“I felt like a quota”: A registered blind lawyer reveals his law firm experiences

When blind registered tax clerk Kaleem Khan received feedback from a senior partner to improve his visual document review, he had a thought.

“Are you kidding me?”

Travers Smith Attorney Khan lives with a genetic eye condition called Cone-Rod Dystrophy which caused his vision to deteriorate when he was four years old.

Speaking to Law.com International, he recalled feeling like a “burden” from his peers when he started as an intern at another global law firm a few years ago.

His first apprenticeship was in banking, where most of the work is typical of most transactional work — proofreading, scanning documents and creating Document Bibles — which he said he “obviously couldn’t do easily.”

When his feedback from a partner on the grading process was that his “attention to detail when visually reviewing documents required some work,” Khan’s sense of unsupportedness was reaffirmed, which in turn negatively impacted his sanity and confidence affected.

“Sometimes it felt like I was just there for a quota – I wasn’t there to train as a lawyer,” he explained. “I think the direct sub-team saw it as a burden on them like they were carrying someone and that my disability would be more of an inconvenience to them than it was to me.”

His general feeling was that the partners – mostly junior and mid-level partners – didn’t want to invest the time. In contrast, the older partners were much more empathetic and took the time to support him, he said.

As a person with disabilities, Khan experiences stigma and unconscious prejudice on a daily basis, which he believes only serve to increase professional challenges. Khan is treated more like a disability than a person, adding that the innate fear of talking about disability in society seeps into the professional world and blocks progress.

Since joining Travers Smith in 2019, Khan said he has benefited from a more inclusive nature and sees the work of the disability working groups as positive. Despite this, the general industry still has “a hell of a long way to go” in terms of including people with disabilities, as he believes that disability is “low on the agenda of the profession compared to other protected characteristics”.

Khan said two key points for law firms in engaging disabled attorneys are investing in the reasonable adjustments they may require and the challenge of ensuring colleagues are inclusive and aware of the attorney’s abilities. He believes many companies are “pretty poor” on the latter point.

“If colleagues don’t have the awareness and empathy and aren’t willing to adjust their working style for you, then there’s really no point in making the adjustments,” he explained, adding that law firms’ D&I policies are “just as good what are the people who work in the office like?

In addition, Khan reminds companies not to assume that workplace adjustments mean disabled employees will no longer face challenges in their day-to-day work.

At various points he was confronted with what he calls “ignorant assumption”. For example, when he participates in calls to negotiate documents with opposing attorneys, his software reads documents and emails to him, but there is a perception that this is a “cure-all” because he cannot read due to his eyesight.

In reality, though, Khan has to listen to and navigate by ear what the opposing attorneys usually say is a 100+ page document, listen to what the opposing attorneys are saying, digest that point in the context of the relevant clause, think about his response, and finally pass the call on all at once.

“It’s not easy, I can tell you that,” he said.

While not without challenges, he would still encourage people with disabilities not to give up on their dream of becoming a lawyer.

“Don’t turn away from a law career if the only reason you’re hesitating is your disability,” he said, adding that candidates should invest time in finding the right cultural fit and support, whether it be one informal coffee or meetings with other disabled advocates in the industry to hear their experiences.

A King & Spalding attorney, who suffered from colon cancer, agreed in 2020 that disability is “far behind” in the industry and thinks it’s “hardly on the radar”. One of the few notable disability D&I pushes was spearheaded by GCs in 2021, when GlaxoSmithKline GC Bjarne Philip Tellman called on GCs to take action to address the “shockingly low” number of people with disabilities in the legal industry.

In July, a Law.com International survey of disability representation found that the proportion of people with disabilities in the trainee ranks at some of the largest law firms is over 20%, but maintaining it will be critical to ensuring that this is the case will be put into practice at higher levels in the coming years.

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