Attorney Profile: Disclosing My Disability

After much deliberation about disclosing my disability on my online attorney profile, I decided to go full monty and disclose a full picture. Perhaps it makes sense for me to disclose my disability, since I am starting a disability law practice. But I am still nervous that some potential clients would be hesitant to hire me because of my disability.

When I was about to graduate law school, I had a conversation about disclosing my disability with my Employment Discrimination Law Professor. She encouraged me to disclose my disability, saying that employers would eventually find out that I have a disability and that I shouldn’t waste my time with the ones that discriminate. She added that I would find the right office that would accept me and my disability. After about six years of agonizing job applications, I have come to realize that no such office exists. But I am hopeful that my potential clients will be different.

Here’s my blurb for my up and coming website for my law practice:

Profile Picture of Esther Lee

Profile Picture of Esther Lee

My name is Esther S. Lee.  I am an attorney with a disability.  My Cerebral Palsy affects my speech and mobility, but not my spirit.  I received honors distinctions from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a B.A. in English and Rhetoric.  I graduated from the University of California Davis, School of Law, with a focus on civil rights and public interest law.  In addition to being an attorney, I am starting a non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities, called Able Community.  My extensive background advancing the rights of people with disabilities includes legal work at multiple disability rights organizations and disability policy work at the White House.  I am committed to empowering people with disabilities and underrepresented communities, advancing their rights and quality of life through legal advocacy.

Our office is an affordable, socially conscious law practice advocating for people with disabilities and their families’ every day legal needs.  The practice focuses on Social Security, Special Education, housing, disability, and administrative law; as well as advancing the Civil Rights of all people in Illinois and California.

Experience:

  • Successfully fought apartment management companies and university housing to modify units for increased ADA accessibility.
  • Successfully initiated Social Security applications and assisted with appearances.
  • Successfully resolved fence encroachment matters between neighbors.
  • Successfully reduced and appealed Cook County property tax assessments.
  • Successfully negotiated medical bills in a medical negligence case.
  • Successfully completed mediations, administrative reviews, administrative fair hearings, 4731 complaints for Regional Center disabilities services in California.
  • Successfully completed mediations and administrative review process for Department of Rehabilitation services.

Pro Bono Experience:

  • White House: Engaged in disability policy and outreach to the disability community.
  • Legal Assistance Foundation’s Special Education Pro Bono Panel: Trained to provide legal representation and advocacy in Special Education matters.
  • Access Living—Civil Rights Team (Chicago’s Independent Living Center): Advanced disability rights in housing and community integration litigation.
  • Disability Rights California’s Office of Clients’ Rights Advocates: Advocated for clients with developmental disabilities in Special Education, employment discrimination, and wrote a letter to stop harassing a client who was manipulated into purchasing an expensive household item he did not need.
  • Aids Legal Council of Chicago: Advocated for adults and children with disabilities in Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Income appeals before the Social Security Administration and Federal Court.
  • Legal Services of Northern California: Provided legal advice to low-income and elderly clients on topics including landlord-tenant issues, housing, and professional licensing.
  • Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS): Assisted clients in creditor, housing, and family law self-help matters on a legal assistance hotline.
  • Civil Rights Clinic: Represented a former prisoner in a medical negligence (personal injury) case against prison personnel.
  • Homeless Action Center: Worked on Social Security applications and appeals for homeless and low income individuals.

Any feedback on this bio or thoughts on disclosing one’s disability on one’s profile?

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Yes, I am an attorney with a speech impediment working on a legal assistance hotline!

I am in the Justice Entrepreneurs Project (JEP), the Chicago Bar Foundation’s incubator program enabling new attorneys to start law practices, serving unmet legal needs. I am starting a law practice for people with disabilities and their families, as well as advancing the Civil Rights of all people. Before volunteering at CARPLS (a legal assistance hotline in Chicago) through JEP, my past supervising attorneys shielded me from client contact because of my speech impediment. At first, I was concerned, not with whether I could communicate with CARPLS clients effectively since I have a translator, but if clients would be reluctant to work with me because of my disability. Fortunately, out of my past 34 volunteer hours, I have only had one client who became irate at having to communicate with me, which was ironically after my conveying information that she did not want to hear. CARPLS has been very accommodating of my disability: finding ways that both my assistant and I can use headsets to communicate with clients and for me to enter information into their systems with my assistive technology. My acquaintances are astonished that I am volunteering for a legal assistance hotline.

Old fashioned phone with a figure standing by ready to help. Image from this site.

I appreciate my time volunteering at CARPLS, gaining more substantial client intake and direct service experience. Since I plan to integrate virtual law and online legal services in my practice, it is nice to get exposed to the cutting edge of legal service technology with CARPLS’ client intake and service management system. While we cannot solve every problem, it feels good to empower clients to write self-help letters and to be able to reassure clients that they have at least a few more days or until the end of the weekend before the sheriff comes to evict them. Volunteering for CARPLS has also been an unsuspecting source of mentors; I found seasoned solo practice attorneys in CARPLS staff and volunteers. I recommend volunteering at a legal assistance hotline to get exposed to various legal areas and communicating with clients, as well as connecting with other attorneys, for both attorneys with and without speech impediments.

Originally written for the CBA Record.

The Feasibility of My Gimpy Law Practice

Before I spend more money and time on building up my practice, I wonder if I should do a feasibility study (an assessment of what a certain venture should entail, feasibility concerns, and the likelihood of succeeding) on how well my practice will do, which practice areas would be more successful, the likelihood that clients would hire me with my disability, and if clients would want to use a virtual office over a traditional office with in-person meetings.  Any ideas?

A picture of a man contemplating ideas on a huge blackboard from this online image.

Perhaps the only way to really know is to go ahead and do it.  I realized some time ago that since I wasn’t being hired as an attorney (I suspect disability discrimination compounded by the Recession), I needed to start my own law practice to work as an attorney.  I have been risk adverse about this…  I mean law school teaches to think of the worst case scenario.  I have friends without disabilities who have started their own practices; some have been more successful than others.

I have done a feasibility study for my non-profit organization, but I have never heard of a feasibility study for a law practice.  The feasibility study for my non-profit involved sending out a survey monkey to friends with disabilities, asking them questions relevant to service areas that the non-profit seeks to provide, and then interviewing the survey participants who expressed an interest in what we’re doing.  Would a feasibility study for my gimpy law practice be worth pursuing?  What would one look like?  And how would I distribute it?  To whom?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the poll or in the comment section below.