I have an autistic spectrum disorder and dyspraxia, and I’ve never been afraid to discuss this on applications. I’ve also managed to secure vacation schemes with four top law firms this year. Here, I’d like to share a few pointers for others in similar situations – whether they’re concerned about disclosing a disability, not sure of the best way to talk about it, or unsure how to deal with rejections when it comes to applying for vacation schemes.
These issues are important for anyone considering a legal career, but especially important for disabled applicants, given the added pressures disability brings and the lack of visible disabled employees in law – which can lead to concerns about discrimination, and assumptions that it’s better to keep disability a secret.
This is a phrase which is thrown around a lot about firms – it means they understand the importance of discussing disability, how to go about adjustments so employees work to their best, and realising the skills certain disabilities can bring – but it’s just as important that applicants are disability-confident too.
Research shows applicants are still largely reluctant to disclose disabilities; many feel it will be used to sift them out in the first batch of applications. I can attest it won’t – all but two of the firms I applied to gave me an initial interview or assessment centre. Firms want to help you perform at your best in interview, and put in place adjustments (especially true of large businesses with the funds to easily invest in adjustments). Openness starts off the employer-employee relationship with openness and honesty, both highly valuable workplace skills.
Moreover, if you can explain how your disability affects you, what adjustments you need to work to your best, how to overcome difficulties, and what benefits it can bring (e.g. many with autism/Asperger’s have high attention to detail and great loyalty and punctuality), this will help massively. The likelihood of your interviewer being an expert in your disability is slim; if you can take on this role, it will greatly reduce any worries they might have about whether you’ll be able to do the job. And many still view disabilities only in a negative light – if you discuss the positives, this’ll help you stand out.
Talk about disability in the right way
Remember what’s relevant to the employer – they don’t need to know everything about your disability, and if you do put down a mass of information which doesn’t relate to the job at hand, they’ll likely pay it less attention and miss the parts that do relate.
Both in application forms and interviews, be clear and concise – and focus on how it will affect you in the job. For example, when writing about my autism on my application form, I noted certain traits I’ve noticed about myself which could affect me in the workplace – such as being much more nervous meeting people the first time than subsequently, with potentially big effects on first impressions at interview, and occasional difficulties with eye contact (sometimes not making enough, sometimes making too much).
I also discussed the benefits (attention to detail, a clear written communicator, more determined to succeed, punctual and alert, often pick out points/see viewpoints that others miss), but only in terms of the legal workplace. I didn’t discuss psychological explanations for autism traits, the history of my diagnosis, or what it’s been like to grow up with autism – because while these all interest me, they’re simply not relevant.
So – make sure you tailor it to the job. This also demonstrates you’re motivated enough to research the job, commercially aware enough to understand its demands, and self-aware enough to recognise how your disability might affect your job competencies.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, and try again
Commercial law – like many other city professions - is incredibly competitive. Vacation schemes are even more competitive than training contracts, because one person can take several in a year (sorry!). It’s easy to blame discrimination if unsuccessful, and I would never deny that this happens in cases and is a genuine issue, but the vast majority of applicants are unsuccessful – a rejection is most likely not due to disability. (I’m speaking here specifically about large law firms, most of which have professionally trained and knowledgeable HR teams and a reputation to protect; at smaller firms with less training, or budget for adjustments, discrimination is more of a worry).
Resilience is key to success. I applied to sixteen firms, and I secured interviews from the majority, but most didn’t take me on. While this was disappointing, I always made sure to get in touch and ask for feedback. I then made sure to develop skills mentioned, whether improving commercial awareness, making answers more firm-specific, or just looking more presentable – and doing so helped my success at later assessments.
Taking this approach leads to a much more positive outcome – it helps improve your self-awareness, helps you develop necessary skills and, most importantly, increases your chances of success. It’s very rare for a person to secure a vacation scheme on the first attempt, whether they’re disabled or not – don’t take rejections personally. It can be tempting to blame your disability – especially when it affects you socially, as autism does – but doing so doesn’t ultimately help. (That said, sometimes you might feel that, because of a disability, your skills aren’t coming across in feedback – if so, remember to make this clearer in future applications, and request adjustments if needs be.)
Disability doesn’t need to be a secret, and people with disabilities shouldn’t be dissuaded from following their ambitions. I hope these pointers allow others with disabilities to feel they can do so – as well as giving practical assistance during applications and interviews.
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