27 Jan 2020

The invisible lawyers: report highlights regime of hostility and discrimination for disabled

Legal professionals hide their disability when applying for jobs while firms are risk averse when hiring, according to a major UK study


Disabled people working in the legal profession face a culture and outmoded practices that hamper efforts to build successful careers, according to a new UK study. The report, Legally Disabled? The Career Experiences of disabled people working in the Legal profession, reveals that a cross-section of legal professionals say they hide their disability when applying for training places or jobs, and encounter hostility and discrimination in their jobs.

'Disabled people in the legal profession face - on a daily basis - rituals, practices and attitudes that exclude or undermine them in their roles as trainees, advocates and employees,' states the report, which was published this week by Cardiff Business School.

This includes when they seek ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their working environment or practice they are entitled to under the law. Some requests for - often inexpensive - adjustments were met with ignorance and resulted in ill-treatment or discrimination.

Inferior career prospects

More than half (54%) of disabled solicitors and paralegals involved in the study thought their career and promotion prospects inferior to their non-disabled colleagues. Some 40% either never or only sometimes tell their employer or prospective employer they are disabled while just 8.5% of respondents who were disabled when they started their training disclosed their disability in their application.

Some 60% of solicitors and paralegals said inaccessible working environments limited their career opportunities, while 85% reported pain and fatigue associated with their disability that could be made worse by inflexible working arrangements and long hours.

A significant proportion of disabled people in the profession have also experienced forms of disability related ill-treatment, bullying or discrimination, according to the report. 

It adds: 'A poverty of imagination, bureaucracy, belligerent managers and outdated working practices prevent often minor adjustments that would make a huge difference for disabled people.'

Pay gap reporting

Its recommendations include a proposal that law should become the first profession to introduce disability pay gap reporting.

The report's lead researcher, Debbie Foster, professor of employment relations and diversity at Cardiff Business School, highlighted the impact that line managers and supervisors can have on the working lives of disabled people in the profession.

“Line managers and supervisors play a pivotal role in the reasonable adjustment process and in the management of sickness absence, performance management and promotion,” she said.

However, she added that in practice improvements “often depended on ‘good will’, ‘luck’ or personality rather than a good understanding and professional training.”

The report's research team worked with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society and drew on focus groups, interviews and surveys of solicitors, barristers, trainees and paralegals. The research was commissioned by DRILL (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning), a £5m research programme led by disabled people.

Behavioural codes

Project researcher Dr Natasha Hirst, an independent photojournalist and researcher, said: “Often exclusion or discrimination in the legal workplace is not intentional but comes from behavioural codes, rituals and assumptions that date back to when few disabled people were working in the profession.”

The report says that 'a generous interpretation' of the findings suggests employers and recruitment agencies are 'risk averse' in the hiring process.

Sue Bott from DRILL added: “That is clearly an unsatisfactory situation in 2020 – nearly a quarter of a century after the Disability Discrimination Act first guaranteed the right to reasonable adjustments in the workplace.”