YourABA June 2012 Masthead

Lawyers with disabilities share strategies for professional success

Lawyers with disabilities have the best chance of success when they "own" their disability, said Lauren E. DeBruicker, a partner in the Philadelphia office of Duane Morris LLP, during a panel session at the Third National Conference on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities in Washington, D.C. Owning one's disability, DeBruicker explained, means knowing what you need, asking for it and not giving up until you receive it.

Law firm best practices for diversity inclusion

How can we as a profession eradicate the stigma that prevents lawyers with disabilities from reaching the pinnacle of their careers?  That was the question posed during a panel session during the Third National Conference on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities.

Michele Gatto, vice chair of the Association of Corporate Counsel's Board of Directors, said that change requires determination. Some of her best practices include:

Reviewing existing diversity efforts;

• Creating a culture of inclusion that welcomes lawyers with disabilities;

• Designing dynamic training in order to provide measurable results;

• Communicating effectively;

• Avoiding misperceptions regarding competence; and

• Building awareness of the need for and cost of reasonable accommodations.

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DeBruicker was one of three panelists for "Lawyers with Disabilities: Personal Strategies for Success," who spoke about being lawyers with disabilities, personal challenges and successes, and advice for other lawyers. Wisconsin District II Court of Appeals Chief Judge Richard S. Brown, who is deaf, moderated the panel.  The conference was hosted by the American Bar Association Office of the President and the association's Commission on Disability Rights, and sponsored by the Association of Corporate Counsel and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

DeBruicker—who sustained a spinal cord injury when in college and cannot walk—challenged those who underestimate her because of her disability, stating that she uses it to her advantage and to the advantage of her clients. She described how, as a litigator, she pulls her wheelchair right in front of the jury box and looks each juror in the eye. "I automatically stand out and get people's attention," DeBruicker said. But it is "not all sunshine and bubbles," she admitted, before describing how she has to arrive at court an hour early and arrive for depositions two hours early to ensure she's where she needs to be on time.

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DeBruicker concluded that it's often hard to ask for an accommodation for yourself, but consider—she posed—"Would you do it for the next person?"  And, leaving the audience with a charge, DeBruicker said she knew that others will judge the next person with a disability from their encounter with her.

Randal S. Farber, a partner with Jackson Walker LLP who serves as a board member of the National Association of Blind Lawyers, said he was relatively new to the disability community. "This is the first time I have spoken at a conference where I can't see the audience," he explained of his failing eyesight.

Rather than speaking to specific accommodations that he noted are going to be individual in nature, Farber spoke about success. As an attorney, there are three levels of success, Farber said. Personal success entails doing the best you can do, and doing what you enjoy. Success in the legal community means being recognized as an expert—and this is not always something you choose: "sometimes it comes to you," Farber said.

Finally, success as an attorney includes success at the firm, and that means taking a leadership role. This is not necessarily being a partner, Farber pointed out. It means helping to make decisions, and marketing and bringing in business.

Farber closed by saying he looks at a disability as a necktie, which at its best complements one's outfit rather than taking center stage. "I don't want my disability to stand out," he explained, saying that he would ask for help if he needs it, but that he wants to be treated like every other person. He wants others "recognizing I'm a good attorney. "

The final speaker of the panel was Claudia Gordon, special assistant to the director at the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the U.S. Department of Labor. A lawyer who is deaf, Gordon emphasized the importance of mentoring and networking for lawyers with disabilities. "It's important that we learn how to sell ourselves," she said, adding that résumé building was key, and that it's three to four times harder for lawyers with disabilities.   

The goals of the Third National Conference on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities were to eliminate bias against persons with disabilities, and to advance the full and equal participation of lawyers with disabilities in the legal profession. Additional conference panel programs featured best practices in the federal, corporate and private work setting; mentoring; admissions to law school and the bar; and others.

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