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"Disability in law is… a lot."
I have thought of those words -- sent to me by a close friend of mine during a tough spell -- almost every day of my career since I read them. They're not wrong. Disability itself can be a lot to manage. Throw in an arbitrary amount of stress, deadlines, and general inflexibility, and you could be headed down a path most of us wouldn't wish on our worst enemy. I don't want to present myself as an expert in the practice of law with a disability, but I would like to present myself as a disabled lawyer who has practiced on-and-off for almost five years and whose experiences may mirror those of other disabled lawyers. I am also here to say: there is space for you in this profession, and you are needed.
I am drawn to a tweet from one of my favorite disability awareness consultants – Andrew Gurza (@andgurza):
"disability research needs to strive towards making disabled people happy, not making them less disabled."
Andrew could not be more right, especially in light of a recent national study on wellness in the legal profession. The study highlights that disabled legal professionals as a group with higher-than-average levels of mental health concerns, in a profession with already alarmingly high rates of mental health and other wellness concerns.
I have used all available accommodations to "deal" with my disabilities: sit / stand desks, adaptive readers, chairs developed specifically for my body, employee assistance programs… anything and everything the money of "big law" could throw my way. However, nothing has made the more of a difference in my enjoyment of practice that than shifting to "Not Average" employment has.
This summer I transitioned to "Not Average" employment at a small firm in Calgary, Alberta, and I have never been happier with my practice arrangements. I currently practice at what I would refer to as "low-time", working about ten hours a week – and fluctuating to fit where I'm at in my disability journey. I am on a salary for predictability and my hours get topped up when I exceed my targeted amount. Most of our firm works four-day work weeks, so that when work gets hectic, it runs over into Fridays instead of religiously guarded weekends. Our firm ethos is "Happy Practice = Happy Lives + Happy Stakeholders!"
That’s not to say “big law” is not a suitable place for people with disabilities… it just wasn’t right for me. I don't have a magic formula for finding the right place, and it can take time to find the right "Not Average" employment for you. If you’re feeling stuck, try to engage where your interests are – I was connected with my position through a board gaming group that runs weekly on Mondays. Others I know have found their positions through chance encounters or networking groups. You never know when the right connection will come.
Just don't give up – because the profession is stronger with you in it.