Disability: the final frontier?

How do attitudes towards recruiting and retaining people with disabilities compare with gender and ethnic equality? Karin Pappenheim, CEO of Employment Opportunities examines the latest developments in diversity employment in the legal sector.

In a sector that demands continual improvements to stand out from the competition, law firms are realising the need to create a more diverse workforce.

Creating a diverse workforce is a frequently cited aim of companies wishing to attract the best talent and much is being done to promote the role of women and black and ethnic minorities in the UK labour market.

Over the last decade this has been particularly true in the solicitors’ profession. The latest data (2006) shows that more women than men are entering the profession. And 18 per cent of new entrants are of black and ethnic minority origin.

However, it would appear that up to now the progress made concerning gender and ethnic origin is not mirrored in disability equality. Entrenched prejudices and concerns about how to act around people with disabilities have meant that people with disabilities are still overlooked in the recruitment processes of many firms. As a result disability can be viewed as the final frontier of diversity.

One of the difficulties in assessing progress is the lack of robust data on the number of disabled solicitors in the profession. Many choose not to declare their disability if it is not visible – and the reasons for this require examination.

We need to look at the recruitment processes that firms adopt in the legal profession. A good place to start is graduate recruiting.

Graduate recruitment

According to a recent poll by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), 55 per cent of graduate employers were anticipating problems in finding enough appropriately skilled recruits.

The latest figures show that there are around 45,425 UK undergraduates with a declared disability. Yet these figures are not reflected in the graduate workforce.

Demographic changes over the next few years mean that the potential pool of graduate recruits will diminish. According to Government Skills Adviser Chris Humphries the birth rate fall in the 1990s will lead to a workforce ‘black hole’. So employers stand to benefit by reaching out to a wider pool of potential candidates.

While a minority of people with disabilities feel confident enough to disclose their disability, others fear that by doing so their chances of getting a job or achieving promotion will be greatly reduced.

Something as simple as a case study of a disabled employee on the company website will likely encourage more people with disabilities to disclose their disability and apply for the job. It is therefore crucial that law firms encourage disabled applicants to identify their disability on application forms.

Developing an action plan

Many employers are unsure of the requirements of the disability discrimination legislation and of equality in general and have limited knowledge of the support and assistance available to employers. Our experience suggests the problem isn’t always as simple as a lack of knowledge. There are also organisational and cultural barriers. Disabled trainees can face stigma, prejudice and ignorance about disability equality, with some employers having lower expectations of them.

Furthermore, some firms claim that clients would not readily accept being advised by a disabled solicitor or lawyer. By contrast, other law firms say that clients are demanding diversity in law firms.

To help legal firms meet these expectations there needs to be greater awareness about the practical support on offer. Help is at hand for employers who need to have more training in disability equality and to receive advice on practical and ‘reasonable adjustments’.

Employment Opportunities are one such source of advice and support for employers, many companies have benefited from our work. For example, we run a successful scheme that places law students with disabilities on vacation schemes with K&L Gates and following our legal seminar there has been a call for a firm for legal sector HR practitioners. If you would like to be involved with this forum contact Employment Opportunties.

Director of HR (UK) at K&L Gates Tina Two says: “The creativity and innovation of a company’s people drives a competitive advantage, so one of our key objectives is to recruit and retain a disproportionately high share of the talent pool available.” Recognising that talent comes in many forms and not one group has the monopoly on this they can ensure they recruit the best people.

So while there are undoubted corporate social responsibility benefits to having a diverse workforce, it is the business case that dictates casting your net far and wide to search for the best people. At Employment Opportunities we would be delighted to talk to you about how your firm can become more disability inclusive.

Employment Opportunities