Michael Hatcher is a Partner at Sidley Austin LLP.
What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?
I had a bad motorcycle accident 25 years ago, hitting a bridge head-on at 50 mph that resulted in multiple skull and facial fractures, a broken neck, multiple compound and non-compound fractures throughout my body and assorted serious lacerations. All that healed. But the nerves that go to the muscles that control my right arm were yanked out of my spinal cord by the force of the impact. There is no way to surgically repair that, so my right arm and related muscles like my chest, back and shoulder on my right side are paralyzed.
As far as my work as a lawyer, having the use of only one arm means I type one-handed, but I’ve learned to type fairly quickly and do not view it as much of an issue. In court or at a deposition or travelling, there are various logistical issues I have to think about ahead of time, such as how to handle exhibits and get from counsels’ table to the podium with what I need. It is my right arm that is paralyzed, which leads to issues with what would otherwise be simple interactions – I cannot shake hands in the normal fashion. That can be awkward, particularly at meetings or events.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
Sidley has been great ever since I was a summer associate. I just need little things, like a table in the hallway next to the security card reader that unlocks the door so I have a place to set down what I am carrying and use my card. They look out for things like that and make sure they are taken care of. Over the years, opposing counsel have been accommodating as well, for instance offering the assistance of their paralegals to handle boxes/exhibits when I’m travelling to their offices for a deposition.
Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues? Why or why not?
Yes, but mine is an obvious physical disability that would be apparent regardless. When I first started practicing law, I did not think about formally disclosing that I was disabled in HR forms or the like, it was just known. In the past 5 years or so, I realized it was important to formally disclose too, so that I was counted as disabled. That sets an example and shows law students and associates that people with disabilities can succeed and make partner at Sidley and other big law firms. Also, in recent years, clients have begun to track disability as a diversity category, making it important to formally disclose and be counted so clients can get an accurate picture of Sidley’s disability diversity.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
I would not be a lawyer if I was not disabled. I went to undergrad on an Air Force ROTC scholarship and earned a pilot slot upon graduation. I was halfway through fight pilot training when I had the motorcycle accident. Obviously I could not fly jets anymore. When I woke up in the hospital (I was out of it for about two weeks) and realized what had happened, I cried for a while and then started thinking about what I could do with my life. I struggled with what to do at first, but, by the time I got out of the hospital a couple months later, I had decided to become a lawyer, a litigator specifically. I took a look inside myself and realized that what drove me was competition. I loved to compete but could no longer do so physically at a high level, so I thought about how I could compete mentally and settled on litigation.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
When I arrived at law school, I just knew I wanted to be a litigator. The Air Force gives the most scholarships for electrical engineering, so I majored in electrical engineering as an undergrad. My long-term career goal back then was to become an astronaut after flying fighters for a while, so I added a second major of physics in undergrad to allow me to get a masters in astrophysics later on. When the career services folks at Georgetown Law saw I had a B.S. in electrical engineering and physics and wanted to be a litigator, they steered me to patent and other intellectual property litigation. I’ve been an IP litigator ever since.
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?
Follow your dreams and never give up. If one path closes, another will open up. It is up to you to pursue it.
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 is doing a good job. I’ve noticed an increased focus on disability diversity the last five years or so. Clients have added disability to their diversity efforts and that, in turn, has focused law firms’ attentions. At Sidley, we have started an affinity group called the Disability Diversity Alliance for disabled and other interested lawyers under the broader diversity committee. Looking outside of Sidley, what I think is missing are disability affinity groups for lawyers. The National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities (NAAD) dissolved last year, so there is no national group and I have not had luck finding local groups.
How did you come to recognize disability as a form of diversity?
Living it and realizing that it adds another perspective to the other forms of diversity. But I had not focused on it as another form of diversity until more recently. One of our large client’s policies regarding including disability within its diversity efforts are what focused my attention. When I investigated, I realized that approximately 30 of our clients that survey us on diversity include disability diversity in their surveys, and the number keeps increasing.
What effect have you seen Sidley Austin’s Disability Diversity Alliance having on the firm since its establishment?
I did not realize the importance of speaking up and disclosing your disability until we began to set up that group. In the course of doing so, and publicizing myself as a disabled attorney who made partner at Sidley, I have had many associates reach out to me and share that seeing that there are disabled partners tells them they can succeed and become a partner too, or whatever is their career goal.
More generally, forming the Alliance provides a formal group that keeps disability diversity front-of-mind and allows interested attorneys to get together regularly and discuss topics of interest.