May 01, 2019

Ernest Holtzheimer

What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?

I am hard of hearing, a hereditary trait that I share with my sister, mom, and grandmother. My disability impacts me in a variety of ways as a lawyer and in life in general. For instance, I tend to sit closest to the main speaker in meetings, conferences, etc. On occasion, I also have to ask colleagues and clients to repeat themselves, and sometimes people get annoyed or say, “never mind.” In general, however, my hearing impairment has not held me back from practicing law at the same level as my peers.

What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, or colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
 
My main accommodation throughout my life has been my hearing aids.  If I feel that I’ve missed hearing something in class or meetings, I’ve always been able to supplement my notes with those taken by classmates and colleagues. Drexel was a very accommodating law school. While I didn’t request formal accommodations, professors were always willing to take the time to sit with me one-on-one to explain something I may have missed in the class discussion. At Montgomery McCracken, numerous colleagues tell me that they never even noticed I had a hearing disability. I’m a member of the firm’s Diversity Committee, which is extremely supportive of my disability. We’ve worked hard as a committee to ensure everyone feels welcome and comfortable.

Do you disclose your disability to employees, coworkers, or clients?  Why or why not?
 
If and when people notice my hearing aids, I explain my disability. I don’t disclose right away because I don’t feel that my disability makes me any different than anyone else. Prior to attending law school, however, I used to wear in-the-ear hearing aids because they were less visible, but they also were less effective. It may have been just a result of getting older, but around the time I started at law school, I stopped trying to hide my disability and confronted it head on. If someone is going to treat me differently because I have a hearing problem, I probably don’t want to associate with them. Since taking this head-on approach, I haven’t had anyone treat me any differently at work, in school, or in my personal life because I have a disability.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
 
I knew I wanted to be in a profession where I could help people. I initially wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father, who is a dentist, but while an undergraduate student I thoroughly enjoyed my business law classes such as “Financing and Legal Aspects of Entrepreneurship,” which introduced me to aspects of law that you don’t see on television and in movies—law that is in the boardroom rather than the courtroom—and led me into an MBA program and eventually to law school.
 
I would be lying if I said that I never considered whether my hearing impairment would prevent me from being a successful attorney. I thought about this often, but realized so many people fight through various barriers while pursuing their dreams, and I decided that I would be one of them. I was inspired by disabled lawyers that achieved success before me, and knew that if they could do it, I could too.

What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
 
I’m in a rather unique situation. I split my time between the litigation and business departments at Montgomery McCracken. My practice mainly focuses on commercial and white collar crime litigation matters and general corporate and real estate transactional matters. I knew that I wanted to be a business attorney before attending law school, but sort of fell into litigation, having worked on litigation matters as a summer associate at Montgomery McCracken and eventually given an offer within the firm’s litigation department. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work on a wide array of matters and the flexibility to be able to assist clients with both business deals and disputes.
 
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers with disabilities?
 
Become active in local, state, and national bar associations. Involvement in bar associations has opened many doors for me and allowed me to meet many other attorneys in situations similar to myself. Also, “disability” is not synonymous with “disadvantage.” While we may be different from others, every disabled attorney has something unique to offer their employer and their clients.

How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?
 
I think the profession has made large strides in this effort. I’ve seen first-hand how bar associations are emphasizing inclusion for individuals with disabilities. In 2016, I was accepted into the ABA Business Law Section’s Fellows Program, which is an effort to include more diverse young attorneys in the Section’s leadership. Prior to my joining, those in charge of the program made a conscious effort to emphasize the inclusion of attorneys with disabilities in the program. Further, the fact that children with disabilities can look up to attorneys with disabilities who have argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, held in-house counsel roles at companies such as Microsoft and Google, and become Partners in international law firms shows that the profession has made progress in this area. That being said, there will always be room for improvement.
 
Personalized Questions:

You’ve written about accessible technology for persons with disabilities. What progress do you think has been made recently in making the legal world more accessible through technology?
 

I don’t think enough can be said about how much technology has assisted in making the world more accessible. From screen readers and text-to-talk software assisting lawyers with vision impairments, to significant advancements in hearing aids and CapTel captioned phones, there are a plethora of examples in which technology has made the legal field more accessible. We live in a very exciting time. Children with disabilities can grow up knowing that though they may be different, they have an equal ability to pursue their dreams of becoming a lawyer, should that be the path they choose. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and I look forward to seeing how technology will continue to even the playing field for disabled lawyers.

What addition innovations do you think are coming soon, or would be helpful to people with disabilities?
 
As a hard-of-hearing attorney, I’ve paid the most attention to advances in technologies that assist individuals with hearing impairments or deafness. I’ve seen great advances. For example, the Here Active Listening system is basically two wireless earbuds that connect to a smartphone via Bluetooth and act as a live equalizer in the ear, capturing real world sounds or live music and allowing you to control the volume, filter out noises you don't want to hear, and even remix it. For individuals with slight hearing impairments, this technology could be a game changer. It won’t replace hearing aids, but it is a step towards making hearing aids affordable for the average person.
 
Another example is SignAloud, a pair of gloves that can recognize hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement and send data wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. If the data match a gesture, the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker. The gloves act as a bridge between deaf individuals who communicate in sign language and the rest of the world.

Are there technologies on which lawyers now rely which are not accessible, and if so, what can be done to make them accessible?
 
I think we still face an issue with accessibility on the Internet, which is gradually changing for the better. Some web applications, for example, do not offer closed captioning for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals. Also, some document review software is not accessible. By way of example, navigation between documents and code-tagging can be difficult for individuals with vision and mobility impairments. Accessibility issues can negatively impact how an attorney is viewed in terms of efficiency by their firm. To solve this problem, I think providers of these services should work with organizations such as the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities to identify where such issues arise and to develop solutions to the problems.