November 20, 2016

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Anat Maytal

Long ago, Anat Maytal had to learn how to advocate for herself and find her own voice. As a person who is hard of hearing, she has had to stand up for herself—at school, in her career, and in life. She is now an associate at Baker & Hostetler, specializing in complex commercial litigation as well as employment and bankruptcy law. She is currently President of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, and was named in 2016 as a “Top 40 Young Lawyer On the Rise” by the American Bar Association, and as a “Rising Star” by SuperLawyers. She graduated with honors from Boston University School of Law and Harvard University.

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What inspired you to become a lawyer?

I decided to pursue this profession because I was passionate about the law, in terms of shaping it and interpreting it in ways that will help those in need. Growing up with my hearing disability, I have had to continually advocate for myself because many people in the hearing world assume negative stereotypes about the deaf community. They assume if you’re deaf, you can’t interact with others in the hearing world, and if you can’t interact, then clearly you can’t be mainstreamed in regular classrooms. If you’re not mainstreamed in a regular classroom then clearly, you can’t perform as well as students without the hearing disability. And if you can’t perform as well as hearing students, I mean it just goes on and on. The pervasiveness of these stereotypes and assumptions have shaped my experience growing up, being a student, and navigating from school and life. I’m not surprised that I picked a profession where I’m allowed to argue for a living, since my entire life I’ve had to be an advocate for myself.

Your practice area includes complex commercial litigation, contract dispute, class actions, and other litigation. How did you decide to focus on this area of law?

I actually fell into it. I initially thought I would become a criminal prosecutor for the DA’s office in New York City or where I went to law school in Boston. But I graduated in 2009 and it was possibly one of the worst years to graduate from law school. I met John Balestriere, who had a plaintiff-side class action law firm, and he encouraged me to come work for him. It was a great experience. His office is in New York City, and I was able to get hands-on experience. I went to court, mediations, and depositions, and became very familiar with court rules and procedures. I reviewed, prepared, and argued motions. I had a wide variety of cases, including a civil rights case involving police misconduct, a class action against a social networking company, partnership disputes, and then more complicated, financial services matters.

In 2010, my current firm had openings as they needed more attorneys to help with bankruptcy litigation matters. Now I’ve expanded that to include other fields of litigation and employment law as well.

What aids, services, and accommodations did you use in law school? What do you use when litigating and even talking with me?

I’m using a captioned phone right now. I hear you, but with the aid of the captioned phone which is not an exact transcription, but it helps fill in some of the blanks, so I’m not constantly struggling to hear every word you’re saying.

Just to give you a little background, I wear a hearing aid in my left ear. About three years ago, I had surgery for a cochlear implant in my right ear. I went to Boston University Law School and they were incredibly accommodating and understanding. They provided me with what’s called CART reporting, which is the acronym for Communications Access Realtime Translation, which is essentially real-time captioning or the equivalent of what a court reporter does more or less.

As lawyers know, in law school, there’s a lot of dialogue back and forth between the professors and students. It’s not a straight lecture. You have to be very alert and prepared to be called on. The transcription really helped me capture what anyone was saying, whether it was the professor or other students. The professors wore an FM microphone system, which connected directly to my hearing aids, so it provided some amplification. For some classes, I had to borrow notes from my classmates to fill in the blanks.

What about in court?

In federal court, they have the option for you to connect to their court reporter. You have to arrange it in advance, but it’s like a live transcription. You connect wirelessly to the court reporter’s transcription of the hearing, which is not perfect but it helps. That’s not a service that’s available in the state court, where there is not enough funding. I also ask permission to bring a FM microphone and I place it on the judge’s bench so I can hear him better. I have access to a captioned phone, which I mentioned before, for phone conferences.

For depositions, I use Live Note, which is a software program via a laptop provided by the court reporter to make available live transcription of the deposition as it is taking place. I use the FM microphone, too. In my office, I always try to schedule in-person meetings, as opposed to using the phones only. My colleagues and partners tend to instant-message me through our internal IM system. Again, I always try to schedule in-person meeting, which are better overall, because it helps build the relationships with people you work with.

Have you ever met with resistance or a denial of a request for accommodation from law school or the courts or anywhere?

I’ve had cases where opposing counsel would try to intimidate me by covering his mouth, so I couldn’t lip-read and understand him. Or he would try to speak quietly and away from me. I had one counsel actually accuse me of faking my disability, because a few times I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He was mumbling or covering his mouth. But you can’t let these situations get to you, because at the end of the day those kind of tactics won’t help them win the case.

And they look silly in the end. Do you ever feel like your clients treat you differently because of your disability?

No. Sometimes the biggest obstacle is yourself actually. Your question reminds me that I always have to advocate for myself and that process is never done. I have to be confident about my skills. You can’t let your own insecurities about asking a senior judge to wear a microphone or to use Live Note in a deposition, get in the way of being the best attorney you can be, for yourself, your client, your firm. The only time it’s ever been an issue was in the hiring process, when some employers simply could not look pass my disability and see my resume, and my qualifications.

But my disability isn’t obvious. It is a hidden disability. I don’t usually wear my hair up, so you can’t see my hearing aid, my cochlear implant. Even with my accent, people sometimes think it’s a New York accent.

It’s a bit of a catch-22. I want my firm and my client to see me as an attorney. At the same time, I want to mention my disability because I don’t want to miss anything, or have them think I’m not paying attention if I misinterpret something or think I’m ignoring them, when I just may not have heard them.

Did you ever question whether you should become a lawyer?

I definitely had my own insecurities. I didn’t know anyone who was hard of hearing and an attorney, when I first set out to do this. I wasn’t even sure what kind of an attorney I could be. Before the Americans With Disabilities Act, the very idea of an attorney with a disability was so out of reach. Because of the ADA, because of the advances we’ve made in technology and the accommodations, becoming a lawyer became much more doable.

You recently spoke at the New York State Bar Association Labor and Employment annual meeting about disabilities in the legal profession. What was the essence of your speech?

That was a great panel event which I was so lucky to be a part of, with two other panelist that have other disabilities. We shared our personal experiences in navigating the legal world: how did we get to where we are; and what are the obstacles we have and continue to face. For example, for the bar exam, we talked about how we got the accommodations we each needed. We also discussed what are reasonable accommodations to ask for and secure within the workplace.

How can the legal profession do better accommodating people with disabilities?

The ADA was enacted only 25 years ago. Before that, there was no federal law to prohibit the private sector from discriminating against people with disabilities. Change takes a while. Only now you see students with disabilities who’ve gone to college and are in the legal profession. People are still navigating how to get the accommodations they need, whether it’s getting access to buildings or system devices. And not every disability is the same and can be accommodated in the same way. A lot of employers get very concerned, and they think hiring people with disabilities could be a huge expense and a huge inconvenience. They don’t really understand that just about anything can be accommodated, and it’s not as expensive as they think, and they may even already have the technology in place to help their employees. A lot of what needs to be done is education of employers and courts alike. I would love to see technology more accessible in the legal profession. For example, the technology available at the federal court level should be available at the state court level.

You are very involved in pro bono work. The Equal Justice Initiative, Her Justice, the New York City Law Department, to name a few. Why is this important to you? How do you make time for it?

I’m very fortunate to become a lawyer and to be in a position where I can contribute and try to make the legal system work for others who really need it and can’t afford it.

Pro bono work allows me to help in fields that I’m passionate about. I have a very strong interest in women’s issues. Her Justice is an organization that provides legal assistance to low-income women who are victims of domestic violence. At the Equal Justice Initiative, I have been able to work on behalf of at least two death row defendants. Many people don’t realize that one of the largest factors in determining whether a defendant will receive the death penalty is the quality of their legal representation. Almost all the defendants are very poor and can’t afford their own attorneys. And the attorneys that are usually appointed to them are inexperienced and certainly don’t have the same resources and experience that others would have. The right to an attorney is such a core part of our system. If I can do a small part to preserve that right, I’m more than willing. Pro bono is also great legal training experience. As for making the time, it’s just so worth it.

Are you active in disability causes?

I am the president of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association. In April of this year, I organized a group of our members to be sworn into the United States Supreme Court bar by Chief Justice John Roberts. It marked the first-ever group ceremony for deaf and hard of hearing attorneys at the Supreme Court. I also helped secure accommodations for our members, which included two sign language interpreters and real-time captioning. Such technology is usually forbidden inside the courtroom. It was a historic event and one I was very proud to be part of.

I’m the incoming chair for the Lawyers with Disabilities Involvement Subcommittee for the ABA Business Law Section, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. We want to raise awareness, both of opportunities and lawyers with disabilities’ talents and diverse perspectives, and break through the barriers that lawyers with disabilities encounter.

I put together an event taking place at my firm, “Removing Barriers to Work: Successful Lawyers with Disabilities Share Their Experience and Guidance on Employment Efforts” that will feature a panel of successful attorneys with disabilities. We plan to discuss how we can make the work environment more welcoming for employees with disabilities. The event will tentatively take place early next year. 

In 2016, you were awarded the ABA On the Rise Top 40 Young Lawyers Award. Where were you when you were notified of this honor? And what do that feel like?

I was likely in my office, buried somewhere under my caseload! It was an unexpected honor, and I felt very fortunate for and appreciative of the recognition.

What is the value of the ABA to you?

The ABA has been incredibly valuable to me in helping me to meet and connect with incredibly impressive people from around the country, in different fields of law. It’s given me opportunities to collaborate with others to help organize panels, one of which I was able to serve as a moderator and discuss relevant issues facing our community.

What advice would you give to a recent law school graduate who has a disability and is looking for work?

I’d say find a mentor, and possibly—but not necessarily—a practicing attorney who has a similar disability and one that has already been through the motions. Contact them, tell them you’re looking to learn from them, and find out how they navigated the legal world. What did they do during the hiring process and how do they work with others within their area, whether it’s a law firm environment or in a government office or whatever field they’re interested in.

The Internet is a wonderful thing these days. You can search for mentors. The ABA has its own Diversity and Inclusion Committee that law school graduate can reach out to for guidance. The National Association with Attorneys with Disabilities is a growing group and my bar association, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association all provide direct access to a network of attorneys with disabilities.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?

Yes. The fact that one has a disability has no bearing on their ability to succeed in any field they choose. And, of course, that includes the legal profession. I am always on the look-out for new technologies and ways that employers can accommodate myself and others with a disability, so we can continue to succeed in the workplace and specifically in the legal workplace.

Thank you so much!