Law students with visible or invisible disabilities, who navigate their law school years successfully through reasonable accommodations, face the new challenge of transitioning and negotiating reasonable accommodations from academia to the workplace.
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Decisions around disclosure and requesting reasonable accommodations from an employer are difficult to make, and often attorneys with disabilities struggle to find advice. And too often, they avoid requesting accommodations that can improve their well-being. Disabilities, invisible and visible, take diverse forms. The leading cause of disability around the world is depression (United Nations here), and although approximately 20% of lawyers suffer with depression, only 0.54% of attorneys reported ANY disability in a 2017 survey.
Personal testimonies and scholarly research have shown attorneys with disabilities face challenges throughout their employment related to disclosing disabilities, accessibility to courtrooms, disguised discrimination in hiring, or avoidance by employers to make reasonable accommodations, tied to concerns over billable hours, competitiveness/productivity and the costs that come with providing a new attorney with the accommodations they request.
The Boston Bar Association offered a program on February 3, 2020 that shared guidance on the critical transition from law school to the workplace and related issues, which was discussed by a panel moderated by Salomon Chiquiar-Rabinovich, Of Counsel at Moreno Law and Co-Chair of the Attorneys with Disabilities Committee of the Diversity and Inclusion Section at the BBA and featuring:
- Stacey Harris, Associate Director of Disability and Access Services at Boston University
- Carol R. Steinberg, Attorney, Disability Activist, and Writer;
- Professor Michael Stein, Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Project on Disability;
- Caitlin Vaughn, Director of Learning and Professional Development at Goodwin
Our takeaways from the panel follow. Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can schedule a free and confidential consultation to discuss challenges, options, and more with one of our licensed therapists, practice advisors, or both — find more on scheduling here.
For both visible and invisible disabilities, deciding when to disclose disabilities is always a personal choice, often dependent on specific circumstances, and rarely an easy feeling. Since the ADA became law in 1990, employers with at least 15 employees are required to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities — once the disability has been disclosed.
Disclosing disabilities at an early stage in a potential employment relationship can help attorneys find working environments that prove a healthy fit — but it can also open the door for ignorant assumptions. It can make sense to wait until after the employment opportunity has been secured before disclosing — unless you need accommodations in the application process. But, some law firms truly value diversity — and it would be extremely helpful to find them before accepting a position in a questionable environment.
Disclosing disabilities prior to employment offers an opportunity to assess the employer’s culture of commitment to inclusion. Whether a firm has robust support in place already or is clearly eager to grow and learn with you, it can be hard to get a clear sense of the working environment through indirect conversations.
The panelists cautioned that avoiding disclosure and sacrificing accommodations out of fear is often an unsustainable plan. As effective as you may have been at self-management in prior settings, a new environment can easily challenge previously effective techniques. Invisible disabilities can reveal themselves over time without your intention. With visible disabilities, choices over whether or when to disclose might be narrower or nonexistent.
The panelists offered compassion around the difficulty and exhaustion that attorneys with disabilities experience with self-advocacy. Still, self-advocacy is necessary, and often helpful practice for advocating for others. Committing to self-advocacy allows you better control over your story, limiting room for others to make assumptions on appearances. Practicing self-care is essential to sustaining self-advocacy — find tips for lawyers and law students here.
The panelists encouraged attorneys with disabilities to practice conversations about disclosure and requesting accommodations in various settings, noting that these are challenging conversations to have, requiring bravery and vulnerability. Any lawyers or law students in Massachusetts who don’t have someone they’re comfortable practicing these conversations can schedule a Free & Confidential consultation with one of our licensed therapists. Find more on scheduling here.
The panelists also offered compassion for the isolation attorneys with disabilities face. Lawyers in general are the loneliest of all professionals, and lawyers with disabilities very often find no peers or mentors with disabilities in many settings in the legal profession, including firms and courtrooms. The panelists emphasized how important it is to find ways to connect with other attorneys with disabilities.
RELATED RESOURCE: To Disclose or Not to Disclose: That is the Question (National Disabled Law Students Association Blog, 2020)
Reasonable accommodations can be requested at any time during the application process or while employed for any reason related to a disability, following disclosure of the disability. There are no key words that need to be included in the request — not even “reasonable accommodation” or “ADA”. A panelist cautioned that the time limitation in summer associateships may affect your employer’s ability (and legal obligation) to provide accommodations without adequate notice.
The panelists recommended leading with your value before communicating your needs for accommodation. The ability to perform essential job functions, with or without a reasonable accommodation, determines if an applicant or employee with a disability is qualified for the job. It helps to communicate your own confidence in your ability to perform the essential job functions and even to emphasize ways in which you’ll be able to exceed expectations before requesting accommodations. One panelist suggested that rainmaking skills offer particularly compelling additional value — lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can participate in one of our Free & Confidential Rainmaker Incubator Workshop Series.
Identifying your needs and distinguishing them from your desires is the first step in determining the accommodations you’ll request. Again, needs evolve with demands, practice areas, employment environments, and more. Law school staff can often help brainstorm around how accommodations might need to change transitioning from an academic to employment environment. A good first step in brainstorming options is to identify the factors contribute to success — and whether those factors fall into an approved category of reasonable accommodations or not, or are self-managed. Finally, the Job Accommodation Network website is a free resource that can help you determine options.
Lawyers who appear in court in Massachusetts can request accommodations from the court. Panelists suggested calling the courthouse directly in advance and communicating with clerks about further developing needs. For more information about ADA accessibility, you can contact the Office of Court Management ADA coordinator, Heather Shann — she can be reached at (617) 878-0216 or email@example.com. One of the panelists, Carol Steinberg, was published in the New York Times with a story about her experience in court when she didn’t request an accommodation for her wheelchair at sidebar when the judge had remained in her high bench seat, leaving Carol at height and volume disadvantages. Intentionally or not, opposing counsel created unusual opportunities for sidebar discussions throughout the trial, and while she ultimately achieved a settlement her client accepted, Carol concludes with an affirmation that she will make the request in similar situations in the future, and advice to others:
Those of us who need accommodation so that we can keep doing what we love must have the courage and self-respect to seek them, even if we would rather we didn’t have to.
EMPLOYERS AND OTHER ENVIRONMENT SHAPERS
Whether as an employer or other leadership role in the legal profession, providing a more inclusive culture is critical to individual well-being and the general success of every institution. A panelist from Goodwin, Caitlin Vaughn, described their mentorship program, which provides support for diverse needs as they develop throughout an individual’s career. With mentors in non-practicing positions assigned to all practicing attorneys and equipped with the tools of HR staff, Goodwin offers an individualized approach to professional development that can offer a more comfortable environment to discuss accommodations for disabilities.
Caitlin shared an illustration of how the firm has been able to provide accommodations for well-being needs that hadn’t yet amounted to the pressure of a disclosed disability: An attorney had been practicing in a position that involved extreme unpredictability in ways that triggered her anxiety routinely, and when anticipating her return from parental leave, she experienced overwhelm so severe that she communicated to her mentor that she wasn’t sure she wanted to return to work. Without requiring a diagnosis related to her mental health, they offered her solutions that included a combination of remote and more predictable work.
Observing gratitude and greater need for allies, the panelists themselves each came to develop their roles as supports they didn’t have but appreciated the need for firsthand. The panelists offered the reminder that policies, training, and communication need to be consistent to be fair and effective. It requires time and attention to develop and execute the policies necessary for an inclusive culture — and it’s more than worth the investment. Listen, learn, and look past clear immediate costs of accommodations into the dynamic of real value that an inclusive environment delivers.