Report points new way forward for lawyers with disabilities

The Law Society’s Disability Research Working Group is calling on the Society to consider 10 reforms to promote equal access for BC lawyers with disabilities.

In its newly published report, Lawyers with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Equality, the Working Group urges such initiatives as sample workplace policies to provide guidance to law firms that employ lawyers with disabilities, a mentoring program to support new lawyers seeking to establish themselves and a program to encourage law firms to commit to tangible objectives on the recruitment, hiring, retention, advancement and compensation of lawyers with disabilities.

The Working Group, chaired by Vancouver lawyer Halldor Bjarnason, has studied disability issues in legal education and the profession since 1998. In its first report, Lawyers with Disabilities: Identifying Barriers to Equality, published in 2001, the Working Group described the problems of discrimination, prejudice and access barriers that make it difficult for lawyers with disabilities to practise law.

Lawyers interviewed in the first study flagged discriminatory practices that prevent the career advancement of lawyers with disabilities or produce such stress that a frequent result is overwork, burn-out and failure, both in private firms and government departments. In the end, lawyers with disabilities are seldom kept on after articling, and their search for employment is difficult. The study revealed that there is a tendency for lawyers to hide their disabilities since disclosure often leads to discrimination in employment. More than half of the participants spoke of loss of employment, marginalization into solo practice or early retirement.

In a quest to find solutions to these problems, the Working Group began the second phase of its study in 2002 — consulting further with lawyers with disabilities, other lawyers and the law schools and researching successful initiatives from other jurisdictions.

Since leadership of senior lawyers will be critical to the success of any future initiatives, the Working Group hosted an evening forum in October, 2003 with senior lawyers, judges and lawyers with disabilities.

The forum focused on the best ways to raise awareness within the legal community about barriers to practice for lawyers with disabilities; to offer concrete resources and strategies to address those barriers; to assist firms in dealing with implementation of strategies; and to provide ongoing support for lawyers with disabilities.

An ongoing problem for lawyers with disabilities in seeking or keeping employment is that law firms may overlook or refuse accommodations by making incorrect assumptions — most commonly that accommodations will not be effective or will be too expensive. Firms may also not understand that they have a legal obligation not to discriminate on the basis of disability and are required to make accommodations.

While it is common to think of workplace accommodations in terms of improving physical access to a building, in fact accommodations can range from flexible work schedules, to appropriate office placement or lighting to allowing for use of a service animal at work. To the extent that some accommodations may be expensive, the Working Group recommended a reserve fund be established — with a funding model to be developed — to assist law firms that employ lawyers with disabilities and to share costs more broadly across the profession.

The Working Group retained a researcher to identify some key government and community resources of interest to legal employers and lawyers with disabilities — set out in a new resource guide, which will be available soon on the Law Society website.

Of greatest concern to lawyers with disabilities are not the physical barriers they face, but the attitudinal barriers. The Working Group recommended further education for the profession and the judiciary on disability issues, sample workplace policies and a commitment from law firms to hiring and retaining lawyers with disabilities.

"Identifying and implementing effective solutions includes looking at hiring and retention policies and addressing the support mechanisms available, both within firms and in the larger legal community," the Working Group observed. "It demands a creative willingness to conform to both the letter and the spirit of anti-discrimination obligations."

Recognizing the importance of one-on-one support, the Working Group stressed the importance of building community among lawyers with disabilities — such as through an online meeting place and a mentoring program.

Another key recommendation is that the Society set out the business case for law firms employing lawyers with disabilities since law firms profit from having a broader pool of qualified practitioners. Lawyers with disabilities can help increase access and choice for clients with disabilities and allow firms to provide better service to that sector of the community.

The recommendations

In reporting out to the Equity and Diversity Committee and the Benchers, the Disability Research Working Group recommended 10 ways for the Law Society to help lawyers with disabilities overcome barriers in practice:

  1. Develop a clear definition of the term "disability" for use in Law Society programs;
  2. Establish an ongoing Law Society Access and Advisory Committee for Lawyers with Disabilities, expanded from the present Working Group;
  3. Develop a business case to endorse and support a greater inclusion of lawyers with disabilities at all levels of the legal profession;
  4. Provide to legal employers draft equity and diversity workplace policies respecting lawyers with disabilities;
  5. Create a reserve fund and identify other sources of funding to assist law firms in providing accommodations for lawyers with disabilities;
  6. Establish and support a mentoring program for lawyers with disabilities;
  7. Establish and maintain an online "community meeting place" for lawyers with disabilities where information about resources, approaches, issues and other matters can be raised and discussed;
  8. Develop an equity and diversity education program that includes diversity training for the judiciary and the legal profession;
  9. Lobby to increase structural accommodation in BC courthouses, the Law Society building and other legal institutions;
  10. Develop a program to have law firms commit to a series of tangible objectives regarding recruitment, hiring, retention, advancement and compensation of lawyers with disabilities.

If you have questions or comments on this study, the report or recommendations, please contact the Disability Research Working Group, c/o Kuan Foo, Staff Lawyer, at the Law Society office, by telephone at 604 443-5727 (toll-free in BC: 1-800-903-5300), by fax at 604 443-5770 or email to kfoo@lsbc.org.

The research project on lawyers with disabilities is the first of its kind among the law societies in Canada. The Working Group thanks Human Resources and Skills Development Canada for funding assistance on this project.



Report online

If you would like to read Lawyers with Disabilities: Overcoming Barriers to Equality, the report is available in PDF format in the "Resource Library/Reports" section of the Law Society website at www.lawsociety.bc.ca.

A hard copy is available by request to Kuan Foo, Staff Lawyer for the Working Group, at the Law Society office:

845 Cambie Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 4Z9
Tel: 604 443-5727
Toll-free in BC: 1-800-903-5300
Fax: 604 443-5770
Email: kfoo@lsbc.org