Forgotten Colleagues

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 01:00

There was a time, not long ago, when outstanding lawyers who happened to be women, or of color, found doors to employment shut tight. While those doors need further opening, they have opened significantly for members of those groups.

Regrettably, that is not true for outstanding lawyers who happen to have a disability. Overlooked as a minority group, these forgotten colleagues are struggling to find or retain positions in law offices and corporate legal departments across America. Their struggle has nothing to do with qualifications.

Instead, it stems from the reality that legal employers are not doing enough to recruit and retain lawyers with disabilities. This situation is depriving opportunity not only to the lawyers themselves, but also to law offices and clients that could be benefiting from their skills, the legal profession and society. The American Bar Association is taking steps to address the situation.

The first-ever National Conference on the Employment of Lawyers with Disabilities, which I hosted in Washington, DC, last May as President of the American Bar Association, challenged legal employers to hire and retain lawyers with disabilities. The historic Conference was sponsored by the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, the ABA Office of the President and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and was attended by several hundred lawyers with disabilities from throughout the U.S., law firm managing partners, corporate counsel and others.

Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, my esteemed law partner and a major driving force in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, noted in delivering the Conference's keynote address:

We can talk a good game about diversity and about how we're open to hiring lawyers with disabilities. But if we don't really do it, don't do the recruiting we need to do, or don't change our profession's attitudes and practices, then the aims of this Conference will not have been achieved.

President John F. Kennedy once said that "a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step." The first step to making law offices across America noticeably diverse with regard to disability has been taken. The May 2006 Conference was an unqualified success, and the Conference Report is available to all on the ABA website, www.abanet.org/disability. The next step is up to law firm leaders, corporate counsel, and legal employers.

Disability diversity includes lawyers already employed when they become impaired and those who have had a disability during all or most of their lives. The major concern of the first group is an accommodation that will allow them to continue as they have in the past; and because they already are part of the firm, there is less resistance to providing reasonable accommodations.

The primary concern of the second group is obtaining employment in the first instance, and availability and effectiveness of reasonable accommodations once employed. What can and should legal employers do to improve the hiring and retention of lawyers with disabilities?

Steps such as the following will help improve hiring practices: (1 ) appointing a diversity representative experienced in disability issues to the firm's management committee; (2) understanding the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and state disability discrimination laws; (3) including reference to persons with disabilities in equal opportunity language in job announcements; (4) writing job descriptions that include only specific tasks essential to the position to be filled, and evaluating candidates based on ability to perform them; and (5) asking interview questions that highlight a candidate's strengths, and then inquiring about any limitations.

Once a lawyer with a disability is hired, both that individual and the law office will benefit by making the workplace "disability friendly." For example: (1) establishing flexible work arrangements for all employees; (2) prorating billable hours, or billing hours directly to the firm; (3) appointing a committee chaired by a well-respected senior partner with representatives from all employment levels to address diversity issues, including disability; (4) specifying in firm documents that diversity, including persons with disabilities, is an important value, and monitoring diversity progress; (5) creating an active mentor program, individualized to meet different needs, including those of lawyers with disabilities; (6) creating a centralized fund to pay for reasonable accommodations.

These concrete actions by corporations and law offices will help make the hiring and retention of lawyers with disabilities more successful. Other practical suggestions and perspectives worthy of consideration are contained in the ABA Commission's Conference Report .

No qualified lawyer - or member of any profession - should be denied the opportunity to work and to contribute solely because of a disability. "Equal opportunity for all" is a cherished principle in America. But effort is needed to make that eloquent promise a reality.

If the legal profession is to reflect the true diversity of our nation - and benefit from the entire pool of available talent - we must include lawyers with disabilities in the same way that the profession has included women and persons of color.

Our profession truly will be diverse, and lawyers with and without disabilities will be considered equal before the Bar, only when you and I and our hiring colleagues across the land make the commitment to hire and retain lawyers with disabilities.

It is past time for us to make that commitment.