The Glass Ground Floor

I was asked about going into a law career with an invisible disability by someone currently studying for a law degree. He asked about my own condition – everything here is based on my experiences and is relevant to people with invisible disabilities. For a more general discussion of disability discrimination, including statistics, I’d recommend going back to look at How many elephants can you get in the DWP (most links in it are pdfs). I also spoke about my own experiences with recruitment in that post. Here, I’m concentrating on becoming a solicitor. I’ve got deterioration in several joints in my spine, among other things. I’m in pain 24/7 and sedentary working exacerbates things. I was talking to a friend recently in a more joking context about what it’d be like to be 18 again and this question reminds me of that. If I’d known then what I know now about how bad my health was going to get, I’d probably still have qualified as a solicitor. I love the law. It’s that simple for me. But I can’t in all conscience give other people suffering from a chronic condition the impression it’s going to be easy. I wish I could but the truth is that anyone whose condition affects their ability to do desk based work will struggle.

In terms of physical challenges, trainee solicitors are expected to do their own typing (as, increasingly, are qualified solicitors), although if your condition is a disability within the meaning of the Equalities Act you can ask for secretarial support as a reasonable adjustment to enable you to do the job. Some firms may argue that it isn’t a reasonable adjustment as it adds to the cost of training you, although it’s not as if you’d have a secretary all to yourself. If a firm has any outsourcing arrangements in place for typing, they may be more amenable to this adjustment. I’m not sure if the Access to Work Scheme (see below) covers this kind of cost but I need extra secretarial support (consistency of availability is the problem in my experience) as a result of my condition so I’ll report back on this point once my application’s determined. Speech recognition software is, theoretically, a cheaper alternative but I’ve found that proofreading work involves nearly as much strain on my mid back as just typing would (because of sitting with my hands in a “ready” position to type as I play back dictation).

Because training contracts aren’t permanent positions, firms may also feel that it’s not reasonable to expect them to buy ergonomic equipment you need – that would depend on things like the size of the firm, the cost of the equipment and its potential for being reused if you’re not kept on at the end of the contract. The Access to Work Scheme, under which the DWP pays for equipment, covers temporary as well as permanent jobs though – I’m only just using it for the first time myself and plan to blog on it once I’ve jumped through the hoops, which I hope won’t be flaming. This help with the cost of adjustments could make a difference to your chances (although if you’re in the unfortunate position of having all of the symptoms which make you disabled without a firm diagnosis, I’m not sure what the outcome of an Access to Work application would be). What you need to remember is that an adjustment legally being reasonable won’t necessarily be reflected in the attitudes of hiring firms. You could fight your corner. You’re entitled to but I’ve always been the wary of rocking the boat. Even if you have a potential claim for discrimination, would you do anything about it? I’d say it’s best to think about what you need (although I appreciate that’s not easy unless you’ve had a functional capacity assessment) and be prepared to discuss it in as positive a manner as possible. Other lawyers might disagree with me here but I think that if you go into an interview only prepared to list your needs, without anticipating their objections to them, you’ll be more likely to find they just dismiss them out of hand. Equally, they’ll be put off if you make demands without being willing and able to see their side (even if they’re in the wrong, they may deduct “character points” if they don’t like the way you argue your case).

A training contract also tends to involve at least 6 months in a Litigation seat, where you’ll be hauling a wheelie case of files around on a regular basis and travelling to court hearings (as county courts are being closed down, there’s probably more travel than there was when I was a trainee). Part of the reason I moved away from pursuing a career as a criminal solicitor was that I physically couldn’t cope with the pace of being on duty 10 nights a month, running around London police stations day and night. That was 14 years ago. If you’re doing a law degree, it’s a good idea to bear that kind of thing in mind when choosing your elective subjects. Litigation tends to be a really popular seat with other trainees so you could mention to a firm that you’d be willing to do three seats, or just do a short “crash course” seat in Litigation, and let other trainees extend their own Litigation seats. Whether that would work depends on how flexible the firm is. In my firm, we were literally given highlighters and graph paper and told to sort our seats out between ourselves so we all got more experience in the areas we were most interested in.

If you need to work part time, you should also bear in mind that your two year training contract will be extended until you’ve put in two years worth of training, based on the number of full time hours involved.

The competition for training contracts is brutal. There are far more law graduates than there are places and there’s no guarantee that a trainee will be kept on by their firm when they qualify. An able bodied graduate needs a minimum of a 2:1 to stand a chance. My experience as a qualified disabled solicitor is that even a first class degree hasn’t been enough to overcome the impact of my needing to work part time to manage my disability for most firms. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility that a university could help you to make a case that you should get preferred treatment for extenuating circumstances, in terms of your academic grades but I have to admit I don’t know the extent to which you might be able to do that so I’d recommend talking to your university about it asap, even if you’re on course for a 2:1. If you’re a mature student and your condition has meant there are gaps in your employment history, they should also be able to help you to deal with this in your applications.

A fairly small number of firms have agreed to positively discriminate but I believe a certain amount of cherry picking goes on in the recruitment of disabled candidates (and wider studies outside the legal profession support this). Someone with a well known, “stable” condition (eg blindness) is perceived as a safer choice by recruiters than someone with a fluctuating long term, potentially degenerative, condition. Because of this, I’d think long and hard before declaring you have a disability on an application. I know someone who didn’t declare she had lupus until it started interfering with her job a few years later. I didn’t declare I was disabled when I was applying for a training contract because I didn’t appreciate I was – I’d been led to believe by doctors that everything I was experiencing was normal – so it never even occurred to me to ask for adjustments to reduce the impact of my problems. I just ploughed ahead as if my actions wouldn’t make my condition worse. Now things are different. If, like me, you feel you have to declare because you’ll need major adjustments like working part time, you need to be careful about how you do it. One problem with having an invisible condition involving chronic pain is that it often takes years to get a proper diagnosis and there’s a lot of stigma around it. Law firms are just as susceptible as anyone else to asking inappropriate questions about your condition. With or without diagnosis, you need to be prepared for uncomfortable, unenlightened questions and if you’ve been put through the mill by previous employers, the benefits system and/or doctors, it’s really important to have prepared a non-defensive, straight forward response to questions.

You might be told by a careers service that you can use your disability to demonstrate determination in the face of adversity. Except to the extent you might need to go down the extenuating circumstances road in relation to grades, I wouldn’t do this for something like chronic back problems or a condition involving chronic fatigue. People tend to make assumptions like their fortnight with a bad back tells them all they need to know about chronic back pain, for example, so few will really begin to understand or acknowledge your strength. Also, any law firm’s priority is chargeable hours, no matter how much their website tries to pretty things up. If you can’t put in as many hours as the next competent (and presumably motivated) candidate, I don’t think arguing you have greater strength of character is likely to help matters (unless you’re asked a direct question along those lines – I was once asked how I managed to get a first despite my problems. I was so unprepared for question that I drawled “yeah, I’m just that good”!). What does help is if you can point to specific examples of how you’ve been able to perform well despite your limitations. This is a gentle way of letting recruitment agents and hirers know they’re making wrong assumptions! For example, I’m able to say I have a high level of client satisfaction despite working part time and that I’ve successfully worked part time for several years, which challenges their assumption that a Commercial solicitor simply can’t work part time because the clients won’t stand for it.

In terms of practice areas, Conveyancing and Probate both involve a fair bit of procedural standardisation, using a lot of template letters, and that could work better for you physically speaking than Commercial or Litigation in terms of the typing (and web browsing – don’t forget most legal research is done online). You’re probably more likely to find a part time role doing Probate than any other area of work as well, due to solicitors’ perceptions of what their clients expect from them. A major problem with Litigation is that you don’t get to pick Court dates or filing deadlines. Even if you’re willing and able to be flexible to accommodate this, it’s not really fair on clients if they never know what days you’re working. It’s not necessarily impossible. I’d say it’s very dependent on the size of firm, the particular area you work in and how the firm uses Counsel. If you’re interested in Litigation, work experience where you could discuss this would probably be a good idea.

Looking at your options after qualifying, you’re right that is possible to work as a sole practitioner but I wouldn’t call it an easy option and you aren’t allowed to run your own firm until you’ve got a few years experience as an employed solicitor under your belt. Once you have, you’d have the normal challenges of a start up business eg. indemnity insurance, access to resources like precedents and, of course, build up a client following. As with working as an employed solicitor, if typing is an issue you’d also need to have good speech recognition software or a secretarial service (which can be outsourced). You’d also need to create your own suitable workspace. There are also some areas where I’d say that it’s no longer feasible to expect to work as a sole practitioner – Conveyancing would be a no go because the Banks wouldn’t be prepared to give you instructions. Legal Aid work would also be out (and, frankly would involve expending so much energy for the rate you’d be paid that I doubt you’d cope physically). There are alternatives to going it completely alone. On the Commercial side of things, you can work as a consultant through a scheme like Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers on Demand scheme but I’m not sure if they take very junior people (I’d be surprised if they do). There are also networks of sole practitioner Commercial solicitors you could join once you’ve got some experience.

If you’re interested in Commercial law, working as in house counsel is another option but they aren’t usually much more amenable to flexible working than law firms and may have less secretarial support. Recruitment agents’ views on this vary. One even emailed to say that in eight years placing in house candidates, she’d only been able to find work for two part timers. I’m sure that’s true for her but there is a slight shift occurring. Some smaller companies might welcome the right candidate on a part time basis to cut spending on external lawyers but you’d need to build up experience elsewhere to become attractive to them. You also need to watch out for travel requirements. If you’re going to have to regularly travel abroad or around the UK, that may be a poor fit for you.

Another way of working in house would be to use your degree as a jumping off point to gaining qualifications as a company secretary.

For a long time, the public sector was the best place for lawyers wanting to work part time and had the best record on hiring disabled people generally. There have been serious cuts in public sector lawyer numbers in recent years but there are still training contracts available. Unfortunately, the nature of the beast means that your options when it comes to local authority training contracts are limited unless you can relocate. If you need to work shorter hours, that may also be more difficult in the current climate, where the emphasis is on getting more bang for their buck – cutting staff numbers without cutting the workload. A law degree could also open the door to non-lawyer public sector jobs. It’s worth considering whether your interests could take you in a slightly different direction in the public sector.

Another alternative is to work as a locum. Other disabled lawyers have suggested that to me (and locum work does sometimes lead to a permanent position) but you’d still need to get qualified and get experience under your belt before being considered a “safe pair of hands”. Also, locums I know are willing to commute up to a couple of hours to get to work during an assignment. For me, the driving alone would be too much to cope with. Another potential issue is that some people have some funny ideas of how conditions which cause chronic pain work. They think working full time for six months has the same impact on your body as working half time for a year. Speaking for myself, that’s absolute nonsense and if you push yourself hard for the length of an assignment, you do run the risk of doing longer term harm, both in relation to any underlying condition and by making the pain itself more intractable.

Job sharing is a theoretical possibility but I’m seeing few signs of it being available in my practice area. What seems to happen with part time, flexitime and job sharing is that firms reluctantly make them available for existing employees (usually women with children or partners nearing retirement) and can’t wait for things to go back to normal. There are very few new openings with flexible options on the Commercial side. It’s a matter of perpetual disgust to me that each time I see a discussion on alternative hour arrangements in the Law Society Gazette, disabled people get no mention at all. The majority of the discussion is on women with children, then older fee earners and then people who want to work flexitime for religious reasons. It’s not just our disabilities that are invisible in the legal profession. It’s as if we don’t exist at all as far as this issue is concerned. Incidentally, if you’re looking at firms’ diversity tables, bear in mind that many people who develop disabilities do so late on in their career. The tables may show a fairly substantial number of disabled people but the underlying reality could be that most of them are conditions like arthritis in the older staff and that very few junior fee earners are disabled.

Given the likely difficulties getting a training contract, you could also consider working as a paralegal in the long term. When I graduated, working as a paralegal was a move people only made to tide them over until their training contract began (this does still happen and time spent as a paralegal can be put towards your training contract, although it’s not unusual for a promised training contract to not materialise) but times have changed and the profession with them (some law students aren’t going on to do the LPC now and are going straight to work as paralegals instead. You could always do the LPC part time later while working but I know able bodied people who’ve done that and it’s not an easy ask). There’s a move away from having highly experienced, high charging solicitors doing the work to getting paralegals with law degrees to do much of the less complex work. This is the case across most areas and there are jobs available in some of the new big name ventures for non-solicitors (eg. probate work for the Co-op). The advantage to that route is that there’s a better chance of getting a job but I couldn’t say whether it would be physically better for you. I doubt it, if I’m honest. If you’re a paralegal charging out at considerably less than the qualified solicitors do, the employer is even less likely to want to make allowances for adjustments like secretarial help or reduced productivity when you’re having a flare up.

I know this makes for tough reading. It was hard to write for that reason but I don’t believe we should be telling any law students that everything in the garden is blooming and that’s even more important for disabled students. Anyone hoping to become a solicitor these days needs to be determined and resilient. You’ll need those attributes more than most but it’s not impossible, particularly if you’re fairly flexible about what field you’re willing to work in. Forewarned is forearmed. Now’s the time for you to take steps to try to improve your position, while you have access to your university’s careers service. I’d strongly advise finding out if you can get onto a mentoring scheme, whether it’s targeted at disabled people or not. Even if it’s not, as long as it puts you in a position where you’re finding out more about the profession and getting to know someone who might be willing to give you a reference in due course (or even a job – you never know), it’s worth doing. In terms of support which is targeted at disabled people, there’s the Group for Solicitors with Disabilities, who run a mentoring programme. Another group which isn’t strictly for lawyers but does have lawyer members is the Association of Disabled Professionals. They can match you up with one of their members to give advice and support as well. It’s also worth checking out the Radiate scheme which puts junior disabled people in touch with senior, successful ones. I haven’t used it but it’s got to be worth a shot.

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