Diversity: Making the Legal Field Accessible to Attorneys with Disabilities
Growing up I always thought I would be an attorney. One would think that my interest would come from my father, Alan Page, who was an attorney and Minnesota Supreme Court justice. However, my interest in the law came more from the television shows of my youth (L.A. Law and Law and Order) and John Grisham novels. Even though my dad and other lawyers I knew often told me that the shows I watched and the books I read bore little resemblance to the actual practice of law, I knew enough to know that I could use a law degree to help people pursue justice. And by the time I was in high school I was determined to pursue a legal career.
Fortunately, I had my dad and other mentors to guide me on my legal journey. I was given advice on a range of issues from the importance of becoming a good writer, to the types of classes that I should take in college, to how to prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Nonetheless, there was one area where I sought advice that I was unable to find answers. As an individual with a disability, I had several questions about obtaining reasonable accommodations for the LSAT, in law school, for the bar examination and eventually for any legal job. I did not know any attorneys with disabilities or anyone who knew an attorney with a disability to mentor me in this area. Unfortunately, I had to figure out the answers to these questions myself if I wanted to make a legal career a reality.
Although the administrators of the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) did not provide me with all the accommodations I requested and needed, I took the exam and did well enough on the test. You can imagine my excitement years later when the U.S. Department of Justice entered into a landmark consent decree with the LSAC to resolve allegations that LSAC engaged in widespread and systemic discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
I then enrolled at the University of Iowa College of Law, which provided me with the accommodations I needed.
It was in law school that another issue that I had not thought about arose. That issue being whether to disclose my disability to a potential employer. I now know that the law prohibits employers from asking whether an applicant has a disability and that applicants do not have to disclose their disability. However, during an interview for a second-year summer clerkship, I can vividly recall voluntarily disclosing my disability to a potential employer. The attorney interviewing me immediately informed me that I did not have to disclose my disability. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized the complexity of figuring out whether I should disclose my disability during other interviews.
After finishing law school and passing the bar exam, I clerked for Judge Pamela Alexander in Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. Once my clerkship ended, I became a disability rights attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid/Minnesota Disability Law Center where I help people pursue justice.
In addition to practicing law, I have spent my legal career trying to diversify the legal profession – especially when it comes to making it more inclusive and accessible to individuals with disabilities.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26% of adults in the United States have a disability. Unfortunately, the number of attorneys with disabilities in the legal profession is quite small. While I am unaware of any organization that keeps statistics on the number of attorneys with disabilities, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) found that the percentage of law school graduates self-reporting a disability was only 5.5% of the Class of 2021. Based on my own experience, it is not hard to see why there are so few attorneys with disabilities in the legal profession.
There is no question in my mind that the legal profession needs to become more accessible and accommodating to attract and retain attorneys with disabilities. The optimist in me believes the profession is starting to move in the right direction. For example, the Minnesota Disability Bar Association (MDisBA) was established last year. The goals of the MDisBA are to increase disability diversity in the legal profession and the judicial system, reduce barriers and create a supportive and inclusive culture in which attorneys with disabilities can thrive.
I have now met more attorneys with disabilities since the MDisBA was founded than I had in my 20 years of practicing. I look forward to meeting many more in the years to come.
The college student in me wishes that there would have been an organization such as the MDisBA to help guide me through the questions I had before and during law school, and as a young attorney. Although we cannot go back in time, I look forward to mentoring individuals with disabilities who are thinking about law school and younger attorneys with disabilities. Hopefully, I can make the path a little easier for individuals with disabilities who come after me.
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