Joining the real world: what it is really like for a disabled graduate to find their perfect job

Have you ever wondered what it is really like for a disabled graduate to go about finding their dream graduate job?

Srin Madipalli, who has a disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), is a trainee solicitor with the commercial law firm Herbert Smith LLP. In this fascinating and insightful article, Srin shares how he approached finding a job after graduating, the challenges he faced, and the obstacles he overcame.

My name is Srin Madipalli and I am a trainee solicitor at Herbert Smith LLP, a commercial law firm based in the City of London, where I have been working since September 2008. 

I have a disability called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), which results in me having very little use of my arms and legs. I use a powered wheelchair for mobility and employ a team of support workers who work around the clock to provide the assistance I require. I graduated from Kings College London in 2006 with a first class degree in Genetics, and then completed the Graduate Diploma in Law (i.e. the law conversion course) and the Legal Practice Course at BPP Law School.

During my second year of university I felt a sense of dread that in the not too distant future I would be leaving the comfortable university environment and would need to enter the real world of work. Even though I really enjoyed what I learnt as part of my genetics degree program, I knew very early on that a career in scientific research was just not for me. Many careers are completely impractical for a person with my disability to pursue. But after much research into various careers through careers offices, recruitments fairs etc, I set my sights on a career in law.

Applying directly to graduate recruitment schemes can feel a daunting prospect irrespective of a disability, especially for schemes that are highly competitive. Such a view felt a reality on my first round of applications during my second year of university for internships in the City (both legal and non-legal), where I was looking for an insight into what working in the City would be like. All applications were soundly rejected without an offer for a single interview.

On looking back at my rejected applications, I thought my applications were a touch on the “light” side. As an example of this unlike many of those in my peer group I was not able to talk about playing sport or a musical instrument, lengthy overseas travel or much work experience. In addition, a general shyness towards discussing any issues relating to my disability, or even disclosing it for that matter, resulted in completed application forms not providing any explanations as to why such experience did not exist.

This first round of rejections, although leaving me a little demoralised, did not take away my determination to persevere. As determined as I was to try again, I was equally determined not to make what I felt were the same mistakes again. A different approach was needed and the described weaknesses had to be addressed.

I opted away from City internships that summer and looked for other law related summer work (whether paid or not) that could potentially improve my work experience. I came across a scheme being run by the Civil Service for students with disabilities. I successfully applied to the scheme, and due to my interest in law, was given the opportunity to work at an office of the Department of Constitutional Affairs (as it was known then) based in the Royal Courts of Justice. The two month scheme was an eye-opening experience that opened many opportunities. It improved my confidence and gave me an insight into the assistance and adjustments that I would need in the workplace later on.

The year after I again attempted to apply for the 2006 round of summer internships. However this time I took a different approach with regards to discussing issues relating to my disability. Even though I applied directly to law firms using their conventional graduate application scheme like everybody else, I was far more open in disclosing the fact that I had a disability. I took the view that I should disclose my disability to the extent that was relevant and may have required any potential adjustments further down the line.

In relation to demonstrating skills, I overcame my previous apprehensions, and I decided to cite examples of previous voluntary work in the “disability sphere” and talk about some of the events I helped organise for a charity I had worked with.

I further realised that even though I had not captained the football team or trekked through exotic locations, I had in my own way demonstrated skills utilised in such endeavours. For example, I had for many years been an employer of a team of support workers, and had the responsibilities common to all employers. Being an employer and managing a team of people that you are directly responsible for has been a personally tough challenge, which is rarely faced by the average 21 year old university graduate. Moreover, even though I had not trekked through exotic locations, I had organised various holidays with family and / or friends over previous years that had required a similarly meticulous level of planning and preparation.

My different approach worked and with good second year results in support I received interview offers for every application. This second attempt at summer internships, applying directly to law firms, which on this occasion also included Herbert Smith, was a far more positive experience.

Law firm interviews can be a very tough intellectual challenge, and my experience was no different. Unlike other aspects of the application process, at the interview stage, I felt that being a disabled candidate did not personally create many particularly unique obstacles. For interviews which involved case studies or short tests I was offered extra time, in a similar fashion to what I had during university exams. This was the case during the Herbert Smith interview, which involved a case study and an interview.

My disability has no effect on my ability to verbally communicate, which meant I believed I was able to compete on a level playing field as other candidates. Also, my improved confidence that had been gained through previous work experience at the Royal Courts and a refocusing of my perception of the disability related aspects of my life was of great benefit. Overall, my interview experiences were mostly positive and the only negative occurrence occurred at a firm which was asking me (quite validly) as to how I would manage in dealing with any tasks of a physical nature, such as organising case files or bundling court documents. During my interview, I put forward my strategies for dealing with such situations, which included the potential use of support workers provided through Access to Work or staff already at the firm who often help with such tasks like paralegals. Nonetheless, I could see very early on that I was unable to convince the interviewers of my approach. I felt that those interviewing me had already made their mind up before the interview. Quite expectedly, the application was soon rejected.

Notwithstanding this one negative experience, I received two-week internship offers from several City law firms, one of which included Herbert Smith.

In advance of the Herbert Smith placement, I was invited into the office to discuss any reasonable adjustments that would need to be made for the two week placement. I was also shown around the offices to ensure that my working area was accessible. Like with the application process, my approach was to be as open as necessary with any adjustments which were required.

Out of all my summer placements at law firms, my time at Herbert Smith was the most enjoyable. The placement went really well and I applied for a training contract. Since I had got through to the summer internship, I did not have to go through the same application process again, but instead went through an additional interview. When received, I accepted the offer with little hesitation!

In advance of starting my training contract, the firm again explored any requirements that I may have needed. Since I am working at the firm for a period far longer in comparison to the two week internship, some of the adjustments made have been considerably more substantial. Such examples included the installation of automatic doors in various locations around the building and the provision of lifting hoists in the disabled bathrooms. Since starting at the firm in 2008, I am as open as necessary with colleagues as to the potential help I need or with certain peripheral tasks that I may have to delegate. So far, such issues have never been a problem and subsequently, my experiences at the firm have been altogether very positive.