Helen Cooke is addressing the floor.
She’s a wheelchair user, and is travelling between tables, engaging delegates with her subject and working the eye contact hard. The title of her session is ‘Openness and Requesting Adjustment’, and the sound of tip-tapping on tablets strongly suggests that the room is appreciative of her advice.
We’re at the OPEN event, in which students with a disability or a long-term health condition are learning how to apply to commercial law firms. It’s being held at Allen & Overy’s London office, and we’ve been promised a series of networking opportunities and expert presentations.
Cooke, the director and founder of My Plus Consulting, is one of the organisers of OPEN. She’s an experienced speaker and her session is clearly asking delegates the right questions. Such as: Should you arrange an orientation visit to an assessment centre? Should you expect an employer to understand what adjustments might be made for someone with your disability? And how might you formulate an ‘openness statement’?
Delegates jot down trial statements and read them aloud in pairs. ‘We call them ‘openness statements’ rather than ‘disclosure statements’,’ says Cooke. ‘Disclosure suggests your disability is some kind of terrible secret.’
Between presentations, delegates compare notes.
Afsa admits to mental health issues; he’s wondering what support exists for this in the legal world. Natalie has only recently been diagnosed as dyslexic, and shares her disappointment at the lack of adjustments made to her university tuition.
Arash, who is visually impaired and the most assertive member of the group, says he neither wants nor expects adjustments. His intention is to achieve ‘legal immortality’ and be referred to glowingly in professional textbooks.
There’s cynicism in the group about whether firms actually do want to hire people with a disability. Many delegates have attended a variety of careers fairs, and suspect most employers ‘don’t have a clue’.
They also don’t believe the recruitment marketing hype they’ve seen on the firms’ career sites. ‘Unless you see it first hand, it’s very hard to believe what you’re told,’ says one delegate. ‘Especially what you’re told by lawyers.’
‘It’s good to meet people who know from experience that you can be five per cent slower but ten per cent better,’ one girl says.
The event is also valuable to recruiters.
This year, eight firms are in attendance, each with a stand, armfuls of marketing materials and sharp-suited representatives keen to ask and answer questions.
Hannah Salton, Graduate Recruitment Manager for Allen & Overy, sees involvement with OPEN as an important part of the firm’s dedication to inclusivity. Besides supporting the event since its inception five years ago, Allen & Overy has provided disability awareness training for recruiters and HR, and worked with consultants to understand ‘reasonable adjustments’.
‘Events such as these aren’t just a recruitment tool,’ Salton says. ‘They’re about students building an awareness of the legal industry, and gaining a real insight into what life as a lawyer is all about.’ Salton points out that even the stage in the conference room has a lift for chair users.
Alecia Ani, a resourcer at Linklaters, has a surprising observation. ‘Many students with a disability prefer to avoid larger firms,’ she says. ‘They assume smaller firms are more likely to have the time and inclination to make the adjustments they need.’
She’s keen to disabuse students of this idea. She gives every applicant with a disability a named contact, which she believes helps them feel more comfortable when opening up about their requirements.
Michael is also visually impaired.
He used OPEN to help secure a traineeship at Ashurst, a leading London firm. ‘OPEN educated me about the harsh realities of having a disability and working within the legal sector,’ he says. ‘The senior employees at law firms have very little experience with disability and don’t identify the value that hiring a disabled individual can bring.’
There are exceptions. ‘Ashurst has been incredibly supportive throughout all my work experience and application processes.’
To others trying to follow him into the legal world, Michael suggests turning disability on its head and using it as a differentiator. ‘I’ve always thought it’s important to portray one’s disability as a positive,’ he says. ‘See it as an attribute that can make an otherwise faceless applicant stand out from the crowd. Disabilities, and the skills that people with them develop over their lives, are unique.’
Employing people with disabilities should be seen as more than just a tick-box exercise for recruiters, Michael suggests. ‘It’s safe to say that by necessity disabled students are in the majority more hardworking and loyal than those without disabilities.’
In a breakout area, Cooke discusses the reasons behind OPEN’s success.
‘We help develop useful skills that are relevant to any student, disabled or not,’ she says. ‘And we give them the opportunity to meet employees who have a disability and are actually working for firms – who show that it can be done, that there are no barriers. This helps builds confidence.’
If there’s one thing that OPEN seeks to deliver, it’s confidence. ‘That’s often the greatest barrier to individuals. They don’t believe that the employer will want to know them once they know they have a disability.’
The other thing OPEN does is remind everyone – disabled or not – that a career in commercial law can be pretty crazy. ‘It’s really tough,’ smiles Cooke. ‘There are long hours, demanding colleagues and it requires huge attention to detail. So we also want the students to ask, ‘Do I really want to do this, even if I can?’’