When I first heard about Open to Law back in 2013, I was apprehensive. I’ve never shied away from discussing my disabilities (I have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder and some symptoms of Dyspraxia), and I’ve always recognised that they made me different from others. But I also didn’t want to be singled out for my disability, or given special treatment; so the idea of an event marketed solely at students with disabilities felt at odds with my principles.
But in the end, I sent in an application – after all, I reasoned, I couldn’t dismiss it without checking it out first. As it turned out, sending in that application was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My Plus Consulting, the company which run Open to Law, recognise that disabled students don’t want to be singled out, or taken on simply because they’re disabled. Yet they also recognise that being disabled presents individuals with challenges that are simply unlike any that non-disabled people face.
Open to Law, therefore, didn’t promise simple answers. There was no guarantee of employment, no quotas discussed. Instead, the event aimed to inform aspiring commercial solicitors with disabilities of the path to making an effective application. We were treated to speeches from leading figures in law with a variety of disabilities, and were able to speak to trainees with disabilities about the everyday reality of working in commercial law as a disabled person. From these, we were then able to size up whether this was really the path we wanted to take, and if so, the best way to go about it.
Afterwards we took part in an interactive mock-interview session, where we worked in teams to devise answers to common interview questions, including the elusive ‘commercial awareness’. Following this, we listened to a panel discussion from top lawyers with disabilities before asking questions in a Q&A session. Last but not least, of course, was the networking, which allowed us to ask any specific questions we had in person, whether to trainees, to grad recruiters or to panellists.
A lot of the event was spent convincing us of the merits of disclosing a disability, and not keeping it hidden. As somebody whose close friends and family had encouraged them not to disclose, this was surprising for me to hear – surely firms wouldn’t want to hire disabled people? But as it turns out, the best talent isn’t necessarily non-disabled; firms often hire disabled graduates for the tenacity they present in overcoming challenges, and their unique perspectives. And it’s large companies like commercial law firms that can best afford adjustments to help you to work more effectively – they’ve the budget for it, after all! So when it comes to commercial law, disclosure is always the best policy – and disclosing as early as possible means you can get the adjustments you require right from the get-go.
But there was no sense that we were being ‘handed’ anything; instead, as My Plus Consulting’s director Helen Cooke explained when giving a speech, requesting adjustments had to be a two-way process. If we wanted the company to respect us, that meant we had to respect them – which meant not asking for unreasonable adjustments that they simply couldn’t implement, and giving the company enough time to implement them. She cited cases of people who’d called up to request adjustments on the day of the interview – never a good idea, as not only can the company often not act so fast, but it comes across as very unprofessional. And adjustments should always be used only for things you require – they should never be abused to give a disabled applicant an unfair advantage over another. They’re there to help you work to your best, not to privilege you.
Looking back, this ethos was reflected in all of the days’ events. We were encouraged to network, and given tips and plenty of opportunities to do so – but we had to make the effort to engage in conversation. Likewise, the panel discussions, trainee talks and interview sessions were about building up our skillset to make us more attractive applicants – they weren’t about getting us ‘in the door’ purely because of our disabilities.
Personally, I found ‘Open to Law’ immensely helpful – it provided me with a comprehensive introduction to the world of commercial law, and helped me identify, grow and develop the key competencies firms are looking for. And I’d like people coming up, in the position I was a year ago, to have the same opportunity. Open to Law 2014 is being held this December, and applications are open now. All of the Magic Circle is taking part, along with Reed Smith, Hogan Lovells and Ashurst. If you’ve got a disability or long-term health condition and you’re interested, sign up!
And while you’re at it, you should also sign up for another of My Plus Consulting’s events, Getting Investment Banking – as the name suggests, it’s aimed at investment banking, and will give you a good understanding of the corporate and financial framework that commercial law firms work alongside. If you want to work for a commercial firm you need to understand business, after all – not just academic law! The next event is October 2015. And if you know an aspiring solicitor with a disability who’s still in Year 12, let them know about Great Opportunities – it’ll give them the chance to meet representatives from Linklaters, and get a real head-start when it comes to both networking, and getting to grips with the ins-and-outs of the application process.
Oh, and one last thing – you should also definitely visit Helen’s new website, Great With Disability. It profiles a long and ever-expanding list of companies who are ‘great with disability’, along with their opportunities. It also provide useful and practical advice to students as they apply for graduate and school leaver opportunities – it’s a great site, going from strength to strength, and if you’ve any questions about the sort of applications on offer or which firms to apply to, it’s the place to go!