According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2019 report on diversity in U.S. law firms, only about half of one percent of all lawyers in large United States law firms identified as having a disability. Law firms must diversify and increase that number so the legal field better reflects our population. While law firms must address their culture and provide accommodations to attract and retain to disabled candidates, law schools also play a critical role in the law firm recruitment and interview process. Law firms conduct outreach and on-campus interviews (OCI) through law schools, and law schools can leverage their positions to make sure that on-campus interview and recruitment processes are as accessible and inclusive as possible. Law schools can make a difference in the recruitment of disabled candidates and in diversifying the legal profession.
Disabled students participating in OCI often deal with barriers to access including inaccessible interview locations, a lack of accommodations due to confusing processes, and logistical mishaps that make accommodations difficult to access or impossible to determine. Law schools are typically responsible for coordinating the logistics for the interview processes for any on-campus interviews. Schools play a particularly essential role in communicating and coordinating these logistics because students are not permitted to directly contact employers. When schools fail to ensure that interviews are accessible, it will be harder for disabled applicants to be successful.
One other concern is that many of these interviews may be scheduled closely together with few or no breaks in between. For students with anxiety or other disabilities, this style of interviewing may be inaccessible. When interviews are in person, for students with physical disabilities, having little to no time to get from one interview to another may pose a challenge. Priority scheduling or accommodations for breaks may be required for these students.
In the unique time of COVID, many of these interviews are likely taking place remotely. This is a positive change for many disabled students because it eliminates potential architectural barriers, but it is a negative change for others. For example, students who require distraction-free environments may struggle to safely find those in the time of COVID. For some students, the change is not necessarily positive or negative, but it does change the nature of the accommodations they receive. Make sure that you are appropriately accommodating students in light of that fact.
Ensure instructions for any video or teleconferencing software use are clear and that the software is accessible and compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and Section 508 standards. Some students may require different or more accessible software for their interviews. If that is the case, make sure that those logistics are figured out. Schools should use the most universally accessible software possible but should be prepared to use different software if students need it.
Make sure that your video or teleconferencing software has a closed captioning function and does not block third party captioning software, like Otter. Additionally, be prepared to provide qualified live captioning for students who require it. You do not want your disabled students to be disadvantaged during job interviews and having the proper captioning can make all the difference. Artificial intelligence captioning is known to miss words, turn out nonsense, feature a lag, omit important tags or information about who is speaking, and remove text too quickly for it to be read.
If an applicant requires that certain images or screenshares (if applicable) be described, make sure to arrange for that accommodation and communicate with the student about how it will work. Additionally, sometimes employers or others will try to use messaging within videoconferencing software. Depending upon an individual’s disability, these messages may be difficult to read or access while on video calls. Schools can work with individual students to decide whether and how to notify interviewers that they cannot rely on messaging within software.
There are a number of other accessibility issues and considerations, and this list is by no means exhaustive. The best way to ensure that you are accommodating everyone is to involve disabled students in the process. Disabled students know best what they need. Making sure that they are involved in planning and logistics, from the beginning, can eliminate accessibility problems later on.
Providing accommodations is important, but making sure that students know they can receive accommodations for on-campus interviews and how to receive those accommodations is just as important. Accommodations only work if students know they are available and how to access them. Clearly and conspicuously communicate that accommodations are available throughout the process and establish a clear procedure for requesting those accommodations.
Disabled students may not know exactly what they need. These interviews could be students’ first experiences with a legal or professional interview process. Your guidance and suggestions for potential accommodations can be helpful. You should know what questions to ask students to best understand their needs and work out solutions with the student as a collaborative exercise. Connecting your students to resources like the Job Accommodation Network or the National Disabled Law Students Association may also be helpful. Even if you do not personally have all the answers, your ability to connect students with disabled professionals who have been through the process is immensely valuable. It is essential for disabled students to learn from those with lived experience to help them find solutions and navigate the field. Even disabled career counselors do not necessarily live with every disability, so connecting students to individuals with lived experience is critical.
Law schools often use websites or platforms like Symplicity for professional development and employment applications and resources. Make sure those platforms are fully accessible and compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 508 Guidelines so that everyone can participate in the process. Accessibility may mean ensuring compliance for blind or low-vision students, clarity in language and instruction, and user-friendliness, for example.
Make sure the firms you invite have non-discrimination policies, sign on to the American Bar Association’s “Disability Diversity in the Legal Profession: A Pledge for Change,” and include disability in their diversity statements. Promises and statements mean little without action, though. As law schools, which help these law firms to staff their associate class and provide large platforms for recruitment, you have leverage to pressure law firms to effect positive change–not only to affirm a commitment to disability inclusion but also to take positive strides.
I remember when I participated in my on-campus interview process. It was anxiety-provoking and confusing, particularly when the career office sent emails about “disastrous” consequences for directly reaching out to any one employer. There were so many different instructions sent in so many different emails, it was difficult to keep track. That is not accessible or inclusive for a variety of reasons. Keep yourselves organized, keep your instructions simple and in one place, and do not instill unnecessary panic in those participating in the process.
Logistical failures happen. These failures should be avoided at all costs, but sometimes technical glitches occur, interpreters experience emergencies, and other incidents happen, despite one’s best efforts. Establish a plan in the event that a student’s accommodation(s) is/are not available, and communicate that plan to both students and participating employers. The plan should involve as much notice to the student as possible, placing as little stress on the student as possible and providing no more detail than necessary to the employer about the accommodation, disability, or logistical issue to ensure that discrimination does not disadvantage the candidate.
In addition to issues with accommodations, schools should also establish a clear and thorough grievance procedure for discrimination students if they experience during the interview process. Law schools should work with participating law firms to ensure that these procedures can be implemented and reports of discrimination will be investigated appropriately.
OCI typically involves a lot of competition, dire warnings about failing to follow specific instructions, an air of prestige, and so many other stressors that can cause unnecessary anxiety. These stressors are only compounded by the perceived environments at law firms. Feeding into these cultures not only undercuts interview performance, but also creates confusion and makes interviews more difficult for disabled students. Not only should schools ensure that they are not feeding into these cultures, but they should also ensure mental health and other resources are available for those who are experiencing anxiety, are in mental health crises, need guidance through manifestations of their disabilities, are struggling to cope, or otherwise require mental health assistance, including counseling. Although it is quite fun to see puppies, or encounter free candy or treats, on campus during stressful times, those types of events are not a replacement for essential services like counseling.
Although this issue is one that is typically discussed in the context of sexual harassment, signing an arbitration clause can also prevent an employee who experiences disability discrimination from filing suit or pursuing other action outside of arbitration. Law schools have used their leverage to ensure that law firms cease this practice; law schools can continue to do so.
Although this list is not exhaustive, it contains some concrete ways law schools and career services offices can ensure that the on-campus interview processes that they are sponsoring and facilitating are accessible and inclusive. Law schools can make a difference in prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion at law firms, increasing disability representation and disclosure, and changing environments and attitudes in the legal profession. If you have any further questions, please feel free to reach out to Associate Director of Job Accommodations Marissa Ditkowsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.