This week, we featured a series of articles aimed at helping you discuss workplace adjustments with an employer. Today, we are sharing an interview with James about his career at Linklaters and his experience of being open about his disability at work.
Name: James Phoenix
Organisation: Linklaters LLP
Division and job title: Associate, Dispute Resolution
Hobbies: Kickboxing, weightlifting, walking, computer games and reading.
Firstly, how did you get started in your career and what drew you to the organisations you have worked for?
I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced this, but in the final year of my English degree, I realised I had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of a career post-university. Fortunately, I attended a graduate recruitment event for disabled undergraduates interested in city careers, which I found really inspiring and helpful. I was able to talk to a wide range of persons in different fields with disabilities who worked in high-calibre professional roles. It showed me that it wasn’t just possible for people with disabilities to have satisfying and empowering careers – it was normal.
Following the event, I applied for law firm training contracts because I wanted a career which would continue to engage me and challenge me throughout my working life, and believed commercial law would be a good match.
Linklaters hired me on a training contract in early 2012 and after a year and a half of legal training and two years of working as a trainee, I qualified as a solicitor with the firm in March 2016. The work has turned out to be just as engaging as I had hoped!
How many applications did you submit for a graduate job and how many interviews did you attend?
By the time I interviewed at Linklaters I think I was on my 27th application after three months of applying for vacation schemes and training contracts. I applied to jobs and vacation schemes in large batches of simultaneous applications, which is part of the reason for the large volume. Making applications and attending interviews is a skill in and of itself, so I am glad I applied widely and gained the experience I had by the point I interviewed at Linklaters. In total, I attended interviews for training contracts and vacation schemes at five different firms including Linklaters.
What was the most difficult interview question you have been asked and how did you answer?
No particular question has stuck with me as the most difficult, though I did recall that one firm went for a good cop/bad cop routine that was immediately off-putting. I was hard pressed not to laugh when I realised what they were doing.
Were you open about your disability during the application process? What support was provided to you?
For context, there are two main aspects to my disability. The first is that I have slow and clumsy handwriting due to dyspraxia. The second is that I have had a chronic stomach pain condition for the last twelve years (comparable to Crohn’s/IBS). The pain condition is the more debilitating of the two – it is very unpredictable and on bad days it can severely limit my mobility.
I was open about my disability during each stage of the application process. In part, this was necessitated by the fact I had stayed back for a year during my GCSEs due to my pain condition and this affected my CV. However, I also made a conscious choice to be as open as possible. I knew my disability was going to affect me at work so it seemed best to start off on the right foot with total clarity. There was also a pragmatic point in that my slower than average handwriting and occasional need for short-notice access to a toilet could potentially affect my performance in assessment centres, so I wanted to make sure that prospective employers were forewarned and that this was accounted for.
What led you to this role? Why did you choose to join this organisation?
In terms of choosing to be a lawyer, in essence, I applied because I thought I might be good at it – I was good at English, history and being organised and thought I, therefore, had transferable skills. I also knew it was a job that had the capacity to stay interesting and varied throughout my life. I chose Linklaters in part because it’s a market-leading firm but also because of the people I’d met from Linklaters and the impressions of the firm I had received from them. Even my formal interview with a partner and managing associate was far more of a conversation than a grilling, and I responded well to that.
Tell us a bit about the type of work you’re doing at the moment; what are your day-to-day tasks?
Currently, I’m working on two matters that are really interesting. The first is a charity application to the court with a trial due for late Spring, while the other is a very large regulatory investigation covering the last ten years. My work on the application to the court is currently focused on correspondence with the other parties and preparation for the trial itself: preparing our arguments with counsel and also getting the documents and trial bundles in order. The regulatory investigation is a new matter for me, so I’m currently reading in and preparing to oversee a review of tens of thousands of historic documents.
How do you manage your disability at work and how has your employer helped you to do well at your workplace?
When I started at Linklaters I met with an HR representative and our health and wellbeing team to discuss my disabilities and how I was going to manage them. Having had limited experience of working in an office prior to joining, I wasn’t sure how my disabilities would affect my working life. However, we discussed the issues and settled on a few common-sense solutions.
For example, as a trainee solicitor, I knew it was likely I would have to take meeting notes and that my handwriting speed would probably be an issue. I raised this with Linklaters and asked to be able to use a laptop for such occasions. The firm provided me with one and I was able to take meeting notes without issue throughout my training contract. More recently the entire firm has moved to lightweight laptops/tablets, which has made this even easier to manage for me. I now very rarely work on paper, which suits me down to the ground.
Managing the pain condition has been more difficult and I’ve had to learn how best to deal with it at work over time. The main thing I do now is ensure that I inform team members regarding my condition and its practical impact when I join a new matter or team. That way, if I wake up in the morning with bad pain I merely send an email to whoever I am working with to let them know that I might be late in, or that I will be working from home pro tem. Again, I am fortunate in that due to improvements in technology and Linklaters’ support it is now easy to be as effective from home as I would be in the office.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I like getting into the nitty gritty details of a matter and becoming a subject matter expert within the team. It’s great to feel that you can add value because you really understand the detail of something.
What aspect of the job have you found most difficult to manage? Is this affected by your disability?
As a lawyer in a large firm, there will always be crunch periods where you have more than enough work to be getting on with. When this coincides with a period of bad pain it can be difficult to manage expectations about what you are going to be able to get done. In those circumstances, I’ve generally tried to be as straightforward as possible, and also give as much forewarning as I can. Staying organised and keeping colleagues and clients up to date on work progress are important skills for a lawyer in and of themselves, but for me, it is fair to say both take on extra importance.
Tell us about a personal strength or a valuable plus which you have developed, as a result of your disability. How has it helped you in your career?
I averaged around 15-30% school attendance over the course of my GCSE and A-level years due to my pain condition and ended up staying back a year in my final GCSE year. I knew that in order to achieve what I wanted in life I had to pass my exams despite my absence from school, so I did a lot of independent study to keep up with my peers. The process taught me self-reliance and self-motivation as well as a healthy measure of optimism and independence of thought. This experience of independent study set me up well for both my degree and my legal training and ensured that I got the most out of both.
I also used this example repeatedly when applying for jobs. Due to my pain condition, I didn’t have as much work experience as other candidates and I needed to show the skills and capabilities I developed as a result of my disability instead. When a potential employer asked for a time where I had shown resilience or independence I was able to talk about the experiences and challenges I have faced with my disabilities. Practically, being disabled throughout my school and university years meant that I had to become very organised, which has proved to be a key skill for me as a lawyer.
How have you been involved with your organisation’s disability network?
I have been involved in disability-focused graduate recruitment sessions a few times now and it’s been great to be able to discuss my experiences with students who are in similar positions to the one I was in when I started looking at careers. It has been very rewarding to be able to assist with exactly the sort of events that originally helped to guide me towards my career.
More recently Linklaters has started an internal ‘VisAbility’ network which is focused on disability and mental health in the workplace and which I am really enjoying taking part in. The network runs great sessions which discuss different disabilities and mental health conditions and how they affect our working lives – both for those with disabilities and their colleagues and families.
Finally, what advice would you give a student with a similar disability, who wants to pursue a career in the field you work in?
I think one of the big questions for disabled students is the extent to which they want to share their disability with a prospective or current employer. This is an important decision and each person will feel differently about it. However, in my experience, it has been the best course to be as open and straightforward about discussing my disability as possible.
Disabilities come in varied forms and while my colleagues may have experience of one type or another, it is unlikely that many of them are going to be aware of my particular conditions and their effects. Just as if it was a particular point of law I had researched, it’s therefore up to me, as the person with the most applicable knowledge, to inform my colleagues as best I can about my circumstances.
It can feel uncomfortable to discuss your personal circumstances with colleagues, and indeed colleagues may themselves feel uncomfortable about how best to respond. I’ve found it helps to be as low-key as possible when first discussing my disability, and to invite discussion and questions. I am happy to say that I have never run into issues with taking time to chat with a new team member and giving them a quick overview of my disability and its practical implications for my work.
More generally, I think it’s important for disabled students to be aware that their disabilities will have given them strengths and unique experiences as well as difficulties. These are things which employers are legitimately interested in and which you can use to make yourself a stronger candidate in interviews and applications.
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