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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.