Equality and diversity

“Legally Disabled?” Transforming the culture of the legal profession

Professor Debbie Foster with Lord Holmes in debate about closing the disability employment gap | © Natasha Hirst

In our latest post, Professor Debbie Foster details her current research project about the career experiences of disabled people working across the legal profession and explains a key principle of the research – co-production.

For the last year, along with my co-researcher Natasha Hirst, I have worked with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) of the Law Society to co-produce research aimed at discovering why disabled people are seemingly unexpected in the legal profession and what more can be done to create a culture of inclusion and access?

“This is a profession concerned to promote an image of equal opportunity, fairness and inclusivity, yet while research exists on other groups with protected characteristics in law, our project is the first of its kind about disabled people.”

Funded by the Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) programme, we are collecting data in 3 phases, using multiple methods.

We held eight focus groups in England and Wales with disabled legal professionals to determine what issues they felt were important to them. We established a research reference group consisting of disabled solicitors, barristers and paralegals to advise us. Based on focus group findings we then began individual interviews in August. These will inform the final stage of data collection – a large scale questionnaire.

Equal partnership

Co-production is at the core of both the DRILL programme and the projects it funds, ensuring that disabled people are leading and co-producing the design and delivery of research in equal partnership with academics.

This is crucial to ensure that research is conducted with the social model of disability at its heart and to produce evidence that will impact on the priorities identified by disabled people themselves.

Untapped resource

We believe that disabled people seeking to work and practising within the legal profession are an untapped resource.

During the research, I have met articulate and extremely well-qualified individuals, with a passion for justice.

“Their ambition, tenacity, determination, and excellent problem-solving skills – often gained as a consequence of successfully managing their impairment – has meant they have achieved in a highly competitive environment, often despite the presence of disabling attitudes.”

These are qualities that bring benefits to employers.

Our findings, however, suggest positive experiences of support, good attitudes and appropriate reasonable adjustments are something of a lottery.

The good, the bad and the unreasonable

Professor Debbie Foster and Natasha Hirst launch their project with the LDD | © Natasha Hirst

 The good

There are early indications that examples of good practice are influenced by the sector in which someone is employed, the type of law practiced, size and location of firm, seniority and the role of equality clauses in procurement contracts.

Strong role models, supportive senior colleagues and the presence of mentors and networks are important for enabling career progression.

The bad

A large proportion of focus group participants reported instances of discrimination associated with their impairment.

Coupled with a poor understanding of reasonable adjustments and how impairments and health conditions can vary, we found a reluctance to disclose to employers particularly among early career legal professionals with non-visible impairments, which in turn prevents individuals from accessing support.

Inflexible, often outdated working practices, an absence of imaginative job design, together with a reluctance to fully utilise new technology, limits disabled people’s opportunities and career progression.

And the unreasonable

The profession is generally poorly equipped to anticipate reasonable adjustments.  However, this is particularly problematic at the start of a career because of the unavailability of part-time or flexible training contracts.

© Natasha Hirst

“Women within law have long campaigned for changes in flexible working practices and we see potential for advancing important intersecting interests if these groups joined forces.”

Evidence and solutions

We are currently analysing rich data gathered from one to one interviews with disabled solicitors, barristers, judges, paralegals and trainees. This will provide a much more comprehensive picture of the problems faced across the profession, but will also help identify potential solutions, which we and our partner organisation the LDD, intend to explore further with key change agents in the profession.

Get involved.

DRILL is funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and delivered by Disability Rights UKDisability Action (in Northern Ireland), Inclusion Scotland and Disability Wales.

Deborah Foster is Professor of Employment Relations and Diversity at Cardiff Business School.

Natasha Hirst is an independent researcher and photo journalist.

This post is based on an item that originally appeared on Scope’s Online Community.

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