How The Legal Industry Lets Down Lawyers With Disabilities

By Brandon Lowrey
August 13, 2018

Anat Maytal wears her hair down at work. Always down.

She wore it down in college, and in law school, and when she dazzled hiring partners at BakerHostetler to get her first job. She wears it down in court.

It is a statement as well as an omission; when Maytal wears her hair down, it ensures that her cochlear implant device and hearing aid aren't the first things people notice about her.

"I have that privilege," she said. "Other people with disabilities that are more visible don't have that option. I'm very much aware of that."

Her "deaf accent," as she calls it, is fairly subtle. She lives in New York and went to school in Boston, and she says some people who pick up on it tend to assume she's just from somewhere else.

Maytal is open about her disability. She's enjoyed success and support at BakerHostetler and is a founder of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association.

But she says the idea of allowing colleagues and clients to judge her by her disability at first sight still makes her uneasy.

Anat Maytal in BakerHostetler's New York office. (Kevin Penton | Law360)

In a profession marked by the hypercompetitive pursuit of clients and partnership slots, experts say lawyers often face pressure to downplay any disability because of the risk of facing bias and stigma. And while many law firms offer affinity groups for female, minority and LGBTQ attorneys, fewer mention disabilities in their diversity efforts.

For disabled attorneys, this can make the legal profession a lonely place. A recent survey of law firms found that fewer than 1 percent of attorneys had disclosed a disability to their firm, while direct polls of lawyers report higher numbers.

And the profession may be getting lonelier still.

Just five years after its formation, the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities is in the process of dissolving. It was run by volunteers who tried to form a team of professional managers but couldn't find enough money or support, and the group struggled to attract active members.

Its counterpart for law students, founded in 2007, has allowed its website registration to lapse and hasn't posted on its Facebook page in over a year.

People with disabilities tend to be the most overlooked minority group, said John Quain, a retired Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC senior partner who now sits on the board of the National Organization on Disability.

"Just listen to any major politician give their standard stump speech," said Quain, who is mostly blind. "They always talk about how we need to make sure America is for all people. They say it's for every race, gender, LGBTQ — and then they stop."

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Even trying to count attorneys who have disabilities is an exercise in frustration.

The National Association for Law Placement polled law firms and found that about 0.6 percent of their associates and 0.4 percent of partners reported having disabilities, according to a December 2017 report. An American Bar Association membership survey in 2013 that went to attorneys, rather than to firms, found the number of attorneys with disabilities to be closer to 8 percent.

Meanwhile, about 12.8 percent of the noninstitutionalized U.S. population has a disability, according to a Cornell University analysis of 2016 census data.

James Leipold, NALP's executive director, told Law360 that his organization's disability figures are almost certainly underreported, in part because NALP relies on lawyers to self-report their disabilities to their firms.

Attorneys with disabilities could be working at firms in greater numbers than anyone knows, but simply aren't open about it, for fear that they might face stigma or discrimination.

"Any perceived 'weakness,' even if that perception is based on a misperception, can be a barrier to finding, keeping, and advancing in a job," Robert T. Gonzales, chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Disability Rights, said in an email. "Also, many firms have yet to fully embrace disability as an aspect of diversity and inclusion, and therefore disclosure is frequently accompanied by isolation and marginalization, with little or no support system in place."

The commission put out a "Pledge for Change" in 2014 that called on legal employers to include people with disabilities in their diversity initiatives. Among other steps, the ABA urged signatories to form affinity groups for attorneys who have disabilities or family members with disabilities, and collect disability demographic data.

Members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association are admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. (Sketch by Art Lien)

Going to Washington

In 2016, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association decided to draw attention to its members by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to admit a dozen of its attorneys.

John Stanton, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney, had previously been admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court, so he was able to sponsor his fellow deaf attorneys, including Anat Maytal of BakerHostetler.

This required the technologically conservative Supreme Court to allow microphones, computers and smartphones to accommodate the deaf attorneys at the April hearing. Stanton read off the attorneys' names, making a motion for their admission.

Chief Justice John Roberts raised his hands and, to their surprise, responded in sign: "Motion granted."

The news coverage prompted deaf attorneys from across the nation to flood Maytal's inbox, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association has since grown to more than three times the size of the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities.

Only 23 of the 100 largest law firms have signed that pledge.

In response to an email survey by Law360, 22 of the 100 largest U.S. firms said they explicitly include people with disabilities in their diversity statements. Of those, 13 said they maintain initiatives like affinity groups to recruit, support and retain attorneys with disabilities. The other 78 firms — including 12 that had signed the ABA pledge — did not respond to the survey or declined to participate.

Several firms that responded to Law360's survey noted efforts that went above and beyond those two measures. Dentons, for instance, said it has held panel discussions featuring disability advocates on advancing diversity and inclusion within and outside of the firm. It also offers a fellowship for lawyers with disabilities, and it is hosting an open, online discussion about inclusion at the firm, among other initiatives.

The Disability Equality Index, a project by the American Association of People with Disabilities and business-to-business network Disability:IN, included just a single law firm — Steptoe & Johnson LLP — in its list of best places to work in 2018. The firm recently renovated its main office in Washington, D.C., with accessibility in mind. It also offers support and assistive technologies to attorneys who need them, and it has a strong disability rights pro bono practice, a spokeswoman said.

Fewer than a half-dozen law firms participated in the Disability Equality Index, and Steptoe was the only firm to earn high enough marks to rank among the more than 100 businesses that were honored, according to an official with the project.

"My impression, to be quite honest with you, is I think it has been something that really hasn't been given a lot of energy by a lot of firms," said Rebecca Glatzer, a managing director for legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. "Unless the attorney themself is raising their hand and saying, 'This is an issue and I need accommodations,' it's really gotten a lot of short shrift."

There are a few reasons for this, according to Glatzer and other disability rights advocates. Few law firms openly encourage people with disabilities to apply and provide points of contact for applicants to request accommodations during the interviewing and hiring process.

There is also great pressure to downplay disabilities in BigLaw environments. Competitiveness is baked into the profession from the moment prospective law students take the LSAT.

Firms judge new attorneys on the prestige of their law schools, whether they were able to snag envied clerkships or impressive internships, and where they fell on their class curves. The competition doesn't end there; associates then vie for partner positions, and partners fight for equity status.

Attorneys often fear that disclosing disabilities could cause others to wrongly see them as weak or unreliable, pushing that next brass ring out of reach, Glatzer said.

Glatzer described it as a chicken-or-egg scenario: If attorneys don't disclose their disabilities, then firms just carry on as usual without giving thought to their accommodations — or even to simple improvements that could greatly improve the attorneys' quality of life.

This, in turn, reinforces their hesitance to come forward.

Rachael Langston, chair of the Bar Association of San Francisco Equality Subcommittee on Disability Rights and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, said that avoiding discrimination in the context of disability can't always be done passively.

"It sometimes requires more of an active role than simply treating everyone in the exact same way," she wrote in an email. "It's about having a culture of wanting to help one another and valuing the employees you have, whatever their individual situations may be, and really having conversations about what people might need to fully participate and excel in the workplace."

She said this might mean actively offering accommodations like flexible work schedules, or ensuring social functions are accessible to everyone, down to the height of the cocktail tables.

As the industry is now, Jason Goitia — who may be the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities' last president — told Law360 that attorneys who are able to hide their disabilities often opt to remain in the closet.

"I think there's a culture that asks people to be inauthentic and suppress any perceived weakness," Goitia said.

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Entering the legal industry, Maytal chose not to disclose her disability when she interviewed at BakerHostetler. After joining the firm, though, she found support from her colleagues.

She recalled one of her first trips to a New York federal courthouse in 2011, accompanying partner Oren Warshavsky. As they prepared, Warshavsky asked her if she had brought her specialized microphone that would allow her to keep up with the hearing.

Maytal answered that she hadn't. She didn't want to cause a disruption, even at the cost of missing some of what was being said. Worse, she would not be able to discern certain key subtleties, like the tone of the discussions, that may not come across in the transcripts.

You have the technology, so you should use it, Warshavsky told her. Why should you miss a thing?

"I think first she was a little surprised that I brought it up," Warshavsky said in a recent interview. "I don't think she was accustomed to people looking out for her."

According to Maytal, Warshavsky's question her led to a life-changing realization: This wasn't only about her, but it was about her ability to represent her client. She had the technology and the right to accommodate her disability. By letting fear rule her, she said, she would be disabling herself.

"I can't let this little insecurity thing affect me," Maytal said.

She has since gotten to know many judges and plotted courses through the pitfalls of each courthouse and office she frequents. She knows which chairs in the conference rooms allow her clear views of everyone else's faces so she can read lips, and that New York state courts have better acoustics than federal courts but lack the federal courts' reliable, real-time transcription.

But it still takes insistence.

To get one of those conference room chairs, she must insist on it, even if that means asking a senior partner to move. She must approach the bench and insist that the judge use her microphone — or that the opposing counsel must speak up.

"It's intimidating every time," she said. "I just hide it better every time."

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William Goren founded the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities in 2013, after he repeatedly failed to secure a seat at the diversity table at bar associations and other advocacy groups. Everyone fixated on the differences between people with disabilities and other minority groups, rather than the common struggles they faced, he said.

This could have served as a warning.

Goren, who is deaf and experiences painful joint conditions that prevent him from typing, had envisioned pulling together all attorneys with any disabilities to push for common acceptance, support and policy reform under a common banner. But it didn't take long for members to split apart. He said he was stunned at the lack of willingness of members to try to understand others who have different types of impairments.

"People with disabilities wind up attacking each other rather than combining and saying, 'Let's look at the forest instead of the trees,'" he said. Disillusioned, tired and busy with family, Goren ended up leaving just a couple of years after founding it.

Membership rose and fell, topping out at around 40 or 50 members at any given time, the group's leaders said.

Quain, the former Buchanan Ingersoll partner with the National Organization on Disability, said the fragmentation that Goren described is a major stumbling block for disability rights groups.

"The disability community is so fragmented," he said. Wheelchair users and the blind might have different needs, he added, "but both sides can't get work."

Smaller organizations with similar missions, but split by disability type or geography, have persisted and remain active. The organizations offer places to network, discuss challenges and push for change, though they may lack the broader scope to which the NAAD had aspired.

Maytal helped to found one such group, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, in 2014. After Goren left NAAD, he joined up with her.

"Since I left, I suppose in some ways, I'm as guilty as anybody," he said. "It's a very comfortable place for me to be because the people at that bar association know what it means to be deaf."

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Maytal, the current president of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, is part of a new generation of attorneys with disabilities, perhaps the first with the benefit of similarly disabled mentors. She met two of her major influences on internet bulletin boards catering to the deaf and hard of hearing while she was still an undergrad in the early 2000s, before social media truly took off.

She had originally wanted to become a prosecutor, so she reached out to Jonathan Berger.

Berger had joined the Manhattan District Attorney's Office in 1998 to become its first deaf trial attorney. Berger said he felt like a guinea pig when he was hired. No one was sure what to expect from him.

Jonathan Berger of Levisohn Berger LLP, in his lower Manhattan office. (Kevin Penton | Law360)

The technology at the time didn't lend itself to what he wanted to do. He relied on an FM system — a device made up of a microphone and a receiver that amplifies a speaker's voice — that could only accommodate one speaker at a time. He persuaded someone at his device manufacturer, Comtek, to hack together several devices so that he could hear three voices at once: the judge, the opposing counsel, and the witness or prospective juror being questioned.

Berger gained experience managing some complicated white collar cases and grand jury investigations. When he caught his first trial, he was petrified. He knew he had to do something that had possibly never been done before.

"It was a long case, and I won it," he said. "I remember when I finished, I sat there at the table. The first thing that came across my mind was, 'Oh my God, I did it.' That moment is just — we all have these experiences, these moments when it's just so special. These moments in our lives we remember. That was one of them for me."

The FM devices Berger once used at trial. (Kevin Penton | Law360)

He first saw Maytal's name while looking through scholarship applications for the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. He felt she was an impressive candidate, and she ultimately received a law school scholarship.

A couple of years later, in the mid-to-late 2000s, Maytal reached out to him online. He met up with her for greasy cheeseburgers at a Manhattan diner and told her about the possibilities open to deaf attorneys like them. Berger, now an intellectual property and white collar defense lawyer at Levisohn Berger LLP, still occasionally meets up with her to discuss their trade.

John Stanton, a former Howrey LLP and Holland & Knight LLP attorney who now works as appellate counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice, has mentored Maytal in the ways of BigLaw.

Stanton decided he wanted to be a lawyer when he was a high school student touring Harvard University in the 1980s. An assistant dean of admissions asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Stanton replied that he wasn't sure, but he was thinking about law school. The assistant dean remarked that he'd read there were only maybe eight deaf lawyers in the United States.

"That's where I went from kind of thinking about it to, OK, that's the plan," he said.

When it became clear that Maytal was destined for a career in BigLaw rather than at a district attorney's office, she increasingly relied on Stanton's advice on how to navigate firm politics and avoid creating discomfort around her deafness.

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In an area of BigLaw where mentorship is severely lacking, Berger and Stanton, along with others of their generation, have provided encouragement and guidance for new lawyers like Maytal. And Maytal, though she is early in her career, has already served as a beacon for others.

Just ask Michael Sabella.

Sabella is hearing-impaired, and his credentials outpaced his expectations when he entered the job market. He had a J.D. and an LL.M. with a bankruptcy focus from St. John's University School of Law, plus a four-year clerkship with a New York federal bankruptcy judge. But he was nervous about applying to BigLaw firms and felt uneasy about revealing his disability.

He got his first job at a small firm on Long Island. He didn't feel comfortable enough there to be completely open about his disability. When he had an opportunity to jump to BakerHostetler in 2016, he was intrigued. He had heard that Maytal worked there through a mutual friend.

Since someone else who is deaf had made it there, Sabella figured it was a safe place.

Michael Sabella of BakerHostetler. (Kevin Penton | Law360)

Maytal had avoided discussing her disability at her own job interview years earlier. Sabella did not know this. In his interview, he decided to take a much different approach.

The two partners giving him the initial interview asked him why he wanted to work at Baker. Sabella mentioned that he found the firm's work on the Bernard Madoff Ponzi case impressive. He then offered another reason.

"I noticed you have brochures and you say you're committed to diversity," he recalled telling them. "I want to make it very clear that I'm both hearing-impaired and I'm gay."

The firm hired him, and he and Maytal quickly bonded on the job.

Recently, Maytal said that she learned that her 2010 job interview with BakerHostetler hadn't gone exactly as she had thought. The interviewers who hired her did, in fact, immediately suspect she had a hearing disability, she said, but they concluded that it only made her past accomplishments all the more impressive.

"That's another moment where you think, 'Huh,'" Maytal said. "You're so used to seeing the disability seen as a negative, and someone here at a BigLaw firm sees it as a positive."

Brandon Lowrey is a feature reporter who last wrote about Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee. Follow him on Twitter. Editing by Jocelyn Allison, Jeremy Barker and Katherine Rautenberg.

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