Tackling a career in law while living with a disability may seem a hard road to travel, but two Vancouver lawyers say why it’s worth the trip

Making it work — profiles of two lawyers living with disabilities

In its recent report, Lawyers with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Equality, the Law Society’s Disability Research Working Group is asking the Benchers to consider initiatives to help BC lawyers with disabilities overcome barriers to practice.

Their recommendations — to be considered by the Benchers in 2005 — range from promoting workplace policies, to sponsoring a mentoring program for new lawyers, to encouraging law firms to commit to tangible objectives on the recruitment, hiring, retention, advancement and compensation of lawyers with disabilities.

As part of its outreach to the profession, the Working Group has now published a resource guide — also available on the Law Society site — for lawyers and employers considering accommodation issues.

Just as importantly, the Working Group wishes to put a human face on the issue of disability — and there is no better way than through lawyers’ own stories. In this spirit come the profiles of Halldor Bjarnason and Bill Morley, two Vancouver lawyers who have established themselves as vibrant, respected members of the legal community.

Not only have both men overcome more than their share of problems to fulfil career aspirations, but they hold a passion for giving back to the community, particularly through organizations that assist other people with disabilities.

These profiles, presented by Vancouver writer Toni Armanno, have been abridged for the Benchers’ Bulletin. The full-length articles are available in the online verison of the Bulletin at www.lawsociety.bc.ca.

Resource guide now available

Would you like to learn more about funding assistance and other resources available to support employers and their employees with disabilities? The Disability Research Working Group has published a resource guide listing government and community programs.

The Working Group would greatly appreciate hearing from law firms and lawyers about their experiences in using any of the resources or services listed in the guide. This will assist the Working Group in flagging those of greatest (and least) value. Please relay your comments to Kuan Foo, Staff Lawyer for the Working Group, at kfoo@lsbc.org.


Halldor Bjarnason – it’s “the best profession in the world”
  Halldor Bjarnason
   
 

With disarming charm and a quick wit, Vancouver lawyer Halldor Bjarnason always manages to put others at ease, whether on the issue of his disability or his chosen profession. “In Grade 3, I realized that being a firefighter wasn’t practical,” he reflects. “The only other job I could think of where I’d be allowed to wear suspenders was a lawyer.”

   

Halldor Bjarnason didn’t always want to be a lawyer. “But,” he says, “I knew I wanted to go into law since Grade 3. Before that I wanted to be a firefighter. In Grade 3, I realized that being a firefighter wasn’t practical, and the only other job I could think of where I’d be allowed to wear suspenders was a lawyer.”

Halldor was born with athetoid cerebral palsy, which means that he is uncoordinated in some of his movements, and has a speech impediment. Because of this, he began his education in a pre-school for children with disabilities. Back in the late ‘60s, Halldor says, “They just didn’t put disabled kids in public school.” But, largely due to his mother’s determined efforts, he was allowed to enter the public school system. Halldor earned an honours degree in Political Science at the University of Winnipeg and went on to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he received a Bachelor of Laws. His experience in law school was “positive,” he says. Because his disability was visible, there was no debate about needing extra support, which amounted to additional time to write exams.

After graduating from law school in 1989, Halldor articled with a large, established law firm in Toronto’s Bay Street area. According to Halldor, the booming economy at that time encouraged firms to take more risks and hire people with disabilities. Getting kept on permanently was a different matter. “All prejudices and presumptions came out,” he says, and they hired other students whom they presumed could work longer hours and be more productive.

Shortly after being called to the bar in Ontario in 1991, Halldor came to Vancouver. Unable initially to find an articling position, he worked as a program officer in the federal Department of the Secretary of State. In 1993, he completed PLTC and was called in BC.

Today Halldor has a thriving practice with Access Law Group, where a group of independent lawyers share common resources. About 80% of his work involves wills, trusts and estate law. He also does family, personal injury and employment law. His assistant, Nicole Beaulieu, points out that many of Halldor’s clients have disabilities or are the parents or guardians of people with disabilities and find in Halldor a lawyer who is particularly sensitive and knowledgeable about their situation.

His initial attempts to secure a place in his profession were not easy, however. Not long after being called to the bar in BC, he secured a position as a staff lawyer with the BC Labour Relations Board for two and a half years on a contract basis. But when the term was up, Halldor recalls, “No one would hire me, so I had to be creative. I did freelance legal research for other lawyers, drafting and opinion work.” His efforts to establish himself were eased significantly by the support he received from Manuel Azevedo, a Vancouver lawyer who not only let Halldor use his office, but also offered encouragement. During this time, over a period of three years, Halldor also managed the Cerebral Palsy Association.

In the fall of 1999, Halldor opened a sole practice in Vancouver, in association with a group of other lawyers. After two years, he launched a new firm in partnership with one of them in Vancouver’s historic Marine Building. When an opportunity to join Access Law Group came up in the fall of 2003, Halldor seized it.

Halldor needs little in the way of accommodation for his disability. “The only thing I have is this piece of plexiglass over the keyboard,” he says, pointing to a cover with holes drilled over each of the keys to prevent him from involuntarily pressing the wrong one. “This $100 piece of plexiglass — the actual cost of my accommodation — is not expensive.” And, he adds, “I bought it myself and can take it with me wherever I’m working.”

John Weston, one of the founders of Access Law Group, observes that Halldor is seen as a leader by his colleagues in showing them how “to deal patiently with people, to be forbearing and to destroy some of the presumptions that you have about other people.” Weston adds, “It’s wonderful to be led by somebody who, in the world’s eyes, has a deficiency.”

Halldor remains active in numerous organizations. He is currently the Chair of the Law Society’s Disability Research Working Group and a member of the Equity and Diversity Committee. He is a legal advisor to the BC Sports Medicine Council and sits on several boards, including that of the Neil Squire Foundation. Through the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network, an organization that assists families to ensure ongoing support for their disabled children, Halldor leads regular information seminars. He has also taught at UBC, the West Coast School of Massage and at Langara College. For his outstanding service to the community, Halldor has won numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Medal in 1982, the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award and a Community Service Award from the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

At Access Law Group, Halldor has succeeded in getting past what he believes is the biggest obstacle facing lawyers with disabilities: people’s attitudes. Recognizing that changing people’s attitudes takes time, Halldor suggests there are things that can be done now to improve prospects for lawyers with disabilities, such as offering compensation to law firms for costs they incur in making accommodations for a lawyer with a disability.

John Weston notes that, in recruiting, it’s important for firms to be open, rigorous and ask tough questions. Before they agreed to bring Halldor into their group, they asked, “What can we expect of you? What special needs do you have?” Most people, he says, would be afraid to ask those questions. “But,” he continues, “those of us who are trained to aspire to excellence in the Olympian sense — you know, higher, longer, faster, brighter, whatever — have to temper that with something that may be a little bit foreign. And woe to the firms that fail to dust off the diamond and see what’s there.”

The irony is that Halldor is, in fact, an athlete of Olympian stature who has participated in a number of international games, including the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, where he won a gold medal for being the best in the world in the 1500 metre tricycle sprint. “It was a pretty good day in Seoul,” Halldor recalls. “I broke a world record.”

Halldor’s assistant admires his “energy and passion for everything he does,” including the interest he has sustained for the occupation he didn’t pursue. He maintains connections with many fire departments and is just finishing writing a book about the history of the Winnipeg Fire Department. Reflecting on the choice he made in Grade 3, Halldor declares that “I’ve been doing law for 13 years, and I’m still convinced it’s the best profession in the world. Some days, like any job, you get tired of it. But overall, I love it.”


Bill Morley – helping to set others on the path to independence
  Bill Morley
   
  Bill Morley, a litigator at Fasken Martineau, says he has gone “full circle” — from his own recovery from a serious accident in his youth to helping accident victims find the means necessary to regain their independence and rebuild their lives.
   

It was May, 1975, and like most students nearing the end of their Grade 12 year, Bill Morley was looking forward to the prospects that lay ahead. He had just started what would have turned into a great summer job installing gutters and drainpipes on houses for $100 a day — big money for him back then — and was planning to go to university in the fall. A car accident changed all that. “My injury was a big adjustment,” Bill says. “Looking back on it, it did not derail me, but I went from being an active teenager to someone who was bedridden and paralyzed overnight.”

Bill quickly accepted his new condition and was determined to go to university after his year-long rehabilitation. In 1980, he graduated from the University of Victoria with an honours degree in English. He had embraced university life, and being in a wheelchair didn’t hamper the outgoing Bill from having “a great social life” as well. By the end of his BA, he decided he wasn’t suited to the academic career he had considered and, in the fall, enrolled in the law school at the University of British Columbia.

Bill did well at law school. But he had to work hard, he says, and for someone in a wheelchair there were architectural challenges. “Most of the professors’ offices were upstairs, but they were very flexible. I could phone them and they’d come down to meet.” And there was no problem interacting with other students. “Partly,” he says, “it’s the person in the chair’s attitude. I’m quite outgoing and I find it’s reciprocated very well.”

Being in a wheelchair didn’t hinder Bill from getting an articling position. “I didn’t have trouble with the interview process,” Bill reports, although he had heard some horror stories. He braced himself for the assumption in firms that, if you’re in a wheelchair, “you require a whole bunch of accommodations, that you easily fatigue, that you need breaks, that you couldn’t work a whole day — regardless of the nature of your disability.” As it turns out, that never came up in any of his interviews. “Everyone treated me as a legitimate candidate on a par with anyone else,” he reflects. Asked if that was due to the fact that his requirements, compared with many others, are relatively minor, Bill is not sure. People make presumptions, he thinks, before they know what specific needs are involved.

After articling at Russell DuMoulin (now Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, one of the largest firms in Canada), Bill was selected to stay on as an associate. The physical alterations that had to be made — wheelchair accessible washrooms — were minimal. “That was the only accommodation that was needed,” he says.

Today Bill is a senior partner practising in the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department of Fasken Martineau, and his case load keeps two full-time assistants busy. About 75% of his cases are in the area of plaintiff’s personal injury or medical negligence. “It has come full circle for me,” he says thoughtfully. “I’ve gone through an accident, and now I’m helping people who have gone through a similar experience.”

“When you act for an accident victim, you’re making a real difference to their lives. You get an award that allows them to live independently, or to start a business, or to do something worthwhile,” he says. Shelley Manson, his legal executive assistant of more than eight years, has observed how Bill is seen as a model by some of his clients. And does he win most of his cases? “Touch wood, yes,” Bill says, “Win, or settle them.”

Being in a wheelchair hasn’t been a big problem in the courtroom, Bill says. A few judges have asked him to stand up while he’s introducing himself, so now he tries to sit as far back as he can so they can see that he’s in a wheelchair.

Within his office, Bill’s disability is practically invisible, observes his paralegal assistant, Christy Johnson. Compared with working for someone without a disability, the only difference, she says, is that sometimes she has to get him a binder that he can’t reach. She believes his attitude is one of the reasons he has come so far. “At a function,” she says, “he’s out on the dance floor dancing — dancing in his wheelchair, going around doing all these moves in his wheelchair!”

Bill makes a difference not only in the lives of his clients, but also for those assisted by the organizations in which he has been active, which include the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association (BC), the Canadian Paraplegic Association and the BC Brain Injury Association. His strongest contribution has been as chair, since 1996, of the BC Paraplegic Association. It was during his summer jobs there as an undergraduate that he met the then President of the Association, Doug Mowat, a quadriplegic who was a businessperson, an MLA, an advocate for people with disabilities and a mentor to Bill Morley.

At Fasken Martineau, Bill Morley is, at present, the only lawyer in the Vancouver office with a visible disability. Although the economic environment has become more competitive, Bill is optimistic about improving opportunities for lawyers with disabilities. The legal community, he says, is an intelligent, generous group, despite their “adversarial” reputation. “If you’re disabled,” he says, “and you approach law positively, I think you’ll find work.” It’s important, he advises, to be up front. “Don’t say that you’re going to be a full-time plus, if it’s not going to be real for you.” And, he adds, the more disabled someone is, the more likely that person will be doing part-time work and the more problematic partnership will be, given that it’s tied to economic measures.

From the firm’s perspective, Bill contends, the goal has to be making a living, but no one should jump to the conclusion that someone who is disabled is an economic liability. Many lawyers with disabilities need little or no accommodation — usually much less than firms might think. Firms, he says, should “take a step back, and take a deep breath and say, ‘Hold on a minute, let’s give this person a try. What can they do, what are the restrictions they have, and will they fit?’ ”

Sandra Guarascio, an associate in the Labour, Employment & Human Rights Department of Fasken Martineau, believes that one of the challenges in recruitment is the “fit” quality. To reinforce the value of having a proactive recruitment policy that is inclusive of candidates with disabilities, Guarascio argues, “you need only look at a lawyer like Bill Morley who is first and foremost a phenomenal lawyer.”

“My injury is something I still mourn,” says Bill. “Having said that, I have met people and done things I would never have done had I not been injured. Life has taken me down a different but in its way a rich and rewarding path for which I am grateful.”