Disabled lawyers say finding a contract is toughest barrier

LAW firms are continuing to discriminate against graduates with disabilities despite the Law Society's efforts to stamp out discrimination in the profession, an inaugural conference for solicitors heard.

Delegates at the first national conference of The Group for Solicitors with Disabilities, held in Liverpool on 8 February, agreed that it was even more difficult for disabled people to obtain training contracts than for others.

This makes the search for contracts the greatest single barrier for disabled would-be solicitors to overcome.

Michelle Howard, who is paralysed from the chest down and works at a Swindon law firm, said she had only received one job offer out of nearly 100 applications for articles in 1989, when contracts were far easier to obtain than they are at present.

When she did get an interview, wheelchair access was often poor, and once it was so bad she had to be interviewed in the street.

On another occasion, she was asked during the course of the interview how she would feel when a client saw she was in a wheelchair.

Rita Hardaker, another delegate who is currently seeking a training contract, said she was unprepared for the blatant prejudice she had encountered at some firms.

Although partially deaf, she can lip read and use the telephone without difficulty, but one firm openly stated that her disability precluded her from employment, while another said she would put too much pressure on senior partners. “It is very unfair. People put the stigma of disability on you before they even get to know you,” she said.

Jerry Garvey, the Law Society's equal opportunities officer, explained that the Law Society had a range of good practice measures relating to anti-discrimination which all firms had to comply with.

He said: “All firms should have an anti-discrimination policy which should relate specifically to ethnic minorities and people with special needs.”