WIPR Influential Women in IP 2020
“There is just no consideration for people with
disabilities,” he says. But the association is helping
to challenge the status quo, albeit very gradually,
through its advocacy efforts for an accessible and
inclusive justice system.
Onwe adds: “Ignorance and wrong assumptions
still underline the treatment given to those with
disabilities in the legal profession.”
Bordering on bravado
For those in law, it’s not common to encounter
colleagues with visible disabilities or to talk openly
about invisible disabilities, says Francesca Rivers,
solicitor at Cancer Research Technology and co-chair
of IP Ability, IP Inclusive’s community for disabled
people, carers and their allies.
“Perhaps this is true to some extent of all
professions, due to the barriers posed by being disabled
or a carer. I suspect it is particularly a problem in the
legal profession as a result of the demanding—often
unreasonably so—nature of the profession,” she adds.
IP lawyers, particularly litigators, can expect
frequently to work gruelling hours with few breaks
and some physically demanding tasks.
“In my view, there is a pervading attitude of
‘toughness’—bordering on bravado—within the legal
profession generally,” says Rivers.
“A lot of solicitors believe you should simply
be robust enough to withstand those working
conditions, and if you can’t then you’re in the wrong
profession—which is of course utter nonsense. You’re
in the right profession if you’re an excellent lawyer
and—unless you’re a long-distance runner—excellence
is not measured in endurance.”
It’s precisely this attitude to robustness that can
stop people feeling enabled to speak up.
“Many employers and colleagues just assume that
people with disabilities cannot cope,” Onwe adds.
And, a culture of ‘presenteeism’, which isn’t
reserved for law firms, means that being physically
present is equated with commitment. This can be
“Because of this cultural mindset, firms focus on
hours worked rather than productivity, which can
disadvantage those with disabilities,” warns Begum.
Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic will put this in
perspective, providing some hope that productivity can
win out over presence and normalise flexible working.
Those with disabilities are disadvantaged as soon
as they set foot on the path to becoming a lawyer.
Disabled people’s experiences of entry into the
profession was “particularly shocking” says Foster,
with only 8.5% surveyed reporting a positive
experience of recruitment agencies.
While firms have made massive inroads in terms
of diversifying where they attract trainee solicitors
from, adds Begum, individuals with a disability are
effectively “alien territory”.
of solicitors and
ill-treatment in the
workplace, of whom 80%
believe it relates to their
disability, according to
a 2020 report by Cardiff
“Employers need to think long and hard about
how they’re going to enable people to reach their
potential,” she says.
For those in the UK, securing a training contract
to become a solicitor involves attending workshops
and summer vacation schemes, which typically have
fixed dates. From the outset, this poses a challenge
for anyone with caring duties, or a condition or
treatment regimen that makes certain dates harder
than others, adds Rivers.
“For many it feels as though the door is shut from
the outset,” she says.
She suggests that candidates should be recruited
through a more traditional interview process, providing
alternative routes into the profession. This would also
help attract candidates from poorer socioeconomic
backgrounds, who might not be able to afford a place
to stay or train fares for that period of time, she adds.
It’s not just those beginning their careers who face
obstacles—even talented disabled partners, judges and
Queen’s Counsels experience basic day-to-day barriers
and prejudice, according to Cardiff University’s study.
Disability in law
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