Vanessa Agbar is a third-year evening student at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. She is a member of the Maryland National Trial Team and the Vice President of the Student Health Law Organization. During the day, she works in the mental health unit at Maryland State Prison.
What is your disability? How does it affect you as a law student (and future lawyer)?
I have what many would call an “invisible disability.” Generalized anxiety has been an ongoing battle for me. It impacts my law school experience and i the way I learn. New material is oftentimes overwhelming for me and sometimes induces panic attacks. For me, it is best to absorb new material slowly, familiarizing myself with it at my own pace. Furthermore, the body has a “fight or flight” response to new stimuli that is vital for our safety because it allows us to flee or protect ourselves from danger when it arises. My anxiety often triggers this fight or flight response , but in situations where no danger is present, such as while My engaging in public speaking, chiming in during meetings, and reading cases. My disability may impact my career as a future lawyer, because in the legal profession, new things can pop up daily. However, as long as I am honest with myself about the rate at which I am able to consume new material, anxiety is not an obstacle that I will continue to conquer.
What accommodations do you use in law school?
I take my exams in a separate room from other students. Taking an exam in a room with close to 70 other people, where I can hear others type and see them move around the classroom, is very distracting for me and increases my anxiety. Additionally, I use a notetaker, although I still take my own notes as best I can.
Do you disclose your disability to colleagues or potential employers? Why or why not?
My decision whether or not to disclose is made based on my assessment of my employer’s workplace culture. Unfortunately, not all employers create a fully understanding and accepting workplace environment for individuals with invisible disabilities. The stereotypes and stigmas surrounding invisible disabilities make it quite intimidating to disclose; I never want an employer to think that I am less qualified or capable because of my disability. However, I was very encouraged during my internship at Microsoft’s Corporate, External, and Legal Affairs to see that disabilities are seen as “superpowers” and not hinderances. I seek to debunk any stereotypes surrounding lawyers that have disabilities.
I also think that while in law school, it is important to have a few classmates with whom you can be completely transparent. I shared my disability with some classmates, but only after building trust and friendship.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?
My disability has impacted my decision to practice health and tech law, advocating for laws and technology that fully accommodate people with invisible disabilities.
As a child of Nigerian immigrants, I have seen how health systems abroad differ from the U.S. system. I remember asking myself, “Why is it that every few months, a family member in Nigeria is dying from a preventable illness, while people with the same illness in the United States are surviving. I vowed to become a health lawyer so that I can take part in reforming the United States’ health system, as well as health systems abroad, to better serve citizens. Furthermore, I believe that the health industry is evolving and increasingly relying on technology, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. I seek to be well-versed in the laws surrounding technology for this reason.
My interest in intellectual property, meanwhile, has grown with the rise of social media; every day I watch individuals share new ideas on social media that they are able to build into businesses or new products. Many individuals are unaware how to best protect their new ideas and inventions, and I seek to work in intellectual property to help individuals protect their ideas. I also am interested in intellectual property, because I have seen how patent law intersects with health law and can, for example, impact access to medication. I would like to litigate in this area in order to arrive at a solution that best serves the public while also incentivizing inventors to continue to build solutions and medications. As for data privacy, as the world becomes more and more virtual, protecting data and ensuring that data is safely used is becoming increasingly important. The field of technology law is still being formed and I want to help shape it.
What advice would you give to law students with a disability?
You are more than capable, and you belong here! It is very easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to your classmates. You may begin to believe the stigmas that many have about your disability. Don’t. Do not let anyone talk you out of your dreams - not even yourself. The world needs your unique lens to create a more diverse and accommodating world. Others will be coming after you who aspire to go to law school. They need you to keep pushing and show them that law students with disabilities can be successful.
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 that the legal profession could do a better job at creating an inclusive environment for persons with disabilities. Oftentimes, it seems as though only a particular type of lawyer is favored or given opportunities for advancement. The idea of who is a “good law student” or a “good lawyer” is not always inclusive of individuals with disabilities. For example, many students with invisible disabilities are visual learners, yet most classroom teaching is lecture style. Also, many employers see the reasonable accommodation mandate as a burden and are less likely to hire lawyers with disabilities. Because law firms, corporation, and courts serve individuals with invisible disabilities, they should have lawyers that reflect that demographic.
Since your day job involves working in a prison, how have you seen disability rights laws affect the day-to-day lives of inmates with disabilities? What could be improved?
I work at a Maryland State prison as a contractor who connects the incarcerated population with mental health providers. The resources that prisons need to provide adequate care to inmates with disabilities are lacking. Inmates often wait for months to see psychologists and psychiatrists due to the shortage of providers. Further, many individuals do not know that they have a disability until they are diagnosed while incarcerated. This needs to change. It is important that access to mental health providers increases across the board so that individuals can seek treatment before they end up in prison. This way, it is likely that they would be less likely to end up in prison in the first place.
As a part-time (evening) law student, have you seen any difference in the accommodations process compared to the full-time program? Are there any disability issues that are particularly relevant for evening students?
The process is the same, but it is not talked about or made known to students in the evening program like it is to full-time students many evening students do not know that accommodations are available.
We understand you are also a musician. Have you found that useful in your work? Is it an outlet you’d recommend to other students?
I love to sing and write music! Writing music helps calm my nerves and express my feelings. I even compose songs when I study to help me remember the law and how to apply it. Working at the prison, I’m known for singing a tune here and there. Music really is a universal language!
Tell us about your internship at Microsoft’s Corporate External and Legal Affairs (CELA)?
I loved every single part of my internship experience at Microsoft. I worked in the Intellectual Property Group, but was able to work across Microsoft CELA. I saw how the law impacts artificial intelligence and “machine learning,” learned about Microsoft’s work in the health and wellness space, and performed tasks relating to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
One of the best things about the internship was meeting the people! The attorneys at Microsoft are phenomenal. Each one mentored me, showing me the ropes, and offering advice and guidance. I built relationships that will last for the rest of my life. And, I even got to have a one-on-one coffee with Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, Dev Stahlkopf.
Did you have a mentor at Microsoft?
I did, and she continues to mentor me. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, my internship was virtual. The upside was that met over 100 different people. Each attorney I met mentored me in one aspect or another. I learned so much from them, and I hope that they learned from me as well! My fellow interns even became mentors to me, and I to them. I still reach out to everyone I met throughout my internship, and will cherish this experience and all they have taught me.
Did you find the internship personally and professionally beneficial, how so?
I grew so much during my internship. I met individuals just like me who deal with anxiety, yet are thriving as Microsoft attorneys. Meeting them showed me that I can do this. Also, my internship helped me overcome many of my fears. I led presentations about cutting-edge subject matter, offered my views on new tech-related laws, and created tools that CELA can use in the future to further Microsoft’s mission “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” I witnessed firsthand what an organization that truly values individuals with disabilities looks like. Microsoft CELA is leading the pack when it comes to how individuals who deal with invisible disabilities should be accommodated and perceived in the legal field. Most exciting was chatting with Microsoft’s President and Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith. He shared personal and professional advice that helped him throughout his legal journey.