Disabled people face the same prejudicial obstructions as women, gender, sexual and romantic minorities, ethnic minorities and the working class. They also have further obstacles, such as architecture, ableist practices and life inconveniences. On 27 February 2018, a collection of leading lawyers came together at 39 Essex Chambers to discuss practising with a disability. The event, organised by the Young Lawyers’ Committee, offered a unique platform to consider diversity in the legal professions from a disability perspective. We welcomed an esteemed panel of John Horan (Barrister, Cloisters Chambers), Joanna Owens (EHRC), Jocelyn Cockburn (Partner and Head of Civil Liberties, Hodge Jones & Allen), Diego F. Soto-Miranda (1 Essex Court Chambers) and Josh Hepple (Disability Equality Trainer, Activist and Writer).
Two common experiences became evident as each speaker shared their stories.
Denying and Disclosing Disability
Not recognising that one is disabled can be tempting, given that being different may not seem appealing. This was the first time several panelists had spoken about being disabled at a public event. Being mindful of one’s disability, however, can help ensure that adjustments can be made to mitigate the struggles of practising with a disability and to give due attention to one’s overall health. Jocelyn shared with us how adjustments have helped her in her professional life. Jocelyn prefers to avoid the rush hour, take taxis and has the option to work from home where appropriate. She also has an air filter in her office to reduce the effects of air pollution on her limited lung capacity. Diego, a wheelchair-user and commercial barrister, has moulded his practice around his strengths. He mainly undertakes paper-based work, such as advising and drafting. Law firms, chambers, courts and regulatory authorities need to be more accommodating of disabled people for adjustments to have the greatest impact. Josh points out that law firms are reluctant to move away from a two-year training contract despite the Solicitors Regulatory Authority permitting seven years for completion. He also notes that more research needs to be done into supporting lawyers with speech impairments deliver their case on a level playing field. John was disbarred by the Bar Standards Board after he became disabled; they admitted to being guilty of disability discrimination during the resulting litigation. Failure to move away from traditional, inaccessible practices can no longer be acceptable.
Difference is Good
Disabled people should not be discouraged from becoming lawyers because their differences are assets to the legal profession. The skills developed through navigating life as a disabled person helped each speaker in their careers and gave them a unique perspective. The assertiveness and determination Jocelyn needed to succeed as a disabled person helped her to build a thriving practice, fight her corner and attain high-profile achievements. John is aware that he could be perceived as a ‘stroppy, disabled barrister’ because of his tenacity and his willingness to fight for his clients, but he owns the label. Joanna had prematurely built excellent interviewing skills after having to employ personal assistants, which in turn boosted her management abilities. Being underestimated is another asset. Opponents are often shocked to see Diego in court, which puts them on the back foot and acts as a ‘magic charm’ for him. Resilience and problem-solving skills are inbuilt in most disabled people after facing adversity, inaccessibility and exclusivity in society. It is these very skills that help disabled lawyers to find different solutions for their clients, to help them escape the conflict in which they find themselves.
Disabled lawyers, as John pointed out, mitigate the dangers inherent in a lack of representation among decision makers within the legal profession. An increase in the number of disabled lawyers amplifies pressure to eradicate discussions going on in exclusive clubs that are accessible only to the non-disabled, avowedly heterosexual, white, upper middle-class men. The law, created predominately by and for white, male, non-disabled people, supports the status quo too. The panellists were drawn to the legal profession because of a desire to affect change and level the playing field.
Do not be dissuaded from having a legal career because you are a disabled person. There will be challenges but you will also be able to offer a new perspective and the essential skills. Remember that adjustments can and should be made. I hope this event will provide the foundations for a move away from traditional and inaccessible practices to more diverse legal professions that allow disabled lawyers to thrive. In return, the professions will access talented, relentless and combat-ready advocates for clients, strong academics and significant sources of income.
Daniel Holt, HRLA Young Lawyers’ Committee