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Attorneys with disabilities face tough job market

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

More than a decade after the Americans With Disabilities Act became law, California lawyers with disabilities say they routinely face discrimination, either cannot find jobs or are underemployed, and have difficulty finding part-time work or obtaining the accommodations they need to work effectively.

A survey conducted by the State Bar Committee on Lawyers With Dis-abilities also generated these findings:

  • 28 percent work as solo practitioners.
  • 76 percent earn less than $100,000 per year.
  • 16 percent said they have encountered negative comments about their disability from judges.
  • 22 percent said they’ve faced physical barriers to access in courts.
  • At least half of those who said they were hearing- or vision-impaired said they had difficulties communicating in meetings and hearings.
  • 32 percent requested accommodations for the bar exam and 86 percent received accommodations.

“We need to create more opportunities for lawyers with disabilities through awareness on the part of law firms, big and small,” said committee chair Anil Mehta. “We need to look at these folks and realize they have a lot to contribute. They come from top-notch law schools, but because of their disabilities they are not finding places to work. Attitudes have to change, perceptions have to change.”

Although only 150 attorneys responded to the survey, conducted by Hertz Research of Petaluma, statistical theory suggests the results would be the same as interviewing the entire attorney population, give or take approximately 8 percent, said pollster Richard Hertz.

“The cumulative weight of the survey results and in particular the views expressed by many respondents who said they had been denied employment-related opportunities due to their disability should not be discounted . . . The consistency of responses suggests that these are issues that affect a significant number of attorneys with disabilities,” Hertz said.

A full 45 percent of those who identify themselves as disabled said they have been denied employment opportunities as a result of that disability, according to the survey results. Only 21 percent said they had not been denied employment and 34 percent said they were not certain.

The numbers about the lack of job opportunities were the survey’s most surprising outcome, Mehta said. And beyond the dearth of opportunities was the fact that “people really give up on looking for a legal job after awhile,” he added.

Among those whose disabilities were apparent, 68 percent said they were denied employment because of the disability. But the problems of those whose disabilities were not evident, such as depression or auto-immune disease, were also severe. Often, lawyers in both groups try to hide their disability, if possible.

Comments that accompanied the survey fleshed out the results and were both poignant and telling. Some said that even though they were in the upper 10 to 20 percent of their law school classes and attended respected schools, they were unable to find a job after extensive applications and interviews.

“I graduated in the top 10 percent of Santa Clara School of Law, was the articles editor on the Law Review and no one ever wanted to hire me when I showed up in my wheelchair, despite getting many interviews based on my resume,” wrote one respondent. “I finally got sick of it.”

Said a UC Berkeley grad who ranked 17th in his law school class, “Upwards of 1,000 resumes for a grand total of zero job offers.”

In addition to difficulties in finding employment, the survey participants said they faced other forms of discrimination:

  • They were forced to accept lower-level assignments they felt were not commensurate with their abilities or they were paid less.
  • They felt they were passed over for partnership or promotion.
  • It is difficult to obtain health insurance and other benefits.
  • It is difficult to find part-time work or to obtain the accommodations necessary to work with their disability.

A significant number of respondents described their perceptions that many law firms do not want to hire attorneys with disabilities, either because the other lawyers themselves were uncomfortable or they worried that their clients would feel uncomfortable working with them. In addition, some reported that employers said their disability would prevent them from carrying the workload routinely expected of attorneys. Others mentioned the reluctance of law firms to allow them the time needed for medical needs or appointments related to their disability.

Some respondents said they had difficulty getting the equipment they needed — such as voice-activated computer software, transportation assistance or full access to their service animals — to do their jobs.

Resistance to the special accommodations people with disabilities need was found not only in the workplace but in courtrooms and courthouses as well. Twenty-two percent reported finding physical barriers in courthouses, compared to 10 percent in their offices. And 21 percent said they encountered resistance or refusal to make reasonable accommodations in court hearings or conferences.

Although Rule of Court 989.3 provides a process for requesting appropriate accommodations for disabilities, 70 percent of those who responded to the survey were not familiar with the rule. Of those who were, 44 percent said they had filed a motion to obtain accommodation; 53 percent said they were satisfied with the court’s response and 47 percent were dissatisfied.

In addition to physical barriers, participants said old attitudes die hard. A lack of understanding about the limitations caused by disabilities causes much frustration. “There is a strong emotional resistance to the employment of hearing-impaired/ deaf attorneys,” said one. “There continues to be an incorrect perception that a hearing impairment is a signifier of stupidity.”

Another hearing-impaired lawyer said he sometimes needs to stand close to the bench to hear the judge, and risks giving offense by doing so.

“I’ve experienced a lot of judges not taking me seriously (i.e., not listening to me or asking co-counsel to speak for me) because I have a speech disability,” said one participant.

Said another with a chronic auto-immune disease: “The legal profession needs to accept and welcome lawyers who don’t follow the ‘workaholic’ 15-hours-a-day work schedule. Some of us . . . have diseases that prevent us from working such inhuman hours.”

The survey led to a series of recommendations from the bar’s committee that included better education about rule 989.3, better education for law firms and judges about the needs of attorneys with disabilities, more part-time opportunities for lawyers with disabilities and improved availability of health and disability insurance coverage.

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