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May 20, 2019

Law Student Spotlight: Paras Shah

Paras Shah, a third-year law student at Harvard Law School

Paras Shah, a third-year law student at Harvard Law School

What is your disability? How does it affect you as a law student (and future lawyer)?

I was born premature and am legally blind. As a law student, I use PDF versions of my textbooks and take notes on my laptop. As a future lawyer, I will probably work with electronic versions of documents (even though many lawyers still love to work in print!). Technology has really made it easy for me to learn alongside my peers in the classroom.

What accommodations do you use in law school? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your school, employers, or colleagues in obtaining accommodations?

My main accommodations are using my laptop to take notes and sitting at the front of the classroom. Overall, Harvard has done a great job of accommodating me, and the staff are receptive when I have concerns or when something is not working and we need to troubleshoot. My supervisors at the State Department (1L summer) and O’Melveny & Myers (2L summer) were also happy to provide accommodations. I think the Americans with Disabilities Act has created a culture where schools and employers are aware of their obligations to provide reasonable accommodations, although there are still thousands of people who do not receive the rights and services they are entitled to.

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

I do disclose my disability because for me it is important that people with disabilities are visible in the workplace and that we help to educate our colleagues about inclusion. I think it is better to be upfront and let people ask questions about my experience rather than having them wonder and feel uncomfortable about asking. Disability, like height or hair color or race, is just part of who I am. As lawyers and law students, our workplaces and classrooms are always stronger when they reflect the diversity of our clients and the broader world around us.

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

I wanted to help people and always enjoyed reading and writing so law school was a natural fit. The law has always played a special role in my life—the ADA ensured I had the accommodations I needed to excel on an equal basis with my peers—and I wanted to provide that same type of protection to others.

Have you decided what type of legal work you will do after graduation? If so, how did you decide?

I will join O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, D.C. as a litigation associate. I’m not exactly sure what my practice will look like, but I enjoy the research and writing process, and there will be plenty of that I’m sure. I love thinking about legal strategy, anticipating what the other side will say and responding to it. I also hope to clerk in the future and learn more about litigation from a judge’s perspective. D.C. also has tons of great opportunities—in government, at think tanks, with non-profits—to work on policy so hopefully I will have some exposure to that as well. I’m especially interested in the intersection between human rights/civil liberties and national security/foreign policy.

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

Have confidence in yourself. You are smart, capable, driven, and you will thrive. If you need help then ask for it, but never let anyone tell you that you cannot do something just because you have a disability. You can do whatever you set your mind to and you do it in the way that works best 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?

Overall, the legal profession has a long way to go until it is diverse and inclusive. This starts with the pipeline for entering law school. I think one practical step is to provide more resources for college students thinking about law school. For example, attorneys can speak at events or allow students to shadow them. In addition, we all need to do a better job at reducing the stigma of disability by creating spaces for open and honest conversations about the unique experiences we bring to the profession. Law firms and corporate legal departments might do this by establishing affinity groups for people with disabilities and by sponsoring sensitivity trainings.

Tell us about your work with the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic.

I’ve been working with the Human Rights Clinic since spring of 2L. My first project focused on autonomous weapons systems, which do not exist yet but would have the potential to use artificial intelligence to select and engage targets on the battlefield. I helped write a report for Human Rights Watch on why these types of weapons would raise ethical problems under International Humanitarian Law. I also attended some UN meetings in Geneva where I worked with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots to advocate for a legal instrument banning the development, production, and use of these weapons systems. I learned a lot about politics shape legal and policy outcomes.

Of course, I do think technology and artificial intelligence have benefits, like self-driving cars, which can be especially helpful for people with disabilities, but these technologies should not be weaponized. This semester I’m working on a project addressing hate speech in Myanmar. It’s an exciting area because the situation is constantly evolving and attracting a lot of international attention right now. I really enjoy the Clinic because I can hone practical skills—everything from fact development and conducting interviews to crafting advocacy and media strategies—while working on issues I care about.

What do you like to do for fun outside of class?

I’m a huge Boston sports fan, and one advantage of living in Cambridge is that I can catch a Red Sox, Celtics, or Patriots game! I also think sports are a great way to connect with people—no matter which team you support, people can come together and appreciate a great play or a close game. Sports bring us closer and build mutual respect. I followed the World Cup pretty closely this summer and love watching the Paralympics and Olympics.