Then-Cornell Law student Angela Winfield thought her interview with a prospective Big Law employer was going well until he asked her whether being blind would interfere with serving clients.
“I was really excited, and I was interviewing with large law firms. And during one of those interviews, an attorney actually said to me, ‘You’re saying all the right things, you have all the right credentials, but I just don’t know how you could do this job with the disability that you have,’” said Winfield, who is now the chief diversity officer for the Law School Admission Council.
“He just said this very clearly and very bluntly, and this was in the 2000s, and I don’t think that we’ve moved much beyond that. But I think things like disability affinity groups could be very helpful.”
Though less than 2% of lawyers identify as disabled—possibly because of lingering stigmas—attorneys with disabilities are looking to force a culture change in Big Law. Disability affinity groups at large law firms offer support and networking opportunities for attorneys with disabilities. Disabilities is taking its place alongside race, orientation, and gender as Big Law improves its diversity and inclusion efforts and booming market has ratcheted up recruiting battles.
Littler Mendelson P.C., a massive labor and employment law firm that regularly defends companies accused of discrimination, launched its affinity group in December.
“Attorneys and individuals with disabilities certainly have unique perspectives to bring to the table, and businesses and law firms are really beginning to see the value in inclusion,” said Anna Curry Gualano, a principal in Littler Mendelson’s Birmingham, Ala., office who has the bone condition osteogenesis imperfecta.
Changing the Culture
The groups are reframing conversations around law where having a disability was once viewed as a career impediment. Some lawyers with disabilities went to lengths to conceal their conditions out of fear it would derail advancement.
“I’m legally blind, so I can pass as a sighted person,” said Kathryn Carroll, former treasurer of the now-disbanded National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities. “I would hesitate to disclose because I’m afraid it’s going to catch on that maybe I’ll need some type of accommodation, like purchasing software to help me for my work computer.”
The ABA Pledge for Change: Disability Diversity in the Legal Profession was introduced in April 2019, but so far, only 39 firms among the AmLaw 100 list—have signed it.
Reed Smith LLP, which signed the pledge, launched its Looking for Excellence and Advancement of Disabled Attorneys at Reed Smith (LEADRS) group in 2016. The firm encourages others in Big Law to take up the cause to make it easier for those with disabilities to come together and feel supported.
“You have a forum of people you can speak with and share experiences with and find support. I know I did,” said Luke E. Debevec, a partner and LEADRS co-founder. Debevec has epilepsy.
“With a characteristic like disability, you don’t have something set up where you can identify each other. And then having a group that’s visible, it signals, both internally and externally, what type of place you are that supports people with disabilities and says that they’re welcome and that they can succeed at a business or at a firm like the one that you’re in.”
Inspired by Littler, Ann Motl, an associate in Greenberg Traurig’s Minneapolis office who has a neuromuscular disability and uses a wheelchair, has raised those issues with her firm as well. Greenberg Traurig also signed the ABA pledge. Motl is in the early stages of starting a Minnesota Bar Association group for attorneys with disabilities.
“I feel like disability is just becoming more visual as a specific aspect of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is great to see,” she said. “When I was younger, I don’t ever remember reading an article about disability, unless it was in a disability-specific publication, so I think it’s just something that’s becoming more mainstream now.”
Part of the affinity groups’ mission is to eliminate stigmas around disabilities in the highly competitive world of Big Law.
“As a deaf lawyer with nearly 30 years of experience, I am very familiar with rejection by law firms,” Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said. “There are approximately 400 deaf and hard of hearing lawyers in the country, and while a small percentage have successfully worked at Big Law firms, most of us have had difficulty gaining a job at law firms.”
Those who do break through the ranks are fearful of being viewed as less capable than able-bodied colleagues and competitors.
“Being an attorney is a very competitive of market, even more so in Big Law, so no one wants to show any weakness, as a general matter,” said Lauren E. Clements, co-chair of Littler’s disability affinity group and an associate at the firm’s Minneapolis office. Clements has arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, which impacts multiple joints in the body. “I do believe that attorneys with disabilities may assume that their disability might be a weakness as opposed to a strength and are afraid to speak up about it. That’s one of the really exciting things about this group.”
Fifteen years after that uncomfortable interview, Winfield said the landscape is slowly shifting as Big Law better grapples with diversity and what that means for attorneys who have disabilities.
“For many years we didn’t actually ask people if they had a disability. We didn’t include it in diversity,” she said. “So by saying, ‘We recognize that disability is part of diversity and part of the human experience, and we’re going to support you and celebrate that, just like we celebrate the other identities as part of diversity,’ that’s a huge step forward. That’s going to lead to improved culture and hopefully people will feel more comfortable that their disability is not going to be a detriment to their career and they will self-identify more.”