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There is a reluctance among disabled legal professionals to inform their employers of their disability, according to a Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) report, meaning firms are potentially not introducing measures to help.
Currently, just 3% of solicitors declare they have a disability, almost unchanged in the last ten years, and this compares to an estimated 19% of the UK’s working-age population, using the Equality Act (2010) definition.
This suggests many disabled solicitors are not declaring their disability and potentially missing out on support and adjustments that could and should be available to them, said the report, a situation that “potentially has a detrimental effect on the individual, the firms they work for and, ultimately, the clients they serve”.
Reasons identified for this apparent underreporting included concerns that declaring a disability may suggest a lower level of competency, a lack of opportunities for staff to request reasonable adjustments within a supportive environment, and firms not having policies, practices and procedures in place to help disabled staff.
"It is important that people who need legal services have access to a profession that is diverse and inclusive,” said Paul Philip, chief executive, SRA. “We know that diverse businesses are better businesses so wanted to find out more about what lies behind the apparent under-declaration of disabilities in the legal workforce.”
Good practice examples within the report focus on seven key areas, including culture, leadership, recruitment and making reasonable adjustments. Under each area the report provides general advice, top tips, and case studies examples from named firms, including Eversheds Sutherland, Markel Law, and Myers & Co Solicitors.
For example, Eversheds Sutherland launched its vision and programme of work on disability, mental health and wellbeing in May 2018. In December 2019, for International Day of Persons with Disabilities, the firm’s partners and colleagues from around the world featured in social media posts about the work they are doing on disability inclusion.
“While finding this underreporting was a problem, our survey of 3,000 firms also found examples of specific initiatives and approaches which are delivering positive outcomes for employees and clients alike,” said the report, “Promoting disability inclusion in law firms—setting out good practice”, published Thursday, March 12.
‘Inferior’ career prospects
According to additional research from Cardiff Business School, published earlier this year, more than half of the solicitors and paralegals believe their career and promotion prospects are inferior to those of non-disabled colleagues.
The report, “Legally disabled? The career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession”, surveyed 288 lawyers (of which 241 were solicitors or paralegals and 47 were barristers) in the UK.
“It is also significant that disabled people are reluctant to move to another role or organisation for promotion for fear of losing agreed adjustments. This suggests disabled people are failing to advance not because of their talents, but because they anticipate discrimination. Our study suggests these ‘fears’ are often well-founded,” said the report.
Some 40% of those surveyed either never or only sometimes tell their employer or prospective employer they are disabled.
In January 2020, the 2019 Diversity at the Bar report, published by the Bar Standards Board, also found that levels of diversity in the Bar of England and Wales are increasing in line with the wider population, but senior lawyers are more likely to be white and male.
According to the latest available data, a “snapshot” of Bar demographics measured in December 2019, the number of women at the Bar continues to inch higher.
Women constitute 38% of the Bar (an increase of 0.6% in 2018), compared to 50.2% of the working-age population, the figures revealed. Only 16.2% of Queens’ Counsel (QCs) are women, rising from 15.8% the previous year. Women make up 54.8% of total pupils at the Bar.
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