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Lawyers with disabilities

News

Cite as: November 2011 85(11) LIJ, p.16

The work of the LIV Lawyers with disAbilities Committee is set to change how the legal profession approaches disability.


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Disability Planning

The LIV has developed two ground-breaking documents to help the legal profession better deal with lawyers and clients with a disability.

The LIV disability action plan (DAP) and the LIV Strategy to Increase Recruitment and Retention of Law Graduates and Lawyers Experiencing Disability in the Legal Sector (“Employment Strategy”), were created by the LIV Lawyers with disAbilities Committee.

They are scheduled to be launched this month.

The LIV DAP was developed to review the Institute’s facilities, products and services and remove any barriers for people with a disability trying to access them.

The Employment Strategy will be used to develop a long-term plan to increase recruitment opportunities for law graduates with a disability and the retention of lawyers experiencing disability.

Although the DAP and Employment Strategy (www.liv.asn.au/disability) were specifically designed for use within and by the LIV, the committee hopes law firms will use the documents as a blueprint to identify barriers to services and employment for those with a disability within their own organisations.

DAPs allow firms to publicly express their commitment to helping people with disabilities and are a proven, effective tool for organisations to plan and implement these changes.

They can also be registered with the Australian Human Rights Commission and can be relevant in a disability discrimination claim.

In recent years many law firms have diversified their workforces by actively promoting the advancement of women and introducing Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs) to help increase employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

However, LIV CEO Michael Brett Young said only a small, albeit growing, number of firms had discovered “disability in the profession is an issue that can no longer be ignored”.

“There is a groundswell in its early stages. Many firms are yet to act and only a small number have developed, or are in the initial stages of developing, formal recruitment policies for disability after expressing a desire to broaden their workforce to represent people from diverse backgrounds,” he said.

“However, very few firms . . . have experience knowingly recruiting a person with a disability, although many have had to make reasonable adjustments for employees who subsequently disclosed a disability.”

He said the LIV was not asking law firms to “sign up to a DAP or an employment strategy”, but rather was offering to help educate them about disability and diversity in the workplace.

Mr Brett Young said the depth of the recruitment and retention issues concerning lawyers with a disability was recently highlighted by one employer who had actively started a disability recruitment strategy but found it hard to find experienced commercial lawyers with a disability.

The LIJ has also failed to find a law firm with a DAP.

However, some firms, such as Sparke Helmore, have been legal trailblazers in “disability confidence” and have mentored law students with a disability and offered placements for lawyers with a disability for several years.

Slater & Gordon’s national chair, Anna Booth, told the LIJ that the firm had “moved beyond the contemplation phase and are now in the planning stage”.

“To sustain people with disabilities in employment needs education and we have found that there is a general lack of awareness and knowledge of people with disabilities both in the community and in law firms, including ours,” she said.

“The first barrier we have found is awareness, but we have to have the same determination around disability that we have had around gender. We are serious about this and want to take an orderly and considered approach rather than a knee-jerk, ad hoc approach.

“We intend to have as many lawyers with a disability working for us as possible.”

Employers Network on Disabilities chief executive Suzanne Colbert said her experience had proved that while law firms might be reluctant to introduce a DAP they were open to employing lawyers with disabilities or offering mentoring or intern places.

“They are generally receptive and willing to help but often initially need to be told how to get started,” she said.

She also said feedback from law firms suggested that their employees with a disability did not require extensive workplace adjustments, were reliable with lower turnover, had fewer scheduled absences from work and were no more likely to be injured.

The May 2010 LIJ “Lawyers with Disabilities: Ready, willing and able” cover story highlighted the difficulties many lawyers with a disability have in getting a foothold in the industry, as well as the often great success they achieved once given an opportunity. (See http://tinyurl. com/3mj69uu.)

The LIV created the Lawyers with disAbilities Committee in early 2010 to consider the needs of lawyers and law students who experience disability, the barriers they face in employment and progression in the legal profession, and what initiatives the LIV could undertake to positively promote equal opportunity.

The LIV DAP and Employment Strategy were created after meetings between the LIV, law students and graduates who experience disability, university disability liaison officers, disability service providers, employment services and legal employers.

Some participating firms which had introduced disability strategies said previously held beliefs at the firm that law graduates with a disability were less productive or less capable than able-bodied lawyers proved unfounded.

The LIV will continue to address such misconceptions by encouraging firms to undertake disability awareness training.

It is intended for the LIV DAP to operate for two years, after which its effectiveness will be reviewed and the results lodged for endorsement with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The DAP will also ensure the LIV represents its diverse membership base, fulfils its commitment to corporate social responsibility and meets its obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic).

The Employment Strategy will be reviewed after 12 months.

Lawyers with disAbilities Committee chair Daniel Piekarski (see page 19) hopes that even if firms do not adopt their own DAP or employment strategy, they will “at the very least rethink how they deal with lawyers with a disability”.

“What this leads to, we hope, is that the profession feels a step closer, a step more comfortable, when it comes to the issue of employing people with disabilities – and understanding the value of diversity generally,” he said.

Future work of the Lawyers with disAbilities Committee will include conducting information sharing forums and roundtables, establishing a LIV Disability Network and a LinkedIn Diversity Group. The LIV also plans to disseminate disability information and resources to employers and promote new and existing training opportunities.

It will also help promote an open and positive culture for disclosure of disa- bility and continue discussions with the Legal Services Board and Board of Examiners regarding disclosure obligations of mental impairment under the Legal Profession Act 2004 (Vic).

For more information contact Janet Tan at the LIV on jtan@liv.asn.au or 03 9607 9384.

Jason Gregory

LIV DAP Objectives

2011–2013

  • Improve access to LIV products, services and information for people with disabilities
  • Improve access to LIV facilities for people with disabilities
  • Reduce barriers to people with disabilities obtaining and maintaining employment
  • Maintain a commitment to eliminate disability discrimination in the workplace
  • Ensure ongoing consultation and review of the DAP with key stakeholders
  • Promote a culture of inclusion and participation for people with disabilities.

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