About 1 in 5 of working-age adults in the UK have a disability. Yet, according to a recent report, only 3% of solicitors in England & Wales have declared a disability to their employer.
Clearly the actual figure of solicitors who have a disability must be significantly higher than 3%. This begs a worrying question…why aren’t more solicitors telling their employer that they have a disability?
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) produced some very interesting research which looks into this in. In their report – published in March this year – they come up with some explanations for why this figure is so low.
Some of the issues found:
‘We found that for some disabled solicitors, they felt their disability ‘lowered the bar’ and was perceived as reducing the standard of competence.’
‘Flexible working is sometimes seen as a choice and a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential workplace adjustment…some firms felt it was easier to provide employees with adaptations and aids and less comfortable when looking at changes in work patterns or discussing the support their staff may need to do their job well – all of which constitute workplace adjustments.’
‘Assumptions are made about disabled people, which may translate into barriers to entry and barriers to promotion and progression. Some disabled solicitors say that the dominant culture of a law firm such as long hours and presenteeism often overrides decisions to provide flexibility in working patterns or types of work.’
‘There was also uneasiness for some people about requesting adjustments and having discussions about them. For firms there was little understanding about the changing nature of them. Those who had positive experiences had worked in firms where workplace adjustments were discussed early on.’
‘Many disabled solicitors and paralegals said it is not easy to find out about the accessibility of prospective employers. Many law firms also use recruitment agencies which present additional barriers to getting shortlisted.
‘It is a common misconception that once a workplace adjustment has been provided it does not change.’
A few tips from the report:
- ‘Provide specific and bespoke training to staff – particularly those on recruitment panels, HR personnel and managers’
- ‘Work with recruitment agencies to ensure that disabled people are not dismissed from the outset’ (many law firms use recruitment agencies as part of the hiring process so this is a key area)
- ‘Where leaders promote disability inclusion not only do individuals thrive, but firms do too’
Good practice identified:
‘We found firms that provided training, wrote blogs and held events and workshops to raise awareness of disability endorsed a culture where it was the ‘norm’ to request and be given workplace adjustments.’
‘Markel Law use their firm diversity data to monitor the profile of staff. They used their information to assess how well they are progressing on equality, diversity and inclusion and found they have more than 3% of disabled solicitors in the workforce as well as good representation across other protected characteristics. The firm has used this data to think about ways to promote diversity, setting up an Equality and Diversity Committee chaired by one of their senior managers to consider bespoke training on several areas of disability. The firm published their diversity data in line with SRA requirements and make this openly available to clients.’
‘Cognitive aptitude tests in the Reed Smith graduate recruitment process have been abolished. Reed Smith have adopted an un-timed, behavioural strengths assessment as it was felt that traditional (timed) psychometric tests could discriminate against disabled applicants. For example, they can prove to be an unjustified barrier for talented applicants due to the heightened anxiety associated with timed testing, particularly for some applicants with dyslexia or Asperger’s. That said, Reed Smith review applications on a case by case basis to ensure that all needs are met.’
Why does all this matter?
From my point of view, it must be the case that for some solicitors, their lives would be made easier if they had some adjustments in the workplace. They would be able to carry out their work more efficiently and free of pain, worry or discomfort.
There are a range of benefits to having adjustments, and potential consequences of not having them. Some people get peace of mind informing their employer as they feel they are being open about their circumstances.
The cross section of society that firms represents, which includes clients who have a disability, need solicitors who have a lived experience of disability and the natural empathy this lived experience brings. Encouragingly, the report found that some firms provided training on how to engage with clients requiring reasonable adjustments.
Some of the positive initiatives and resources mentioned in the report:
Valuable500, Aspiring Solicitors, Lawyers with disability division, Legally disabled.
The SRA report followed a survey of 3000 law firms, engagement with disability experts and conversations with disabled solicitors. Click here for the full report.
Edmund Lewis, AGCAS Disability Task Group, University of Westminster