Law is a demanding subject for anyone, but there are specific challenges – including some I hadn’t expected – that disabled lawyers face both during and after their training.
I did my law degree in Scotland, before moving to London to complete the graduate diploma in law (GDL) and the legal practice course (LPC). I have severe cerebral palsy, so I use a wheelchair and dictate most of my work. It can also make my speech difficult to understand – especially when compounded by my Scottish accent. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Good lecturers make so much difference
Cerebral palsy makes it hard to follow formal guidelines that don’t take personal circumstances into account. As useful as it may be to receive a good set of notes after a lecture, nothing can quite replace taking one’s own notes: it lets the knowledge sink in and develops your personal style in the process. I was fortunate that my university lecturers and disability advisors met me with open dialogue, allowing us to find solutions.
Social issues can be more complex. Some of my lecturers were extremely nervous around my speech impairment. In classes where tutors had the confidence to engage me in dialogue, the other students followed suit. But other lecturers would insist on my assistant’s presence – on one occasion it was apparently required for “fire safety” – and would unnecessarily direct all communication via my assistant. If talking over my head wasn’t surreal enough, the other students would also pick up on the tutor’s nervousness. It was a lonely year.
You won’t necessarily have the same support after university
I enjoy arguing. But given my impaired speech and the self-employed aspects of being a barrister, I thought that pursuing a career as a solicitor would be a better fit for me. I thought that firms would have the resources to support me. But it’s not that simple. While the country has many great equality laws, ultimately it’s difficult to see how someone with an impairment as severe as mine can generate income.
Graduates can gain experience as a paralegal before being offered a training contract. But I’ve found that firms taking fresh LPC graduates are often underfunded and in physically inaccessible buildings, putting some disabled candidates at a bigger disadvantage.
The amount of support you can get as a disabled lawyer can also depend on what area of law you’re aiming for. At one event I attended, a partner in a top law firm told us that they had enough money to throw at whatever someone’s impairment required. And there are some great initiatives for disabled graduates such as myplusconsulting.com and EmployAbility. However, these opportunities are not spread across all areas of the law.
Practicing law is more physically demanding than you might expect
Junior lawyers are often required to work long hours and do a lot of hauling paperwork around. The body is required as much as the brain. But my body moves involuntarily and gets tired after six or seven hours. It has a poor relationship with photocopiers and lever-arch folders. Law firms require lawyers to be working until the small hours should there be a deal coming up. There’s little demand for part-time team members.
I’ve received different pieces of advice on this – sometimes conflicting. Human resources staff, who seem to be tied by the Equality Act, give me lots of hope and encourage me to apply for internships. But senior supervisors of various internships tell me that ultimately, given the severity of my impairments, a career in a commercial firm would be difficult for both me and the firm. I’d previously had similar responses when I was considering the bar.
Being disabled is no barrier to learning
I may be struggling to find employment in law, but I still find the basic concept of applying rules to facts completely engaging. I’ve found a law degree has many practical applications. It’s taught me how to clearly articulate non-legal arguments, for instance. And learning why I have the right to use a bus felt hugely liberating. I face substantial discrimination in my everyday life, and knowledge of the law can be an amazing tool to fight it.
Thanks to my legal training, I have managed to secure enough funding for personal assistants, enabling me to live an independent life. I still have so much energy to represent those who have their needs infringed. Given the capitalist nature of most law firms, and the severity of my impairment, I can’t see this happening soon – but studying law was still the best decision ever.
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