Arunima Misra is a second year trainee at Allen and Overy. In this honest and insightful article, Arunima proves that her disability proves far from being an obstacle to her career. Rather it has been a useful learning experience for both her and her employers.
In my pursuit of a career in law, I have had to jump through much the same set of hoops as anyone else wanting a training contract at a major city law firm. Since embarking on my training contract at Allen & Overy (A&O), however, my journey has been a little more unpredictable than I thought because of my disability.
As a result of a tumour in my spine when I was three months old, I have a permanent physical disability called paraparesis, which means that the muscles in my legs are very weak. I cannot stand or walk unaided; I use crutches for short distances and the majority of my movement in the office and around London is with the use of a powered wheelchair (provided to me by the national young person’s charity Whizz-Kidz).
My passion for a legal career was ignited at the age of 14 when I was chosen to be an interviewer for a Channel 4 schools programme called First Edition. My role on the programme (alongside my co-presenter, the legendary Jon Snow) was to interview politicians, celebrities and other influential individuals on the current affairs and controversial issues which they were involved with at the time.
Often the interviews got quite heated, and I relished the opportunity to fight my corner in a logical and articulate way; thinking on my feet to ask poignant and probing questions, often putting my interviewee in a difficult position. I reveled in the limelight and realised that while my legs didn’t work very well, my loud mouth certainly did!
Being a solicitor seemed like an obvious career choice and appealed to my argumentative and language-hungry brain. I had found a career path in which my disability would not get in the way of my progress and in which my mental, rather than physical, ability would be paramount.
In hindsight, perhaps I was a little naively optimistic in thinking that my disability would not get in the way of my working life at all but then, and now, I am still utterly determined to give it my best shot. I had never had a full-time job before and so did not have much of an idea of how my physical situation would affect my stamina at work.
In my second year at Cambridge University I managed to get a place on a summer vacation scheme at A&O. From the outset I was pleased to see that my disability wasn’t going to be a major hassle for the human resources (HR) team. They let me know that this was going to be a learning experience for both of us and I was happy for them to come to me with any questions or concerns.
The HR team took everything in their stride - I took part in every single event which the vacation placement offered, from hauling my wheelchair onto a cruise along the Thames to clubbing in a crowded bar in Leicester Square. We worked as a team to ensure that I did not miss out on anything. I never got the impression that my disability was a problem; I was there because of my brain (and sparkling personality, of course) and if I had a disability to deal with on the side, then so be it. At the end of the vacation scheme, I was thrilled to be offered a training contract.
I finished my law degree, completed the Legal Practice Course at Moorgate and started my stint in the real world in March 2009. A&O had inquired previously as to what adjustments were needed to make my training contract run smoothly with as little difficulty as possible. My main concerns were the existence of disabled toilets and lifts - but the firm has more than one disabled toilet on each floor and there are over 20 lifts in the office.
Unfortunately though, a few months into my training contract the combination of the exhaustion that my disability causes and the long, frantic hours required of trainees began to take their toll; there were now other factors that A&O and I would have to consider and work through together.
It dawned on me that in my bubble at Cambridge I was in control of my days - if my fatigue got the better of me, I could just take a rest and continue when I was feeling better - but I’m not sure that climbing on top of my desk to have a power nap would go down too well at a magic circle law firm.
The smallest of things required the greatest of effort. I realised that a real independent life as a disabled person means that so many things have to be taken care of that go beyond the realms of my job:
- My disability makes me exhausted by the end of the day, meaning that I am unable to work the long hours like the rest of the trainees;
- I have numerous hospital appointments, which mean I often have to leave the office in the middle of the day;
- If my wheelchair breaks down I have to think about how I am going to get to and from work and who is going to rescue me;
- If it’s raining, I have to organise an adequate wheelchair-friendly taxi (a much more difficult task than you would think) to take me to or from work; and
- Any social event has to be held in a disabled-friendly venue, otherwise I cannot attend.
Luckily, though, these were all problems that had a solution. A&O listened to me and were incredibly understanding and helpful. We arrived at a solution for each of the difficulties I was facing. I now work flexible hours and my trainers understand that I have to leave the office at a certain time of day in order to go home and rest. I found a wheelchair breakdown service which does roadside assistance for wheelchairs and I have my own black cab account with the firm in order to help me get home.
I am now in the second year of my training contract and things are going smoothly. There was a period of adjustment and learning for me and the firm, but A&O helped to provide solutions to my problems and didn’t leave me to struggle on my own.
A&O helped to build up my confidence by concentrating on my ability and not my disability. In turn, the firm displayed their own confidence by showing me that my disability mattered enough for them to help me find a solution to my difficulties, but not so much that it became a nuisance or a hassle.
Support and confidence are so vital for a disabled person to grow. Without confidence, I wouldn’t have the strength or the determination to make the most of my life and use the talents I possess despite the adversities I face.
A&O clearly recognises how important diversity is in the workplace in order for a business to progress and thrive. It’s so inspiring being surrounded by people from all walks of life; everyone brings their own refreshing perspective.
Crucially, in order to benefit from all the brilliant things that diversity brings, a business will have to take into consideration some of the things that come with their employees as a result of the life-path that the employee is walking. It’s a two-way commitment.
I am a very positive person and, if I could give other law firms some advice, it would be to recognise that disabled applicants wish to be acknowledged for what they can do, not what they can’t. We do have some extra hurdles to consider when applying for a job and settling down independently in a new city. I, for one, certainly do not want sympathy; this is the hand I have been dealt. All I need is an understanding from my employer of this fact.
The majority of people I have worked with have been incredibly understanding and empathetic. They have inspired and motivated me to progress in my career and to do the best job I can.
This has been more than a career journey for me, it’s been a journey of independence and freedom. It’s a strange journey, one where I have learned something new about myself every day and I am loving every minute.