Laura Conway: A Disability Rights Lawyer in the Making
Laura E. Conway is a third-year law student at William & Mary Law School. She chose to pursue law because “the intellectual challenges presented by the legal profession [suit her] well.” That her parents are lawyers likely played a role in her decision as well.
After graduating in 2008 from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Laura spent that year working on the presidential campaign. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. Partly as a test run for her desire to go to law school, Laura worked as a project assistant at WilmerHale. “I then realized that lawyers were indeed my people, and I started at William & Mary in fall 2014.”
She is glad to have had these work experiences. “I am now a big believer in working for at least a few years before going to law school. The first year of law school in particular is incredibly stressful, and having more life experience can help a student maintain better perspective.” She also credits her work experience with making her better able to adapt to legal jobs and more attractive to potential employers.
Laura would like to practice disability rights law after she graduates in May 2017. During the summers, she worked for disAbility Law Center of Virginia and the Disability Rights Section of the US Department of Justice. She still keeps in touch with her mentors there. Currently, Laura works part-time in the Student Accessibility Services office at William and Mary.
One of Laura’s biggest inspirations for entering the disability rights field was her supervisor at FEMA, Marcie Roth. “I learned the inclusivity approach to disability rights from her. This approach stresses the idea of making things accessible from the beginning, and also teaches that increased accessibility benefits everyone, not just a person with a disability. I still carry this philosophy with me today.”
Laura’s desire to pursue this field is also, at least in part, a product of her own experiences. She was born congenitally deaf, and was first officially diagnosed at 18 months. Laura received her first analog hearing aids at age two, a cochlear implant in her left ear at age nine, and today has implants in both ears.
For communication, Laura relies on both listening and lip-reading. In class, she uses real-time captioning, Communication Access Realtime Transcription (CART). Everything that is being said is transcribed on her computer screen in real time. “It’s too bad my captioner can’t get an honorary J.D.!,” Laura jokes. She also occasionally uses more informal accommodations, such as asking her professors to speak up or slow down.
Laura believes that her disability will make her a better lawyer. “My need to advocate for myself has taught me vital skills in negotiating and reading people, which will serve me well in my career.” She disclosed her deafness in cover letters and essays for law school. “I already knew I was interested in disability rights and I wanted to demonstrate a specific legal focus.” Laura also disclosed her disability in her cover letters for law school summer jobs, “mainly because the jobs I applied to concerned disability rights, and I wanted to demonstrate both a personal and professional interest in the field.” She also discussed her disability during interviews for those jobs.
Nonetheless, she felt the pressure in law school to not request accommodations. As she explains, the profession regards “toughing it out” as a badge of honor. “I think the inherently competitive nature of law school can pressure students with disabilities into thinking that they have to hide their disabilities, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness.” Laura did not request CART during her first semester, but after a few months realized that “using CART was not a sign of weakness, and in fact that such aids would be valuable tools for my professional success. The process of getting more comfortable with requesting CART gave me a lot of insight into the stigmas that still exist around disability, especially in the context of the legal profession.”
In her free time, Laura loves international travel (having visited Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic most recently), enjoys biking and taking “tough fitness classes with friends,” and has many hobbies, including painting, creative writing, and reading fiction and graphic novels.