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Fighting Stereotypes

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Three entities are charged with primary responsibility for leading the ABA’s efforts to achieve diversity within the le­gal profession. The Commission on Mental and Phys­i­cal Disability Law is one you might not have heard of.

That low profile is, perhaps, understandable. Goal IX of the ABA’s mission statement is “to promote full and equal participation in the legal profession,” but it wasn’t until 1999 that the association’s House of Delegates changed the language of the goal to specifically encompass lawyers with disabilities along with women and minorities.

In terms of sheer numbers, more than 29 percent of all U.S. lawyers are women, according to estimates by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, while the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession estimates that nearly 10 percent of the nation’s law­yers are minorities.

But there don’t appear to be comparable estimates of how many U.S. lawyers have disabilities. The disability law commission’s Goal IX report for 2006 notes that of the ABA’s some 345,000 lawyer-members in 2003, only 1,126, or 0.33 percent, identified themselves as having disabilities, although the commission reckons the actual number is somewhat higher. (Nearly 50 million Americans–about one-fifth of the total population–have some type of long-lasting disability, according to 2000 census figures.)

The commission reports mixed results for lawyers with disabilities in the ABA’s leadership ranks.

The report states that lawyers with disabilities hold 32 out of 15,000 total ABA leadership positions during the association’s current 2005-06 year. In 2004-05 there were 34 disabled lawyers in leadership positions, and in 2003-04 there were 33. The number of sections, divisions and forums with at least one lawyer with a disability in a leadership position also has fluctuated, from 11 in 2003-04 to 16 in 2004-05 to 14 in 2005-06.

“This suggests that the inclusion of lawyers with disabilities in the ABA’s Goal IX policy is begin­ning to influence the degree to which lawyers with disabilities are recognized for leadership positions within the ABA to some degree, although an upward trend has not been sustained,” the report states.

The disability law commission’s Goal IX report cites figures from the National Association for Law Placement indicating that, as of 2004, 77.8 percent of law graduates with disabilities were employed, compared to 90.1 percent of nonminority law graduates and 84.9 percent of minority law graduates.

NALP figures also indicate that salaries for lawyers with disabilities tend to be lower than those for the profession as a whole, a disparity that may be due partly to the tendency of lawyers with disabilities to work in government or with private nonprofit organizations.

Let’s Talk About It

In recent months, however, the commission has begun to put a stronger spotlight on issues of concern to lawyers with disabilities, especially on the jobs front. Until this year, for instance, the commission never sponsored a conference to promote the employment of lawyers with disabilities.

But in May, the commission presented the first-ever National Confer­ence on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities. Co-sponsors included the U.S. Equal Employment Op­por­tunity Commission and then-ABA President Michael S. Greco of Boston, who has emphasized diversity in the legal profession.

The conference signals a growing recognition that creating greater employment opportunities for lawyers with disabilities is the next frontier in achieving full diversity in the le­gal profession.

“There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about hiring disabled lawyers, and we aim to show firms how they can diversify their work forces to the firm’s benefit,” says Scott C. LaBarre, a sole practitioner in Denver who chairs the disability law commission.

The EEOC will use information generated at the conference as the basis for a paper on employing lawyers with disabilities in private practice and other settings, says Christopher J. Kuczynski, assistant legal counsel and director of Americans with Disabilities Act policy at the EEOC. He was one of the speakers at the conference. “Lawyers play an important role in our society,”Kuczynski says. “They are people who make a difference. This is about talented lawyers and law firms finding each other and work­ing together.”

Kuczynski says law firms should recognize that hiring disabled attorneys is a win-win proposition.

“We have to learn to talk about disability in the same way we talk about race, gender, ethnicity, religion and other areas of diversity,” Kuczynski says. “I hope people walked away from this conference making a genuine commitment to making the hiring of disabled lawyers a priority.”

Time will tell. For now, at least, lawyers with disabilities still face a number of barriers to advancement within the legal profession–and only some of them are physical.

LaBarre, who is blind, says one stereotype he has confronted is the assumption that he might be less productive because he cannot read the reams of paper produced in most law offices. Early in his career, he used paid readers, but now he uses software that reads computerized pages of type at varying speeds.

“I can skim a document for relevant information this way just as fast as a sighted person. I am as productive as anyone,” LaBarre says.

Accommodations Issues

Kuczynski says one reason it is hard to accurately determine the number of lawyers with disabilities in prac­tice is that federal privacy and nondiscrimination laws prevent employers from inquiring directly about the existence of a disability, except to ask whether accommodations will be needed. And some lawyers don’t like to admit they have a disability.

“For some employers, a need for accommodations is seen as a lack of competence,” he says.

LaBarre says that presumption may keep some lawyers from seeking accommodations that could dramatically improve their productivity–and morale.

The marketplace has been a driving force in bringing more women and minorities to law firms, says LaBarre, who anticipates the same pattern to kick in for lawyers with disabilities. Corporate America has diversified its em­ployee ranks over the years, LaBarre says. Now those com­panies are demanding that law firms representing them al­so diversify their own ranks.

EEOC commissioner Christine Griffin, who uses a wheelchair, said at the conference that firms and other employers should know what to do by now. “Just hire us. Stop ruminating about all the problems. You already did that with women and minorities. You’ll be rewarded in the end.”

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