Lawyers Journal

Not your average first year

The envelope arrived in the mail. I had done it. I had become a lawyer after years of studying and numerous attempts at the Bar. I wasn't just your average lawyer. I also happened to be a person with a disability. Although I had accomplished my goal, I quickly realized that I was now one of 55,000 lawyers in Massachusetts.

Then the questions came: How would clients perceive me as a person with cerebral palsy? Would judges or other lawyers view me any differently? How was I going to deal with the billable hour? And these were only the questions related to my disability. In addition to these questions, I also face the challenges that all new lawyers have when they first start out.

This article attempts to relay my experience as a young attorney with a disability and chronicles my first year of practice, so that others may find inspiration and guidance. According to the American Bar Association's Disability Statistics Report from 2011, 6.87 percent of all ABA members identified as having a disability.1

I knew that I was fighting an uphill battle to begin with. With unemployment hovering around 9 percent, I knew that a traditional legal job was not for me. I had worked for the government and fought the battle of reasonable accommodations,2 so I was looking forward to doing things my way. Then came the question of how would I do things my way.

For example, because I cannot physically write, would a client feel uncomfortable with a tape recorder being used in place of someone taking notes? How would a judge react when I would ask a law clerk to come around from behind the bench and grab materials from my book bag? The question of whether clients would view me any differently because I was in a wheelchair was my larger overarching fear.

Dale Carpenter wrote in a recent article in The New York Times article that "the prestigious law firm King & Spalding has not fully explained its decision this week to stop assisting Congress in defending the law that forbids federal recognition of same-sex marriage."3 The article goes on to explain that it is most likely due to the openness of homosexuality in the legal community.

Unfortunately, this openness has not yet occurred for the disabled in the context of employment. The ABA disability report states that of working-age Americans, only 39.5 percent of disabled persons were working, compared with 79.9 percent of non-disabled persons. They go on to explain, "Recent statistics and surveys that reveal attitudinal barriers in society regarding the employment of persons with disabilities help explain the small number of lawyers with disabilities who are employed in the legal profession." Throughout my law school career, I was told that I was going to have a difficult time getting a job at a big firm.

I have found my disability to be an asset. I feel that I am a better attorney because I am disabled. I can empathize with my clients if they or someone they love is faced with an illness. Veteran attorney Carol Steinberg concurs, stating, "I think that the fact that I have limitations of my own has enhanced my ability to passionately present my clients' struggles in the courtroom."

On the other hand, I can also use my disability as a hammer. If I feel like a potential client is abusing the unemployment system, I can use my wheelchair in a self-deprecating way to inspire them to keep searching for work. Another positive is the networking aspect. Nobody forgets a guy surrounded by 200 pounds of metal.

I have found that the legal community is very supportive. I was worried about how I would take notes in MCLE classes or place materials in the proper format. Everyone has been more than accommodating in providing me materials in an alternate format, such as sending me a digital copy of the notes.

As for the judges and court staff, they have been more than wonderful. Recently, I was in court and had to reach for something in my book bag. The judge allowed the law clerk to come around the bench and reach for my materials; this lay to rest one of my original concerns. Another instance was when a judge asked opposing counsel to remain seated, as I was seated in my chair. Typical protocol would be to stand.

As for the tape recorder issue that I mentioned before, I explain it to the clients, and to date, everyone has been flexible and accommodating. Like many young lawyers, a lot of my time is spent networking. Many thanks to organizations such as the Volunteer Lawyer Project, Boston Bar Association, Massachusetts Bar Association and so many others for making my first year of practice such a wonderful experience.

I thought that when I opened that envelope my journey had ended, but I have now come to realize that it is only just beginning.

Brian J. McLaughlin is a solo practitioner and founder of Brian McLaughlin LLC. He graduated from Boston College Law School in 2008. McLaughlin enjoys serving those in need, sports and spending time with his family. He also happens to have cerebral palsy.

1American Bar Association, Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law, ABA Disability Statistics Report, Jan. 28, 2011, available at: www.abanet.org/disability. Accessed May 30, 2011.

2The term "reasonable accommodations" refers to the legal standard for employers to provide accommodations for persons with disabilities. Reasonable accommodations include things like: voice recognition software and a different type of mouse or phone. They are designed to allow a person with a disability who is equally qualified to perform a job to the best of their ability.

3Carpenter, Dale, How the Law Accepted Gays, The New York Times, April 28, 2011, available at: www.nytimes.com/2011/04/29/opinion/29carpenter.html. Accessed May 30, 2011.

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