President's Message

Time to Reject Perception that Disabilities Are Barriers to Productive Legal Careers

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(L-R) Judge Richard Brown, Bill Robinson; Lauren DeBruicker, Randy Farber and Claudia Gordon in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mitch Higgins)

Be sure everybody knows you are special, but be sure nobody treats you like it.

That is how Lauren DeBruicker, a partner at Duane Morris, describes the challenge for lawyers with disabilities. Her words remind us that our profession must change the perception that a disability is a barrier to a productive and successful legal career.

Lauren, Randy Farber and Claudia Gordon shared their stories at the Third National Conference on Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities, at which I delivered remarks several weeks ago in Washington, D.C. Their experiences demonstrate that lawyers with disabilities are a talented but underrepresented and underutilized group within our profession.

Fewer than one-quarter of 1 percent of law firm partners in the U.S. have a disability, according to a 2011 report. The percentage of associates with disabilities is even lower. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor confirms that people with a disability who are highly educated are much less likely to be employed than their counterparts with no disability.

Why? Bias, stereotypes and assumptions continue to impede the hiring, retention and promotion of lawyers with disabilities. Employers are too often skeptical that they can deliver high-quality work in a timely manner.

Lauren, who uses a wheelchair, says she wants the same standards applied to her as are applied to every other lawyer. “If I get in front of them, I can show them what I can do,” she adds. “I don’t want them to treat me like a hero. I want to know what they think of my brief.”

Randy agrees. He has heard clients say, “ ‘You did a great job for being a blind guy.’ I just want clients to say I did a great job as a lawyer.”

The ABA is committed to creating a culture in which lawyers are valued equally for their abilities. One of our goals is eliminating bias and enhancing diversity; greater diversity and inclusion is one of my presidential priorities.

We must respect every person as an individual and recognize the unique contributions each of us has to offer. Toward achieving that, we share strategies and success stories like those of Lauren, Randy and Claudia.

Lawyers with disabilities enrich the legal profession in many ways. They provide unique perspectives based on their backgrounds and life experiences, bring innovative solutions and ideas to the table, and help to attract and serve a diverse client base.

At the conference, we discussed how to achieve inclusion and diversity for lawyers with disabilities. These best practices include: increasing awareness of this untapped pool of talent, designing effective training initiatives, and establishing more mentoring and networking programs.

We must encourage the public and the private sectors—including law firms—to develop diversity plans. The ABA is asking all employers in the field of law to sign the Commission on Disability Rights’ Pledge for Change, which would formally commit them to disability diversity and more inclusion for lawyers with disabilities.

The ABA Board of Governors has also approved the commission’s new award that recognizes law firms and corporations that have made measurable progress for legal professionals with disabilities.

As president of the ABA, I can assure you that we will continue to cultivate and promote full inclusion of lawyers with disabilities in our leadership and beyond.

As Claudia says, “We have to sell ourselves to show that we are on par with lawyers who do not have a disability.” Lawyers with disabilities simply want the opportunity to be recognized as good lawyers. Anything less than equal opportunity for all lawyers is unacceptable.

Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, Frost Brown Todd LLC, is a civil litigator and member-in-charge of FBT’s office in Florence, Ky., and also has an office with FBT in Cincinnati.

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