Pugh says: ‘Sometimes people still think that people with disabilities cannot do the job. [Prejudice] is entrenched – much more can be done to get more people with disabilities into the profession.’



She believes part of the reason is ignorance: ‘Many have a lack of experience in dealing with people with disabilities. But clients just want to know that they’re getting the job done.’ And yet, according to Pugh, the numbers of lawyers with disabilities in private practice in the United States have not really grown in the last 20 years – and most are sole practitioners.

There’s only so much that legislation can achieve. The Americans with Disabilities Act 1990 (ADA) is a wide-ranging law prohibiting discrimination based on disability. This is defined as ‘a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity’.

Wendy Wilkinson is a lawyer with the Disability Business and Technical Assistance Center (DBTAC) in Houston and oversees a project promoting compliance with the ADA. She also has quadriplegia following an accident at the age of 19 – and has experienced plenty of prejudice.

‘One firm wanted to see my medical records to assess whether I was medically stable enough for the demands of the practice’, says Wilkinson. ‘One firm told me I wasn’t eligible to work there because I couldn’t climb stairs and there could be places I had to go to where there might be stairs. One firm thought I would be good in front of a jury because I could get their sympathy.’


Technology is crucial

Technology is crucial to many lawyers with disabilities. What would have been impossible 20 years ago is easily manageable today. Kathi Pugh retains limited use of her hands but says: ‘I couldn’t use a BlackBerry because I couldn’t press the buttons on the keypad or scroll, so instead I use an iPhone.’ She also relies on DragonDictate, which uses voice recognition and enables the user to control a computer verbally. She explains: ‘Without it, I wouldn’t be able to compete at the same level. I can do what other lawyers can do at the same level of experience and qualification.’

The forthcoming IBA Annual Conference in Madrid will feature a session on this topic. Dirk Jan Rutgers chairs the IBA’s Discrimination Law Committee. He says: ‘We want to know if disabled lawyers from around the world face problems in this regard and, if so, to what extent. We are thinking about setting up a discussion group about this topic in order to find out if we have to do more for these colleagues and, if so, what we can do.’

The profession, at least in America, is making a concerted effort to address the issue properly. One of the American Bar Association’s central goals is to promote full and equal participation in the legal profession by minority groups, including lawyers with disabilities, and its Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law has just held its second national conference on ‘Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities’.

But it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics of lawyers with disabilities within the profession. Where formal surveys are carried out there are always lawyers who are loath to admit to a disability – an indication of the stigma that attaches to disability even in the 21st century.

This troubles Andy Curtis of London firm Addleshaw Goddard, who has a visual impairment.

‘The biggest area of concern to me regarding prejudice within the profession comes from the empirical data, says Curtis, ‘I understand that less than 0.5 per cent of practising solicitors have declared a disability. While I accept that many people may choose to hide their disability, unless there are a massive number of such people, the figures give the impression that the profession as a whole may be prejudiced against disabled people.’


Room for improvement

And there is certainly room for improvement in the United Kingdom, despite the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), which prohibits discrimination against a person with a disability, and requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments to both jobs and the workplace for disabled workers’.

‘Clients just want to know that they're getting the job done’
Kathi Pugh
Morrison Foerster

Solicitor and champion sportsman Ed Fletcher is a director at Fletchers Solicitors in Merseyside and has paraplegia following a motorbike accident at the age of 25, just one year after qualifying as a lawyer. He now specialises in representing clients who have spinal injuries.

He says people are much more understanding since the DDA. But he emphasises much more should be done to address the prejudice that remains, particularly in educating people.

‘The Law Society needs to educate solicitors, barristers and court staff using real-life examples of those with disabilities actually going into their workplaces, courts and chambers and physically seeing the requirements of the person with the disability, says Fletcher. ‘but also recognise that “hey, this guy I am talking to isn’t a quadriplegic/paraplegic, he’s a lawyer (and a good one at that!)”.’

The Law Society of England and Wales says it is ‘committed to making the solicitors’ profession richly diverse and has a number of initiatives that are aimed at encouraging, supporting and promoting people with disabilities in the profession’. The Lawyers with Disabilities Division, for example, provides a communication channel to enable solicitors with disabilities to make their voices heard.

Addleshaw Goddard is one of a number of UK firms making a concerted effort to encourage lawyers with disabilities via an active disability group.

‘We believe that the talent and ability of any individual are what is important and not what that talent might look like Katherine Hallam, the firm’s diversity manager, says: A key objective is to do more to attract and retain talented disabled people within our firm. To help us understand the challenges around this we are engaging with external organisations such as the Employers’ Forum on Disability and the Lawyers with Disabilities Division. We all need to do more to understand the challenges of disability and be prepared to adjust the way we do things to ensure we are not missing out on talent. Equally, education to break down the barriers is essential.’

Situation in Europe

And how is life for lawyers with disabilities elsewhere in Europe? Dirk Jan Rutgers is a partner at DLA Piper in the Netherlands where, he says, legal professionals with disabilities have problems finding positions as lawyers as most law firms prefer to hire people they perceive to be ‘healthy’. He adds: ‘The idea behind this is that being a lawyer is hard, even without a disability, and that clients prefer to work with lawyers who are not disabled.’ And this in spite of non-discrimination rules prohibiting employers from discriminating against a job applicant based on disability – and added protection under human rights legislation.

‘One firm thought I would be good in front of a jury because I could get their sympathy’
Wendy Wilkinson
Disability Business and Technical Assistance Center, Houston

As might be expected, the situation is worse in less developed countries. Amit Bhasin of Bhasin and Bhasin Associates is a member of the IBA’s Discrimination Law Committee. He says: ‘Disabled lawyers are not very common in India. The reason for that perhaps could be lack of special education facilities for the type of disability, coupled with the fact that the average Indian is not very tech-savvy with gadgets to overcome the disabilities, and that such gadgets are very expensive.

‘I have only seen one blind lawyer at the Delhi High Court. He is middle-aged and assisted by a junior colleague who leads him physically into court. I am sure most law firms would prefer not to hire a disabled person as a lawyer in India, since our laws are very lax and do not protect the rights of people with disabilities when translated into reality.’

As Kathi Pugh says: ‘There is still a long, long way to go.’ But the lingering problems of discrimination faced by disabled lawyers are surmountable and it seems educating other legal professionals is key. And that is the least that the global legal profession can do to recognise this valuable group of lawyers who have overcome trauma and are succeeding in their legal careers – notwithstanding prejudice and through pure determination.

The IBA is evaluating initiatives relating to disability law and disability awareness. If you are interested in participating in an initiative on these issues, please write to Leslie Alekel at leslie.alekel@int-bar.org.


Nicola Laver is a former practising lawyer and lecturer in legal practice and is now a legal journalist and writer based near Birmingham. She can be contacted via www.legaljournalist.co.uk or by e-mail at nicola@legaljournalist.co.uk.

Back to top