Harvard Law School Library (Getty)
As people with disabilities face barriers to inclusion in the legal industry, disabled law students remain a rarity — but no one is quite sure just how rare they are.
Colleges and universities must report the number of undergraduate students with disabilities to the federal government, but no such requirement exists for graduate students. The American Bar Association requires accredited law schools to publicly report law students’ race and gender, among other data. But that data doesn’t include disabilities.
This dearth of information regarding disabled law students obscures the pipeline that traditionally feeds BigLaw, experts say, making inclusion efforts more difficult.
“If we’re embracing all diversity, the data is very important so we can have a measurement of how we’re doing,” said Amy Allbright, director of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Disability Rights.
There are signs, however, that the legal education community is taking steps that could change this dynamic.
Driven by the low numbers of disabled attorneys, former California U.S. Congressman Tony Coelho — who was the primary sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 — helped create the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. The center, which is still in its infancy and has just hired its first executive director this month, has a stated goal of “increasing the pipeline” to put more people with disabilities in the bar and on the bench.
“Law schools in particular could do better recruiting talented students with disabilities,” Coelho told Law360 in an email. “One of our goals is building the number of talented lawyers with disabilities who can go onto positions of power in law and politics.”
Meanwhile, the American Bar Association is mulling policy changes that could require the law schools it accredits to collect and report data on students with disabilities, as it does currently for students’ race and gender. But it wouldn’t be simple.
The ABA’s Commission on Disability Rights has proposed surveying law students on disability and other diversity markers, but the proposal has faced pushback.
Advocates say the current lack of reliable statistics, both in law schools and at law firms, makes it difficult to tell where the industry is succeeding in allowing students and attorneys to thrive — and where it is failing.
“Data drives our efforts and it makes us think about why things are happening,” Allbright said. “When you start collecting that information, it raises the awareness of the entire profession.”
Carrie Basas remembers walking into a D.C. bagel shop in 2001, hoping the man she was there to meet could convince her not to drop out of Harvard Law School.
Basas has Larsen syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects her joints and facial features. In a recent interview, she told Law360 she had sensed her professors and fellow students seemed uncomfortable around her. She had felt stigmatized and alone at Harvard, and since she didn’t fit in, she wondered whether she had a place in the legal profession at all.
Miller, charismatic but grim, assured her the alienation and loneliness she felt in law school was real — and it wasn’t unique to Harvard.
When Miller graduated at the top of his class from Harvard Law in the 1980s, dozens of law firms flocked to the Cambridge campus to court him, drawn by his resume. But they didn’t like what they saw in person.
In a story he told Basas and later recounted in a book, one attorney told him that hiring him might give clients the impression that the firm was “a circus freak show.”
None called him back.
“It wasn’t an inspirational meeting by any means,” Basas said.
Paul Steven Miller
“He’s done well,” she remembered thinking at the time, “and this is possible.”
In the years since that first meeting, Basas has established a successful career in the Washington state government. Miller went on to serve as special assistant to President Barack Obama, before dying of cancer in 2010.
Although law schools have historically been inhospitable for students with disabilities, recent law school graduates who spoke with Law360 described a far more positive experience.
These include Haben Girma, who became Harvard Law’s first deaf-blind graduate in 2013. She’s now a disability rights lawyer and activist in California who consults on accessibility issues, advocacy and storytelling.
“I’m part of Generation ADA,” she said in an email, referencing a term for people with disabilities who grew up under the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was enacted in 1990. “We benefit from the advocacy of the people who came before us.”
A spokeswoman for Harvard said experiences like the ones described by Basas don’t reflect the Harvard of today.
“Harvard Law School welcomes students with disabilities and is committed to the full inclusion of students with disabilities in the life of the university,” Michelle Deakin said in an email. “We support students who have a wide range of disabilities. We provide accommodations and supports in various areas of life at HLS, ranging from academic, classroom, housing, clinical assignments, events and student activities.”
A Dearth of Data
Still, it’s hard to quantify overall progress for disabled law students — and, by extension, law firms. Without more data, problem areas and success stories become difficult to identify, and useful policy changes remain elusive.
When contacted by Law360, most top-ranked law schools did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment on the record about their data regarding disabled students.
The majority, including top schools like Harvard and Yale, either do not survey students to measure how many identify as having a disability or do not share this information. Schools track the number of requests for a disability accommodation, but many decline to share it. Even so, experts said the number of requests for accommodations isn’t an accurate measure of the portion of the student body that is disabled.
The National Association for Law Placement has estimated that between 1 and 2 percent of law school graduates have some sort of disability, but cedes it cannot find a precise number. Meanwhile, about 12.8 percent of the noninstitutionalized U.S. population has a disability, according to a Cornell University analysis of 2016 census data.
Earlier this year, Robert Gonzales, the chair of the ABA Commission on Disability Rights, urged the ABA’s law school accreditation arm to add disability, sexual orientation and gender identity to diversity categories that accredited universities must measure and demonstrably strive to increase.
At an April 12 hearing on amendments to the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Gonzales acknowledged law school admissions officials’ concerns that data on disability, sexual orientation and gender identity might be difficult to collect using voluntary surveys.
But he said schools already use self-reporting to record racial data. Many students decline to state a race in those surveys, so this would not necessarily present additional problems. A lack of responses at a law school could be a sign that further investigation is needed, he said.
“If a law student body feels that there is a stigma against someone for being gay or if there is a stigma for someone who has a mental disability, if the culture exists, they are not going to self-report,” he said, according to a hearing transcript. “They are not going to be in an environment that’s comfortable. So that has to be set at the outset. It has to be a commitment of that law school at the outset to create that inclusive environment for everybody.”
The “failure to make this mandatory would result in faulty data upon which the Accreditation Committee and Council could not rely in determining whether it should further investigate whether or not efforts have been made to achieve diversity in these categories,” she wrote.
During its meeting this month, the ABA’s House of Delegates did not consider the proposed law school diversity standard changes.
Coelho, the former U.S. congressman from California who championed the ADA, is well aware of the challenges posed by the lack of data.
“We need more research and statistics on lawyers with disabilities, including thinking innovatively about how to address the problems with disclosure/self-report, which tend to yield low numbers in these studies,” he said in an email. “From there, we need more programs.”
Andrea Parente is headed into her third year at Yale Law School. She is the president of ThinkDifferent, a Yale Law student group that primarily caters to those with learning disabilities.
Parente said she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and executive function deficiencies. This makes it difficult for her to manage her time and perform complicated tasks without supervision, she said.
The school and faculty have generally accommodated her well, but she said internships and clinics outside of the school have sometimes been trickier. The professionals there aren’t aware of her disability — or how to accommodate it. The do-it-yourself structure of some Yale clinics, she said, is not optimal for her.
So she came up with a solution.
“I put together a four-page presentation on how to supervise me,” she said. “It’s still a thing that I’m navigating. I’m still navigating when to disclose, and I get really mixed messages. Incredibly mixed messages.”
She loves the idea of practicing public interest law, but those organizations are often understaffed and hectic, she said. BigLaw firms, meanwhile, often provide mentors and constant direction.
What works for Parente doesn’t work for everyone.
At the University of Arizona Law School, Jovan Ruvalcaba was a Fulbright scholar and served as one of the last presidents of the National Association of Law Students with Disabilities before the decade-old organization fizzled last year.
Ruvalcaba, who has cerebral palsy, graduated this year with academic accolades for his study of business and international law. He is considering a career in BigLaw, but he said the math doesn’t seem to work out.
While he was still in school, he said a government job would be more likely to value his perspective and put it to use, and private firms might just see his disability as a hindrance to productivity.
Ruvalcaba’s hesitancy to explore BigLaw careers softened after he received Arizona Law’s Munger Prize for Scholars in International and Business Law and graduated. He said he might consider reaching out to some firms.
“Maybe I can disclose upfront and work for the firm that will work with me,” he wrote in a recent email.
But he is still planning on taking the Foreign Service Exam — part of the vetting process for aspiring diplomats — in October. His concerns about BigLaw billing and productivity haven’t gone away.
“I don’t want to be or feel like a token of diversity,” Ruvalcaba said.
“I don’t want to be there and not feel useful,” he added. “I don’t want to place myself in an environment where even my best might not be good enough.”
Brandon Lowrey is a feature reporter who last wrote about disability inclusion at law firms. Follow him on Twitter. Editing by Jocelyn Allison, Jeremy Barker and Katherine Rautenberg.