By Valerie Kemp, Associate at Slaughter and May
When you think of a “successful person with a disability” you probably think first of a Paralympian and not of a lawyer. What is needed to be a lawyer is the ability to listen, analyse and advise. Of the three in that list, the first is probably the most important. Even if you are able to produce excellent academic research and first rate legal analysis, if you do not listen to what a client wants, you are never going to meet the client’s expectations. So given the importance of listening, what is it like to work in a Magic Circle law firm when you have a hearing impairment?
Unlike some other disabilities, a hearing impairment can be hidden. If it’s something you have lived with since birth like I have, it is so normal to you that you don’t know any different. That can make the question of referring to one's disability difficult. If I’ve managed to get by until now, why should I say something? How am I going to know exactly what kind of help I’m going to need when I haven’t even started the job yet? Will everyone know and do I want them to know? What will my colleagues think of me? These questions are entirely normal ones to ask. There are no easy or standard answers. It will depend very much on the extent of your disability and how you want to take things forward. In my experience, being open about a disability has provided levels of support that I never expected and has been a wholly positive experience.
One thing you should keep in mind is that law firms want to be diverse and inclusive. By employing lawyers from all walks of life, law firms can reflect society and the clients they represent. It’s much more than a couple of positive lines on a firm’s website. Most people are surprised by the extent of the initiatives and investment (both in terms of time and money) law firms make in the diversity and inclusion field.
My experience has been that talking to my colleagues and HR about my hearing impairment has really helped me understand better what support I need and has given me the confidence to do my job despite some of the challenges.
When I first applied to the firm, I had done a lot of reading about it and had studied law for four years but I had never worked as a lawyer. I didn’t know what it was like to walk into a meeting room with forty people round a table. I didn’t know how much time I would spend on the telephone or how much socialising would be part of my working life. It has taken me a number of years to learn what it’s like to be a lawyer in practice and as technology and clients’ needs develop, I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning what being a lawyer means. I’ve kept constant communication lines with colleagues to get the support that makes my job easier and to avoid struggling unnecessarily. This means both having regular meetings with HR to discuss whether there is any additional support I need and also mentioning to my fellow lawyers that it’s easier for me if “we do it this way “. I can honestly say that in my four years at the firm, I’ve never experienced a negative reaction.
All in all, it’s perfectly ok to say in an interview: this is my disability and this is how it impacts my life now. I think I’ll need support with this but it will be important to have good communication at the beginning so I can work with you to get the support I need to do the job to the best of my ability. If it’s something you want to talk about later in the process or once you start, that is ok too but you need to be aware that some support can’t be provided instantly as there are processes to follow. It often makes it easier to have the conversation in advance so that you can put your best foot forward on day 1.
If you do have the opportunity to attend recruitment events and speak to someone who works at the law firm you are interested in, please do so. It makes the interview process so much less daunting if you’ve already met someone friendly who works at the firm. It can also be a good opportunity to speak informally with HR about adjustments that can be made. Even if you’re unable to take up that opportunity, you should feel able to get in touch with the firm in advance of an interview to discuss the process and possible adjustments. Most law firms include on their website the details of someone in HR whom candidates can contact to discuss the process. By understanding the interview process in full, you will have a better idea of what adjustments are both possible and necessary. In my experience, no two law firm interview processes are the same so it makes sense to have the conversation with each law firm which has invited you for interview. By making it clear during the application process that adjustments are required, you are opening up the conversation, not closing doors before they have even opened.
It’s easy to confuse the concept of the highest quality work and standards with human perfection. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect person. Having a disability, whatever its form, results in resilience and determination. I doubt that there are very many successful lawyers in Magic Circle law firms who don’t have those qualities.