chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
May 03, 2019

Lawyer Spotlight: Michael Sabella

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

I have a severe-to-profound hearing loss in both ears. My disability impacts me as an attorney the same way that it impacts me in my private life; sometimes I may have difficulty following conversations, especially in larger groups and meetings, and I prefer in-person conversations as opposed to phone calls. I have no qualms about asking someone, even judges, to repeat themselves, write something down for me, or slow down if they are talking  too fast. My disability is just another aspect of my life, and I have not let it isolate or prevent me from doing things that I want to do, either personally or professionally.

What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?

In the workplace I use the speaker phone for all of my phone calls, with the door closed so as not to disturb my neighbors. This allows me to use both of my hearing aids for the conversation, as opposed to just the one next to the phone’s receiver. My office also uses an internal Instant Messaging system, which is incredibly convenient for communications with colleagues.

When it comes to my education, both Muhlenberg College and St. John’s University School of Law were incredibly accommodating. I had note-takers in my classes to enable me to focus on the professor, as well as Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART). The CART reporter sat next to me in class, and would type everything being said and the words would appear in real-time on a laptop in front of me. This was invaluable in law school, and made me a pretty popular person to sit next to.

Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues?  Why or why not?

Yes, I do. My disability is a part of who I am, both as a person and as a lawyer.  Over the course of my life I’ve learned that there are many environments where I may be unable to follow conversations or participate because I cannot hear what is being said. By being upfront about my disability, my colleagues and friends know that if I’m asking them to repeat themselves, I am not doing it because I’m not paying attention, but because I simply cannot hear what they said.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to law school or obtain a degree in public administration. My political science classes were my favorites in college, and I thought that policy work could have been my future. With the encouragement of my family, I accepted an internship for a judge in the Nassau County Domestic Violence Court. While there, I saw multiple people that needed assistance, and were only able to get it by having attorneys advocate for them. I decided that I wanted to be able to put myself in a position where I could do that for others.

I did consider whether my disability would constrain what I could or could not do, but in the end, I did not let it deter me.

Have you been able to do pro bono work as part of your practice?

BakerHostetler is very encouraging of associates taking on pro bono opportunities. I have had the opportunity to work on amicus briefs on LGBTQ+ issues, death penalty appeals, transgender name changes, and immigration cases. The focus is to provide legal counsel to, and advocate for, those that can least afford it. My work on these cases have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my professional life. It is something I encourage young associates to do.

What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?

I am a litigator, with a primary focus on bankruptcy and commercial cases. When I attended St. John’s University School of Law, I was fortunate to join the American Bankruptcy Institute Law Review, which is where I got my first exposure to bankruptcy law. I went on to become the Associate Managing Editor and drafted my own note for publication in the Spring 2007 edition of the Law Review. I found that I enjoyed bankruptcy issues, and decided to pursue an LL.M. in Bankruptcy Law, which was offered at St. John’s. From there I was selected to clerk for the Honorable Dorothy T. Eisenberg (now retired) in the Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of New York, and was exposed to a variety of bankruptcy issues and practices. After leaving her chambers, I continued to work in the bankruptcy field and am presently working at BakerHostetler on some of today’s most complex bankruptcy issues and questions.

What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?

Never let anyone try to define you through the lens of your disability. It is a part of you, but that doesn’t make it you. Never be afraid to speak up if you feel like you need an accommodation.

Always stand up for others the way that you would want them to stand up for you.

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 legal profession is taking proactive steps in addressing this issue. One example is the ABA Business Law Fellows Program, which provides young lawyers, lawyers of color, lawyers with disabilities, and LGBT lawyers a springboard to involvement and leadership throughout the Section. I was selected to become a Fellow, and it has enabled me to have face-to-face meetings with both ABA leadership and Business Bankruptcy Section leadership. This has provided me opportunities that I would not have had without the Program, and has led to my increased involvement in my Section, both on panels and writings, and enabled me to meet other attorneys from across the country.

There is an old stereotype that it would cost too much to accommodate a person with a disability, and therefore it is not worth it to hire them. This is incredibly wrong. As technology has improved, access for people with disabilities has expanded exponentially, and the cost of accommodations are often minimal. It is a matter of educating people about the options that are out there. Further, shutting out people with disabilities from the profession only does a disservice to clients because it deprives them of a different perspective and strategy that they would not otherwise receive.

You have also been involved as an advocate in the LGBTQ community. Do you see any parallels between the respective struggle for acceptance and inclusion for LGBTQ people and for people with disabilities?

As a gay and hearing-impaired man, I have had people say some very offensive things to me. Historically, both communities struggled with a lack of exposure to the general population, and as a consequence, it was always easy to portray them as “other” or “different.” While those attitudes do persist, I think that the past 15 to 20  years have shown a remarkable shift in acceptance  as more and more people have begun to self-identify as a member of their respective community (or both). I believe that the more people are exposed to both of these communities, and to other races, religions, and creeds, the more the stereotypes fall away. It is much harder to demonize gay or disabled people when they are sitting across from you in a conference room, on a softball team, or at your kids’ school function. I have seen people’s attitudes towards both communities change by just being myself.

Does this mean that things are perfect? Absolutely not. But change is imperfect, and it takes time.