Disability and the Legal Profession
Chasity Bailey, Esq., Attorney, Gordian Partners, LLC.
Like many lawyers, I love to write. Throughout my adult life, I have published many manuscripts, from technical medical articles to creative writings. I am also fascinated with Victorian and Edwardian fashion, which is, admittedly, very odd. Introverted by nature, I prefer to communicate via email or text; however, I can become very sociable if I know and trust the person with whom I am talking. I dream of traveling and exploring new places. Those who know me well describe me as ambitious, tenacious, and a little feisty. I am describing myself in such detail not because I want my personality or my desires to be at the forefront of this article, but because I always endeavor to be viewed as a complete person. I am a lawyer with the obvious physical disability of Cerebral Palsy, and unfortunately, this characteristic often dominates how others view me. Employers in the legal field are no exception.
Despite the progress made with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 75 percent of people with disabilities remain unemployed. Navigating the often-confusing area of legal employment is, at best, a challenge for all new lawyers, but it was more taxing as a new lawyer with a disability. Even completing the paperwork to sit for the bar exam became nearly impossible due to the avalanche of documentation that was required to prove that I do, in fact, have a disability. I understand the need for verification, but I was required to locate all my old standardized tests, which either were archived or no longer existed; submit a letter from my law school; submit health records form my early childhood; and have a doctor verify that I do, in fact, have Cerebral Palsy, all to receive the accommodations to which I was entitled. It all needed to be accomplished within tight deadlines. This process on its own would be fatiguing in the best of times, but law students who need accommodations go through it while still studying, and often while looking for legal employment and potentially moving to another place. Some people give up and do not take the exam; others sit for it without the accommodations to which they are legally entitled, which unsurprisingly leads to unsuccessful results. This process needs to be streamlined to avoid unnecessary stress, delays, and exam re-takes. I did pass the bar exam with my requested accommodations, but I would like to alleviate this stress for future law students and graduates who apply to take the bar.
Underlying the challenges of securing legal employment is the perception that people with disabilities should be pursuing certain areas of employment. Firstly, society does not consider people with disabilities as capable of doing legal work. I was constantly confronted with the others’ preconceptions of what I should do with my career, which usually involved a foray into the social services field. My voice, my autonomy over my life, and my decisions were quickly drowned out by those who naively believed they knew what was best for people like me.
Unfortunately, the legal industry perpetuates this trend in its own unique way. While I was in law school, many people assumed that I should focus on equal access and disability law. Subtly, I was encouraged to enter the non-profit sector even though I knew that is not what I wanted. People with disabilities are not a monolith and should each be viewed as having their own unique talents, desires, and abilities. Nearing the end of my law school career, I was told that working for a corporation "is very uncommon for those right out of law school." Feeling that my career objectives were not being taken seriously and discouraged with the usual employment resources found in law school and with the growing fear that I would never be employed, I sought help from other organizations in the area who focus on equal employment for those with disabilities. Law students with disabilities should not have to do this . In law school and beyond, there should be an increased focus on highlighting legal employers across all sectors who are looking for diverse candidates. By taking this affirmative step, lawyers with disabilities can have access to an abundance of unique networking opportunities with employers who are actively looking to be more inclusive.
I believe that the American Bar Association has a role to play. It should encourage the hiring of people with disabilities in the legal profession by providing training that focuses on research-driven facts about the benefits of doing so. For instance, employers who hire people with disabilities experience less turn-over and greater productivity. Not only does hiring people with disabilities make practical sense, but also lawyers are endowed with the unique ability and duty to uphold the law. Advancing the purpose and spirit of the ADA should be a central part of the ethical duty of a lawyer.
After some useful networking experiences, and with support from those around me, I am now employed by a Fortune 500 Company.
As a licensed attorney, I have made it a priority to advocate for lawyers and law students with disabilities who face similar inequalities and barriers to entry to the profession as I did. To ensure that the profession is truly disability-inclusive, it is vital that others in the legal and academic spheres view inclusion as a priority.