Firms struggling with disability diversity as disclosure remains an issue

Disability remains the most under-represented diversity strand in the legal profession, with fewer than 1 per cent of lawyers at the largest firms reporting having a disability of any kind.

Research for The Lawyer’s first-ever Diversity Audit has found that despite 19 per cent of the UK population and 16 per cent of working-age adults having a disability, around 1 per cent of individuals at the smallest firms regulated by the SRA report having a disability, with the proportion falling to just 0.7 per cent at the larger end of the scale.

Waqas Zaib, chairman of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division and disabilities ambassador at diversity group Aspiring Solicitors, said part of the reason for this is that people are still shying away from disclosing their status, particularly when it comes to invisible conditions such as depression or diabetes.

“The current membership of the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division stands at close to 800 individuals, but this does not give an accurate reflection of the number of disabled individuals in the profession,” he said.

“The main reason we believe that membership to the division is low is that people do not want to disclose a disability. A lot of individuals believe that if their employer knew of their disability they would be treated less favourably or it may lead to a negative impact on their career.”

Firms are starting to address this issue by establishing support groups and networks, with CMS, Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), Hogan Lovells and Reed Smith leading the way in this regard.

Reed Smith has poured resources into attracting disabled candidates at the junior end, creating a disability task force in 2012 specifically to attract disabled candidates to its vacation schemes.

Last year 65 disabled candidates applied for the firm’s summer vacation scheme while 60 applied for training contracts, with five offers made and accepted.

CMS, HSF and Hogan Lovells, meanwhile, have been focusing on normalising disability in the workplace, holding events with a series of high-profile speakers and running workshops aimed at giving disabled employees the confidence to be themselves at work.

However, Hogan Lovells diversity and wellbeing head Alison Unsted said there is still much work to be done, with a lack of partners willing to stand out as disability role models stopping more junior lawyers from disclosing their own statuses.

“Disability is very complex and one of the last strands of diversity where we still have a long way to go,” she said.

“When we originally tried to launch our disability network there wasn’t a huge take-up.

“Having a network of people who can come together and share experiences is different depending on their disability and we haven’t yet had a senior partner who has come forward to stand as a role model.”

While many in the profession do not believe people should have to disclose whether they have a disability or not, unless they do firms will not be able to offer appropriate support and stereotypes surrounding disabilities are likely to perpetuate.

“As a profession we still have a distance to go before we become fully inclusive, but we are headed down the right path,” said Zaib.

“We need to continue to challenge the notions that disclosing a disability will have negative implications, that expensive adjustments need to be made to employ someone with a disability or that disabled people can’t carry out work as well as their able-bodied colleagues.”

For more analysis read this week’s cover story and leader and to purchase the full report email richard.edwards@centaurmedia.com