Focus on Abilities Rather Than Disabilities During a Law Firm Interview

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Dear Lawcrossing,

I have a very visible disability, which is made even more prominent by the fact that I am helped by a huge black dog. On top of that, my grades are not what they could be because I was hospitalized the last two weeks of fall term. Some people tell me to tell potential employers that my grades were due to the fact that there was a seven-year gap between college and law school, implying that I am a bit rusty. I feel uncomfortable with this suggestion because it is not the truth and I am a poor liar. How can I encourage potential employers to look past my disability and focus on my skills? And do you have any special strategies or suggestions for job-hunters with disabilities?

MC Oregon


Well, yes, as a matter of fact, MC, LawCrossing does have some special strategies for job-hunters with disabilities. Hmmm. And maybe, just maybe, that's how your letter snuck to the top of LawCrossing's "in-box."

In one important respect, your job search is no different than anybody else's, in the sense that you've got to show potential employers what it is that you bring to the table for them. And in that sense, what you should do is very much similar to what any law student seeking a great job ought to do-put yourself in a position where potential employers get to see what you can do, outside of a formal cover letter and job interview. How do you do that? Well, let's assume that you want to practice law in the city where you live now. What you could do is to contact the lawyer in the local bar association who heads the specialty you want to practice. Offer to volunteer on researching an issue, helping out on a project, or planning an event.

You could do the same thing for organizations that run continuing legal education seminars in the specialty you want to enter; offer to help out at the next seminar. What you're accomplishing when you do things like this is to say, "See? I'm not just telling you what I can do; I'm showing you." And you're doing so in a context in which you don't feel the pressure of a job interview, and the people you meet won't feel the direct pressure of a hiring decision. Once they get to know you, and like you, they'll naturally think of you as a potential employee-or recommend you to people who will.

Another alternative is to consider your disability as a means of connecting with people who might help you kick off your career. While you don't mention it per se in your letter, the fact that you travel with a large black dog suggests that you're visually impaired (if LawCrossing guessed wrong, she apologizes). If so, think about organizations that support the visually impaired. Go to people who run and support those organizations, say that you want to practice law, and ask whom they believe you ought to talk to for advice and leads on getting your career started. Because they know you via your disability, you don't have to worry about how they will react to you-and they will naturally be supportive. You will also want to ask them for anyone they know of who already practices law with your disability. The news media is another good source for stories about lawyers who are similarly disabled. Regardless of how you find out about them, contact those lawyers, explain that you have the same disability they have, and see if they'll informally mentor you. Again, because they can identify with you-and, not for nothing, you're flattering them by holding them up as a role model-they'll be predisposed to help you.
Do you notice something ironic here, MC? You are accessing a whole raft of people who would not have a special incentive to help you if you weren't disabled.

So much for special strategies. The other part of your letter seems to focus on what you ought to do if you send out letters seeking interviews-the traditional approach to finding a job. Not coincidentally, it is an approach that LawCrossing eschews, because she believes, disabled or not, that you stand a far greater chance of landing a rewarding job if you get to know people outside of a job interview. But, ho hum, let's look at the letter-and-interview scenario. Rob Kaplan, the Associate Dean and Career Services Director at the William & Mary Law School (and a partner in a law firm in a prior life), advises that you "Don't make a special point of mentioning your disability in your letter or resume." Instead, when you get nibbles in the form of phone calls, mention your disability in a casual way-for instance, if you are wheelchair-bound, say so in the context of asking whether the building is wheelchair- accessible. The reason for this? Because most employers, when asked about people with visible disabilities, prefer not to be surprised at the interview. By mentioning your disability up front, you're eliminating that element of surprise.

Then, at the interview itself, Rob Kaplan suggests that you "Take the offensive-it will help you establish a rapport! You might want to say something like, 'In your position, I'd be concerned about my disability and would want to know about it.'" Go on to talk about everything you've done to overcome any obstacles posed by your disability, and how well you will function in spite of it, drawing on examples of prior work (whether in law school or beforehand) to back up what you say. As Rob Kaplan points out, when you take this approach, you're "Putting the interviewer's mind at ease, as well as showing that you're comfortable talking about it."

Finally, regarding the grades issue, LawCrossing applauds your instincts about not lying. What many innocently misguided job seekers believe-including among them, unfortunately, some people who have advised you-is that getting a great job has to involve deception. It doesn't. Getting a great job means putting the most positive possible spin on the truth. In your case, as Rob Kaplan puts it, this means "Explaining that you had a medical problem that kept you out of school right before exams." As he points out, everybody at some time or another has had to miss time from school because of a medical problem; there's no reason to lie about it. Instead, what you can do is focus on how well you're doing now, without a medical absence to hold you back. And if your grades still aren't great, well-time to focus on your strengths by highlighting research you've done for a professor, or skills you bring forward from your prior career, or work you've done for any other legal employer.

LawCrossing is confident that you see the pattern here, MC-instead of focusing on DIS-abilities, you're focusing on A-bilities. And in doing so, you're doing everything you need to nail down that job you want.

See the following articles for more information:

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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About Harrison Barnes

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