Disabled people in the legal profession are facing widespread discrimination, with outdated working practices and a failure to provide them with the support they need, according to early results from a ground-breaking piece of research.
The initial findings of the Legally Disabled? research project show that disabled people seeking jobs or working in the legal profession are “an untapped resource”.
They have often been attracted to a career in the law because of “a strong passion for human rights and fairness”, and their lived experience of disability has led to “strong ambition, tenacity, determination and excellent problem-solving skills”.
But positive experiences of “support, good attitudes and appropriate reasonable adjustments are a lottery”, say the researchers.
The early findings of the research have come from eight focus groups of disabled legal professionals, including judges, barristers and solicitors.
A “large proportion” of those who took part in the focus groups said they had faced disability discrimination.
The aims of the research, which is being conducted by Professor Debbie Foster (pictured, second from left), of Cardiff University Business School, and independent researcher Dr Natasha Hirst, are to explore the barriers to employment and career progression and examine ways in which they have been addressed successfully.
They then hope to identify ways in which the legal profession can become more inclusive and accessible for disabled people.
Foster and Hirst say there has previously been no research into the disadvantage faced by disabled people in the legal profession, despite similar research into gender and racial disadvantage.
Now they are looking for disabled legal professionals from England and Wales who are in, or are seeking entrance to, the legal profession, or those who have left the industry, to take part in one-to-one interviews*.
The project is funded through the five-year, £5 million Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) research programme.
The researchers say the profession is “generally poorly equipped” to make the reasonable adjustments that are needed for disabled candidates who apply for a training contract or pupillage (an apprenticeship to a barrister).
This failure to make reasonable adjustments – such as offering part-time contracts – blocks talented disabled candidates from entering the profession, say Foster and Hirst.
Discrimination is a particular problem at the interview stage, they say.
Opportunities are limited by “inflexible, often outdated working practices and the absence of imaginative job design”, while disabled people feel they are unfairly seen as not being “profitable”, productive or able to meet targets.
The value disabled people can add as lawyers is often overlooked, the researchers were told in the focus groups.
When career progression has been achieved, it is often because of “strong role models, supportive senior colleagues and the presence of mentors and networks”.
The researchers are working in co-production with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of The Law Society and a research reference group of disabled people from across the legal profession.
Jane Burton (pictured, far left), chair of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division, said: “Our members are talented individuals, yet many employers fail to recognise the valuable skills and experiences that disabled people can bring to their workplace.
“Some firms still seem to fear employing disabled people. Co-producing this research is a great opportunity to influence culture change across the legal profession.”
DRILL is funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and delivered by Disability Rights UK, Disability Action (in Northern Ireland), Inclusion Scotland and Disability Wales.
It is believed to be the world’s first major research programme led by disabled people and should eventually fund about 40 pieces of research and pilot projects.
*They can be contacted by email at [email protected]
Picture © Natasha Hirst