Michael Liner is a Cleveland, Ohio-based attorney at Liner Legal.
What is your disability? How does it affect you as a lawyer?
I have ADHD and motor tic syndrome. I also had childhood epilepsy but thankfully outgrew it. Without question, these days ADHD affects me most. When people first meet me, it takes them almost no time to realize my attention span is pretty short.
What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?
I am fortunate to have my own law firm, which I have set up in a way that accommodates my preferred work method and schedule. For example, I do not do well sitting in an office all day; I need to shift constantly between tasks and even physical locations. I limit my “8am to 6pm” workday to doing two things: being in court, which for me is the ultimate adrenaline rush, and having 30 to 45-minute client meetings. I do my brief-writing and preparing for hearings on weekdays very early in the morning before I exercise, and on weekends, when I am most able to concentrate without office noise distractions. I am creative and innovative, but can be scatterbrained. An office full of Michael Liners would probably have a million great ideas, but accomplish very few of them. To implement my ideas, I have made a point of hiring people who are focused and disciplined, and can see my visions through to completion.
Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues? Why or why not?
I don’t advertise my disability, but certainly don’t feel the need to hide it either. Sometimes in the middle of a particularly long meeting, I find myself zoning out or battling the mind racing, which is customary for me. I then explain to a colleague that I need to take a short break to regain my focus.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
I may have become a lawyer for the wrong reasons, but I am now a lawyer—and most would say a pretty good one—for all the right reasons. I was attracted to the profession because of the lifestyle it allowed my family to have. My father made a nice living as general counsel of a few different multi-national, publicly-traded companies. After my first summer of law school, I worked for a well-regarded Cleveland law firm that does transactional work similar to what my father did. I absolutely hated it. I was tucked away in a corner updating corporate minutes. This taught me that I would not be able to spend my career sitting behind a desk! I had to find something active that would give me both professional and personal gratification.
What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?
I focus my own practice on representing individuals who have disability claims before the Social Security Administration, but my firm also has a rapidly-growing ERISA/Long Term Disability practice and a unique Deaf Discrimination practice. After my summer experience at the corporate law firm and working for an employer-side labor and employment firm, I knew I could connect much better with David than Goliath. I also knew I could draw on my own experiences dealing with physical and mental health obstacles to help and inspire others to overcome their own impairments.
I love every second of my job, because it allows me to change lives. Most of my clients come to me after being denied disability benefits, despite having paid into the system through their FICA taxes for their entire work lives. In addition to dealing with their poor health, my clients are upset, panicked, and confused after being turned down and unable to continue working. The appeals process is complicated, but I do my best to turn things around for them so they can keep a roof over their heads and food on their families’ tables. I wake up eager to start my day because of the gratitude I get from helping my clients.
What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?
Turn your “disability,” whatever it may be, into a strength rather than letting it be perceived as a weakness. Although my ADHD prevents me from sitting still and focusing for prolonged periods, I am far more creative and empathetic than my “typical” peers. My constant mind-racing fuels many outlandish ideas, but the talented people I surround myself with are able to carry out the best ones. While so many of my peers ask “why?”, my attitude has always been to ask, “why not?” I believe that so much begins with the right attitude, and choosing to see the world through a “glass half-full” rather than “glass half-empty” lens. Having a “disability” should not simply mean the lack of ability, regardless of the technical root of the word; it includes having certain unique life experiences that can be beneficial.
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 most businesses use “inclusion” as a talking point at job fairs and in their corporate literature. I believe employers should stop focusing on how they can “include” and “accommodate” individuals with disabilities, and instead shift their focus to how they can make their businesses better, stronger, and more profitable by employing these individuals.
Since you practice disability law and have a disability yourself, do you think you bring additional knowledge or perspective to your practice that lawyers without disabilities might not? Have you found that clients with disabilities respond to you having a disability?
There is no question that I draw on my own experiences to help me in my practice, especially when it comes to connecting with my clients. I know what it is like to have a seemingly endless schedule of doctor’s appointments, and to feel like a guinea pig while doctors try to figure out the right balance of medications.
My deepest connection tends to be with parents seeking assistance with SSI cases for their minor children with disabilities. These parents are scared. Often they come to me having just found out that their child has a significant mental or physical disability; they are unsure what this will mean for the child’s future. Will they be able to finish school, be independent in adulthood and support themselves financially, find a life partner to love them? I share my own stories with these families. I open up and tell them that I was expelled from my private elementary school and was suspended from the middle school I attended so frequently because of my behavior issues that my mom could not work a traditional job. However, with a lot of parental love and my own eventual hard work and perseverance, despite all the obstacles I encountered I managed to turn out okay. At age 33 and in only eight years of practice, I have built one of the largest and most respected disability law firms in Ohio. After hearing my own story, I can see some of my clients’ fear turn to optimism and hope. Having a disability does not have to be a scarlet letter; for some like me who choose to embrace what makes them different, it might actually be a blessing.