Updated: Dec 20, 2019
1. The Need Was There
There are significant barriers to being a disabled lawyer, on top of the professions’ competitive nature that make entry difficult for many aspiring lawyers. I, as a wheelchair user with a speech impairment, will have to deal with inaccessible chambers and courtrooms when being a barrister. I also have contend with how my speech impairment will affect advocacy. None of these things should exclude me from the Bar because they will not stop me from being a good barrister but they still have to be addressed, as well as views that these things should prevent me from being a barrister.
I also heard of others who have faced difficulties in being a lawyer at the Human Rights Lawyers Association’s Disability in the Legal Professions event. Several speaker noted that this was the first time they had spoken about being disabled lawyers in public and that there had been some reluctance to acknowledge their disabilities because highlighting difference can bring negative perceptions. Diego F. Soto-Miranda (1 Essex Court Chambers) mentioned how he was removed from his wheelchair and carried upstairs because the building was not accessible. John Horan (Cloisters) was disbarred by the Bar Standards Board after he became disabled; they admitted to being guilty of disability discrimination during the resulting litigation. Josh Hepple (once an aspiring lawyer; now writer and activist) pointed out that law firms are reluctant to move away from a two-year training contract despite the Solicitors Regulatory Authority permitting seven years for completion. The Legally Disabled focus group, which is looking a barriers to the legal professions and positive experiences, has also highlighted less than welcoming behaviour in its initial discussions.
We are here, in all the legal professions, and it is time to be seen. An independent group for disabled lawyers and lawyers with physical and mental health conditions was lacking. Our presence is made clear by being visible and the need to make changes becomes real rather than academic. Disability is almost always forgotten when discussing diversity and how to address it. Visibility is also important in allowing aspiring lawyers that it is possible to be disabled lawyers.
Many disabled lawyers have unique ways of making their careers work.These adjustments and insights are likely to be useful for others too. Disability in the Legal Professions, for example, provided the opportunity for Jocelyn Cockburn (Partner and Head of Civil Liberties, Hodge Jones & Allen) to share adjustments have helped her in her professional life. Jocelyn prefers to avoid the rush hour, take taxis and has the option to work from home where appropriate. She also has an air filter in her office to reduce the effects of air pollution on her limited lung capacity. Diego, similarly, was able to express has moulded his practice around his strengths by focussing on paper-based work, such as advising and drafting. This new group will provide the platform for a network of shared experience that can be tapped into by our peers and those who aim to help us. We also champion our disability rights and the rights of the wider disabled community. We hope to highlight issues with events, conferences and workshops.
4. To Fight the Fight
The legal professions are not the most inclusive and that needs to change. We aim to bring disability to the diversity agenda and to fight for more adjustments to be made, greater support and for buildings to be more accessible. We also want to change the perception to one that sees disabled people as assets to the professions. The skills developed through navigating life as a disabled person helps in our careers and gives us a unique perspective.
We hope that you will join us. Disclosure of your disability is not necessary or compulsory and we want to work with those who want to help us.