Forgotten Colleagues: Lawyers with Disabilities
Michael S. Greco, a partner with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis, LLP (K&L Gates), in its Boston office, is Immediate Past President of the American Bar Association.
There was a time, not long ago, when outstanding lawyers who happened to be women or of color found doors to employment shut tight. While those doors need further opening, they have opened significantly for members of those groups.
Regrettably, that is not true for outstanding lawyers who happen to have a disability. Overlooked as a minority group, these forgotten colleagues are struggling to find or retain positions in law offices and corporate legal departments across America. Their struggle has nothing to do with qualifications.
Instead, it stems from the reality that legal employers are not yet doing enough to recruit and retain lawyers with disabilities. This not only deprives lawyers of opportunity, it also deprives law offices, clients, the profession, and society of these lawyers’ skills.
The first-ever ABA National Conference on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., in May 2006 challenged legal employers to hire and retain lawyers with disabilities. The historic conference was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, the ABA Office of the President, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was attended by several hundred lawyers with disabilities, law firm managing partners, corporate counsel, and others.
Below are some suggestions from the conference on how law firms can help improve disability diversity: (1) appoint a diversity representative experienced in disability issues to the firm’s management committee; (2) understand the requirements of the ADA and state disability discrimination laws; (3) include reference to persons with disabilities in the equal opportunity language in job announcements; (4) write job descriptions that specify tasks essential to the position to be filled, and evaluate candidates based on their ability to perform them; and (5) ask interview questions that highlight a candidate’s strengths rather than inquiring about any
Once a lawyer with a disability is hired, the individual and the entire office will benefit by making the workplace “disability friendly.” For example, (1) establish flexible work arrangements for all employees; (2) prorate billable hours, or bill hours directly to the firm; (3) appoint a committee chaired by a well-respected senior partner with representatives from all employment levels to address diversity issues, including disability; (4) specify in firm documents that diversity, including how it relates to disabilities, is an important value, and track diversity progress; (5) create an active mentor program individualized to meet different needs, including those of lawyers with disabilities; and (6) create a centralized fund to provide reasonable accommodations.
Other suggestions and perspectives worthy of consideration are contained in the Conference Report available at www.abanet.org/disability
No qualified lawyer—or member of any profession—should be denied opportunity to work solely because of a disability. “Equal opportunity for all” is a cherished principle in America, but effort is needed to make that eloquent promise a reality.
If the legal profession is to reflect the true diversity of our nation—and benefit from the entire pool of available talent—you, I, and our hiring colleagues must make a commitment to hire and retain not only women and persons of color but also lawyers with disabilities. It is past time for us to make that commitment.