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“Legally Disabled?” Transforming the culture of the legal profession

Why are disabled people seemingly unexpected in the legal profession and what can we do to create a culture of inclusion and access?

These are the questions that our Cardiff University based “Legally Disabled?” research team are setting out to answer. Working in coproduction with the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society we held a series of focus groups around the UK with disabled legal professionals. This helped us to identify the key issues experienced by disabled people in trying to get into the profession and then progressing their careers once there. We are now looking for individuals to participate in one to one interviews that can explore these issues in more depth.

The DRILL programme

The research is funded by the DRILL programme (Disability Research into Independent Living and Learning - www.drilluk.org.uk). This is a Big Lottery funded initiative that is thought to be the world’s first major research programme that is led by disabled people. It is a £5m, four-nation project, running across five years to allocate funding to disability research projects. 

Each call for research applications has been themed:

  • Participating in the economy
  • Participating in community and social life
  • Participating in civic and public life
  • Participating in anything

Coproduction is at the core of both the DRILL programme and the projects it funds, ensuring that disabled people are leading and coproducing the design and delivery of research in equal partnership with academics. This is crucial to ensure that research is conducted with the social model of disability at its heart and seeks to produce evidence that will impact on the priorities identified by disabled people themselves.


There are four key objectives for the DRILL programme:

  • Increase our knowledge about key issues and new evidence of what works and enables us to achieve independent living and fulfil our potential
  • Disabled people are empowered and have direct influence on decisions about the policies, legislation and services which affect them
  • Disabled people experience improved wellbeing, independent living, choice and control through participating in or engaging with DRILL
  • Exert positive influence on policy making and service provision to support disabled people to achieve independent living, through the coproduction of a robust set of research findings


Disability and employment, the importance of aspiration

Disabled people working in other professions may well experience similar barriers to career entry and progression as those in the legal field. We hope that the findings of this research will be transferable to other occupations. Much policy attention is focussed on getting disabled people off benefits and into any work, regardless of whether the work is suitable, accessible or good quality. It’s crucial that employment policies support disabled professionals to progress their careers and retain high-quality employment. Very little research currently exists to document the experiences of disabled people in professional careers.

We believe that disabled people seeking employment or working in the legal profession are an untapped resource with strong ambition, tenacity, determination and excellent problem-solving skills - all qualities that bring great benefits to employers. 

However, our findings suggest positive experiences of support, good attitudes and appropriate reasonable adjustments are something of a lottery.


Key Findings:

Entering the profession

  • The profession is generally poorly equipped to anticipate reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled candidates who apply for a training contract or pupillage. Lack of part-time training contracts is one such barrier.


Disclosure and seeking reasonable adjustments

  • A large proportion of focus group participants reported instances of discrimination associated with their impairment. Coupled with a poor understanding of reasonable adjustments and how impairments and health conditions can vary, this creates a reluctance to disclose an impairment or health condition which in turn prevents individuals from accessing support.


Working culture and expectations 

  • Inflexible, often outdated working practices and the absence of imaginative job design, limits opportunities for disabled people and career progression.


The good practice

  • There are early indications that examples of good practice are influenced by sector of the profession, size and location of firm and the role of equality clauses in procurement contracts.
  • Strong role models, supportive senior colleagues and the presence of mentors and networks are important factors for enabling career progression.


What’s next and how to get involved

Our emerging findings have set the stage for the next phase of research - one to one interviews. We aim to explore in greater depth the barriers and solutions that disabled legal professionals have experienced. The resulting reports and articles will seek to present the evidence and recommend solutions for employers, regulators and disabled people. 

If you are (or were) a disabled legal professional and would like to contribute through a one to one interview, you can find out more on www.legallydisabled.com or contact the researchers on [email protected]

The research is independent of any professional association, regulator or employer and your anonymity is assured at all times.

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