Dispelling the Disability Dilemma Episode II: Lessons from Practicing Attorneys
Dispelling the Disability Dilemma Episode II: Lessons from Practicing Attorneys
By: Dan Ankenman
Lawyers with disabilities are drastically underrepresented in the legal profession. In fact, as I discussed in my last piece, a recent report based on an assessment of over 240 law firms found that attorneys with disabilities were more underrepresented than any other group. The shortage of lawyers with disabilities can make it difficult for law students and young lawyers with disabilities to find role models in the legal community to help them navigate challenges and see a path to success. In addition, because most attorneys don’t encounter attorneys with disabilities, they might be more likely to believe that people with disabilities are less capable of practicing law.
For these reasons and more, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview two attorneys with disabilities about their experiences practicing law. I spoke with Heather Artinian of Latham & Watkins and Randy Farber of Jackson Walker about what drove them to become attorneys, how their disabilities impact their approach to practicing law, the obstacles they’ve faced, and how they’ve been able to manage these obstacles to provide excellent services to their clients and make valuable contributions to their firms.
🔹 Heather Artinian is a fifth-year associate at Latham & Watkins in Washington, D.C., where her practice focuses on white-collar defense and investigations. Before joining Latham, Heather attended Harvard Law School and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. Heather is Deaf, as is the rest of her family. Her first language was American Sign Language, and she can communicate with hearing individuals using cochlear implants and through the use of an interpreter.
🔹 Randy Farber is a transactional attorney and partner in Jackson Walker’s Houston office. Randy obtained his law degree, summa cum laude, and order of the coif from the University of Houston Law Center. He also holds an MBA and a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis. After practicing for over a decade, Randy’s vision seriously deteriorated due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina that eventually caused blindness. Randy has continued to practice law for nearly twenty years since becoming blind and uses tools like computer software to review and draft documents.
Heather and Randy exemplify how people with disabilities can thrive in the legal profession. In this second installment of Dispelling the Disability Dilemma, I summarize Heather’s and Randy’s responses to my questions about succeeding in the legal profession with a disability and fostering greater understanding and inclusion of people with disabilities in the legal community. I hope you will find what Heather and Randy shared as useful and inspiring as I did.
What motivated you to pursue and persevere in a legal career?
Heather wanted to become an attorney since she was a child. From a young age, Heather experienced injustices as she saw her parents, who are also Deaf, be denied basic services like interpreters at doctors’ appointments. Heather was deeply disturbed by this and knew instinctively that it was wrong. An elementary school teacher encouraged her to become an attorney to advocate and make things better for others.
Before attending law school, Randy worked for Gulf Oil Corp., which was acquired by Chevron, and he then started a computer consulting business. He was drawn to law when he and his business partner saw how much law impacted business. Randy’s vision did not deteriorate meaningfully until he was nearly a decade and a half into his legal career, but he was not ready to throw in the towel. With the support of his firm and the use of assistive technologies, Randy has continued to serve his clients for nearly two decades since developing a serious disability.
How has having a disability impacted your approach to law?
Having practiced with and without a disability, Randy spoke authoritatively about the fact that, though the mechanics of how he performed tasks changed when he became blind, the substance of his work has been the same before and after he started losing his sight. Because the heart of his job—understanding and applying the law to clients’ legal issues—remained the same, Randy simply needed to find a new way to obtain information. After some experimentation and trial and error, Randy has found new ways to effectively obtain and share the information he needs to apply the law to his clients’ issues. As before, he continues to draft and review documents (the bread and butter of his practice as a transactional attorney), but now Randy uses a screen-reading software program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech). Though webpages and certain document types like PDFs can require additional work to convert to an accessible format, this software has enabled Randy to continue to perform the work he has always done to serve his clients.
In describing how disability impacts her legal practice, Heather shared the concept of what she called a “disability tax”: the idea that disability affects everything people with disabilities do and frequently requires people with disabilities to put in additional work to achieve the same type of access or result as an able-bodied person. There are tangible ways in which this disability tax can be measured and identified. Still, it might also impact people with disabilities in ways even they may not realize because they are so used to living with the effects of a disability. For Heather, the disability tax manifests itself when, for example, she cannot automatically accept meetings because she must first ensure that an interpreter can attend. Heather also takes it upon herself to explain the interpreter’s presence at meetings. In addition, Heather spends additional time practicing how to pronounce multi-syllabic words for cases or oral presentations. Despite its steep costs to Heather and others with disabilities, the “disability tax” sometimes comes with counterbalancing “disability gains.” For instance, Heather’s greater need to practice causes her to be exceptionally well-prepared for meetings, proceedings, and presentations.
Are there ways you think your disability has proven to be an asset in your legal career?
To this question, Heather emphatically responded, “Yes, 100%!” She highlighted two ways she believes her disability has been an advantage in her practice. First, she shared that because her primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), she is a skilled reader of body language and facial expressions. Heather’s ability to pick up on signals others might miss is an undeniable asset in litigation, especially when conducting witness interviews. Second, Heather observed that, though she is a fifth-year associate, she already has over twenty years of advocacy under her belt as a result of her disability. Advocacy is part of who Heather is. She knows how to navigate disagreements and misunderstandings to get results.
Randy shared that his mastery of the law and client materials, despite his blindness, can cause clients to place heavier weight on what he says. Similar to how Heather must practice pronouncing multi-syllabic words, Randy’s extra preparation ahead of meetings allows him to know the issues more deeply than others because he doesn’t just “wing it.” This additional work benefits Randy and his clients because Randy has already carefully considered issues before client meetings.
What advice would you give to law students and young attorneys with disabilities?
Heather encouraged law students and young attorneys with disabilities to accept themselves and their disabilities. Because many do not understand disability, Heather explained that “it is up to us to advocate for ourselves.” The lack of understanding many people have of disabilities can also cause well-meaning people to become nervous, afraid, or scared when interacting with someone with a disability. Heather explained that people with disabilities, unfortunately, are burdened with putting others at ease. Even after confronting these challenges her entire life, Heather shared that she still gets anxious about encountering new people and situations. While it is sometimes terrifying, Heather has found that the best approach for her is to be her authentic self and proactively confront the nerves and uncertainty she or others have.
In the context of job applications, for example, Heather concluded that she did not want to work for a firm that would not fully embrace her and her disability. Not only did she not want to be discriminated against, but she also realized that she would not want to work for an organization that would discriminate against her. As a result, Heather was proactive, notifying potential employers about her disability once she was invited to an interview. She also contacted potential employers, informing them of her disability and her need for an interpreter for the interview. This helped Heather find a firm where she could thrive as her whole self and not worry that she needed to hide her disability.
Randy advises law students and young lawyers with disabilities to take solace in and understand that law school and practicing law are demanding for everyone, with or without a disability. When it is hard, Randy says to “persevere and stick through it.” Knowing that they are not the only ones who struggle can help young lawyers and law students with disabilities develop realistic expectations and confidence that they will be able to make it through the challenges they face.
How have you been able to face isolation and discrimination to succeed?
At first, Randy was unsure if he could continue practicing law. Now that he has been doing it so long, he and others at his firm expect that he’ll be able to deal with any difficulties his blindness presents. Randy has learned to meticulously lead with his strengths. For instance, he often first meets with clients over the phone to discuss issues rather than meet them in person. This ensures that Randy’s tremendous capacity as an attorney is not overshadowed by limitations others might perceive him to have when they first meet him. Once clients know Randy’s legal acumen and ability, they are not concerned when they learn about his blindness.
Heather shared that some level of isolation is inevitable for her, but she has learned to proactively communicate what she needs and develop one-on-one relationships with people. Although dealing with the challenges of isolation and misunderstanding is an ongoing process, fostering individualized relationships with her co-workers has increased Heather’s comfort level in communicating her needs, such as asking co-workers to repeat themselves.
In what ways have others (colleagues, firms, affinity groups) supported you during your legal industry? What are ways legal organizations have gotten it right?
Heather shared that working with “good people” who want to get it right and are willing to learn is essential. Figuring out what accommodations an employee needs is a process, so it has been vital for Heather to have an employer who will listen and provide the access she needs.
The support and resources of Randy’s firm have also made a huge difference for him. For example, the firm’s word processing team converts inaccessible PDFs into accessible Word documents, and Randy’s assistant formats documents. Delegating these tasks allows Randy to keep his focus where he can be most effective—analyzing legal issues and finding solutions for his clients.
How can law firms and others better include and support attorneys with disabilities?
Randy shared that the legal industry was in a unique position to support attorneys with disabilities by putting pressure on legal software developers to make their products more accessible. Because members of the legal community are the primary consumers of these products, it would make a big difference for the legal community to come together to support people with disabilities by demanding that the products be made more accessible.
Heather observed that even the most inclusive workplace will always have room for improvement. This is especially true for people with disabilities because disabilities vary widely, and what one person with a disability needs may not match another’s needs. This underscores the need for employers to be willing to constantly learn and improve accessibility.
What do you wish others knew about having a disability?
Randy expressed that the general population has relatively little exposure to the disability community. As a result, their view of people with disabilities can be distorted. Randy believes that if people had more meaningful interactions with people with disabilities, they would recognize that having a disability does not make them incapable or unreliable. Instead, they would see that people with disabilities can perform just as well as people without disabilities; they might just perform some tasks differently. Everyone experiences hardships in life. A disability is just another kind of hardship.
In a similar vein, Heather wished that there was greater awareness of the “disability tax” people with disabilities must bear, which makes all kinds of day-to-day activities more difficult. While they may not fully understand the burdens people with disabilities carry, Heather believes that it would go a long way if more people recognized the challenges faced by the disability community.
I’m deeply grateful to Heather and Randy for taking the time to speak with me. Their insights deeply resonate with me. Heather and Randy have shown that it is not only possible but vital that people with disabilities be fully integrated into and embraced by the legal community.
Dan Ankenman is a recent BYU Law graduate, an alumnus of PracticePro Diversity Scholar Program, and an incoming associate at Paul Hastings this fall. Dan graduated law school Order of the Coif and was a Lead Notes Editor of BYU Law Review.
 Xiumei Dong, BigLaw Diversity Push Lacks Inclusion for Disabled Attys, Law360 (Sept. 27, 2022, 9:02 AM), https://www.law360.com/pulse/articles/1533837/biglaw-diversity-push-lacks-inclusion-for-disabled-attys.