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October 17, 2022

Joining the Equity Equation: How Law Firms Can Embolden Attorneys with Disabilities

Lauren E. Clements (Associate, Littler Mendelson P.C.)
Attorney Lauren E. Clements

Attorney Lauren E. Clements

For much of my life, I never considered whether my disability should be framed as a “strength” or a “weakness.” Then again, it was fairly easy for me to track the moments it felt like a weakness:  when my body could no longer  keep up with playing sports and running around with my friends; when I had a surgery my senior year of high school and had to constantly rely on others; when I could not access the library or cafeteria in college because the school refused to clear the sidewalks of snow and ice; when I suffered a concussion in college by falling on my way to a final exam; when I had to navigate how to carry my law school textbooks, laptop, and notebooks while maintaining a professional image; when I had a hip reconstruction in law school and my mother drove me to a clerkship the summer of 2L year; when I asked a professor what I should do when a witness asks why my hands function differently or why I walk the way I do; and when I dealt with unexplainable aches and pains but carried on for fear of being judged or misunderstood. I viewed these circumstances as simply a “me” problem. It was the hand I was dealt, and I worked extremely hard to downplay my differences and persist in these challenges.

In law school, “diversity” and “inclusion” were everywhere, but rarely were disabilities mentioned. I asked my peers why disabilities were never a part of that equation, but no one had an answer. As I looked around, I realized I was the only law student with a disability. Yet, my perspectives and experiences as an individual with a disability were not part of any diversity and inclusion conversation. There were student bar associations, state bar associations, federal bar associations, and affinity groups, but none for attorneys with disabilities. Although I had moments where I was the “token” diverse law student with a disability, I was more commonly recognized for my diversity as a female law student and attorney. While I went to seminars, conferences, and happy hours championing my success as a female attorney, I encountered comments about how my disability was “blurry” and questions as to whether my disability would inhibit my ability to bill hours. Nevertheless, as law students and newer attorneys often do, I continued to “fake it,” and assumed my disability should be viewed as nothing more than a “me” problem and dealt with in silence.

"My perspectives and experiences as an individual with a disability were not part of any diversity and inclusion conversation."

One day as I headed to a summary judgment hearing on a case I had spent more than a year working on, I realized there were no accessible parking spots or spots available close enough to the courthouse for me to walk. After I circled the area for thirty minutes, was denied access to staff parking, and transferred and disconnected on the phone multiple times, I headed back to the office. I was prepared to face the shareholder and the consequences of missing the hearing – a problem that I viewed as my own.

I was unprepared for and surprised by what followed. Rather than listening to my apology and advising that I allow myself more time going forward, my colleagues expressed disbelief and frustration in what I had faced. They contacted the court, the Chief Judge, and others who could assist to ensure this would never happen again to me or anyone else. Within the week, new accessible parking spaces were added, and a procedure put in place for individuals with disabilities to contact a direct person for assistance at the courthouse.

I was ready to check off what had happened to me as another drawback of having a disability and a problem I needed to resolve on my own. But instead, it opened the door to conversations with my colleagues about the lack of awareness and attention towards diversity, inclusion, and equity for attorneys with disabilities. Before I knew it, Littler Mendelson’s Chief Diversity Officer, Paul Bateman, invited me to a meeting to discuss the development of an affinity group for attorneys with disabilities. In November 2021, Littler announced the Individuals With Disabilities Affinity Group. Littler had flipped the script on me by giving me this opportunity to see that my disability was not a weakness, and certainly not a “me” problem.

"These conversations are not always easy for many of us who have spent our lives downplaying our disabilities to overcome stereotypes, biases, and stigma, but we are eager for the opportunities that lie ahead."

As a Co-Chair of Littler’s Individuals With Disabilities Affinity Group, I have met shareholders, associates, and staff who understand the challenges of living with a disability – whether their own disability, their spouse’s disability, or their child’s disability. I was taken aback in learning about the vast ways in which disabilities were affecting attorneys at our firm. We are creating a network of attorneys with disabilities who are encouraged and emboldened to share their unique perspectives and contribute to the legal practice in their unique way. These conversations are not always easy for many of us who have spent our lives downplaying our disabilities to overcome stereotypes, biases, and stigma, but we are eager for the opportunities that lie ahead. This month, we will join Littler’s other affinity groups in Toronto to celebrate the diverse attorneys across our firm and recognize the intersectionality among us. We are looking forward to sharing our experiences and perspectives as attorneys with disabilities and add to the diversity and inclusion conversation.   

As we celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I am proud to be a member of a law firm and legal community that incorporates disability in the equity equation. I am also grateful for the steps Littler took, and continues to take, to authentically embrace the differences of attorneys with disabilities, and for our allies who join us in breaking down the barriers we encounter in the legal profession. Because of these meaningful actions, I am hopeful that attorneys with disabilities will no longer be forgotten as part of the diversity and inclusion conversation, but rather be a robust, innovative, and vital addition.

Lauren E. Clements is a Minneapolis-based Associate with Littler Mendelson P.C.