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Published: December 2022
Written by: Nalani Gordon 

Conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion have become trending topics in recent years. Race, gender, and sexual orientation are usually at the forefront of these conversations. However, physical and mental disabilities are not generally included in the diversity conversation. The reality is that, at every level, the legal profession has significant work to do as it relates to creating an inclusive environment for people with different abilities.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability. This means that 26% of the population, or 1 in 4 adults, has a disability. Despite such high numbers, the National Association for Law Placement’s 2021 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms indicates that only 1.22% of the lawyers surveyed self-identified as having a disability. The Report notes the scarce numbers of attorneys reporting disabilities but offers no theory or possible explanation for the statistic. One might wonder whether the Report’s numbers are a result of the fact that lawyers are uncomfortable with disclosing their disability or are living with an undiagnosed disability. The more pressing question is: What can we do to eliminate the barriers and social stigmatization for individuals with disabilities who want to practice law?

At the law firm level, employers can intentionally promote programs that benefit attorneys with disabilities which will also, in many instances, benefit all attorneys by creating a more accessible work environment. The American Bar Association (ABA) has implemented a pledge which calls on legal employers to affirm their commitment to diversity, specifically including people with disabilities. The ABA’s guidance offers practical steps that employers can take to foster a welcoming environment, such as starting an affinity group, conducting disability awareness and bias elimination training, and offering scholarships and fellowships for law students with disabilities. By taking practical steps toward embracing individuals with disabilities, legal employers can make a tangible impact on workplaces by bringing disability inclusion to the forefront of their diversity efforts.

Recently, the Florida Bar’s Legal Fuel Podcast featured neurodiversity expert, Haley Moss for a conversation on “Understanding Neurodiversity in the Practice of Law.” Haley (who happens to be one of my favorite law school classmates) is recognized as Florida’s first openly autistic attorney. She offered profound insight regarding neurodiversity and disability inclusion in the legal profession. One of the most insightful tidbits from Haley’s interview is Haley’s comments regarding the idea that we generally think about disabilities from the perspective of offering accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But legal employers can do more to support diverse attorneys. Most importantly, law firm and law department leaders can work to create a culture of acceptance and openness so that people with disabilities can feel comfortable with sharing their unique contributions and disclosing their individual needs.  

As a profession, the legal community is making positive strides toward inclusion. In September 2020, the Florida Supreme Court amended the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar to remove the rule that treated members of the Bar who had a history of “drug, alcohol, or psychological issues” as conditionally admitted members of the Florida Bar. The rule now broadly allows the Bar to admit members under consent agreements without any reference to psychological issues. However, this rule change is recent. The vast majority of attorneys currently admitted to the Florida Bar were admitted at a time when disclosing a mental or psychological disability could have negatively impacted their admission to the Bar. As Haley Moss notes in her interview, legal professionals, including members of the judiciary, would benefit from additional education regarding working with diverse clients, witnesses, and co-workers.

At the individual level, each of us can educate ourselves on disabilities and biases. We can also do our best to listen and treat all of our colleagues with dignity and respect. Haley’s interview is an excellent resource on the appropriate language and approach for conversations with colleagues who have disabilities (Hint: listen without judgment and ask how you can support the individual). Our clients and businesses benefit from working with attorneys with disabilities because each person brings a talent and perspective that advances our clients’ interests and our profession as a whole. Inclusion for all attorneys, including attorneys who have disabilities, is the key to ensuring that the Bar is reflective of the communities that we serve.

Nalani Gordon is an associate at Gunster. Her main areas of practice are employment law, Title IX, and business litigation.