ABA Study Finds Attorneys with Disabilities or in the LGBTQ+ Community Face Prevalent Discrimination

Justice Scales

Discrimination can take many forms, and target many different kinds of minorities. Until now, most studies of discrimination within the legal community have focused on traits you can see: race, gender, age, etc. Now a recent study has looked into the “invisible” traits of disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identity. The study found that attorneys with disabilities or in the LGBTQ+ community face prevalent discrimination as well.

ABA Survey Studies Diversity and Inclusion Among Lawyers

In Spring 2020, researchers from the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University partnered with the American Bar Association to investigate issues of diversity and inclusion within the American legal profession. Their report, published in the University of the District of Columbia’s Law Journal, holds itself out as “among the first and largest undertaking of its kind to focus on attorneys with disabilities or that have health impairments and conditions, and lawyers who identify as LGBTQ+.”

Previous studies had focused on “visible” minorities, such as race and gender. But lawyers across the spectrum of disabilities, gender expressions, and sexual orientations are “among the groups most stigmatized by society and in the workplace.” This report, the first in a longitudinal study, intended to document LGBTQ+ and disability discrimination within the industry, and suggest ways to mitigate the effects of that stigma.

The Demographics of the Study

To do this, the ABA sent out nearly 200,000 emails to lawyers associated with disability organizations and the LGBTQ+ community. Of the 3,590 responses received:

  • 6% identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB)
  • 1% identified as transgender, non-binary, non-binary-non-gender-conforming, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, androgynous, or agender
  • 4% identified as other sexual orientations including demi-sexual or pan-sexual
  • 25% reported a health impairment, condition, or disability

The report acknowledged that the study was trying to oversample lawyers with multiple marginalized identities (representing intersectionality). However, very few lawyers fit into that group. Among those who reported health and disability issues, only 18.7% identified as LGB and 1.4% reported other gender identities. However, 42.1% were in later stages of their career, which suggested their disabilities may have been age-related.

Study Identifies Gender Discrimination and Sexual Orientation Discrimination Within the Legal Industry

This study reinforced prior work showing that the LGBTQ+ community faces negative attitudes and stereotypes in the workplace. This often causes them to be passed over for advancement, or be paid less based on conscious and unconscious biases about their performance.

During the past 10 years, the number of openly LGBTQ+ lawyers has more than doubled, but they are still not widespread in the industry. They are most often found in public interest organizations and are geographically focused in four major cities: New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Even when they are able to advance, professionally, gay and Trans* workers often experience organizational barriers from verbal and nonverbal microaggressions to intentional bias. Across the study, about 40.2% of respondents said they had experienced some form of bias and descrimination. This included:

  • 9% experiencing bullying
  • 0% experiencing discrimination
  • 7% experiencing subtle and intentional biases
  • 5% experiencing subtle but unintentional biases

Among the LGB respondents, more than 47% said they had experienced implicit bias within the legal industry.

Disability Discrimination Takes More Overt Forms, Including Refusing Accommodations, Study Says

One quarter of all respondents reported having some health impairment, condition, or disability. Out of the 830 lawyers who answered the question, almost one third (30.8%) reported a mental condition, including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Learning disabilities
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Sleep disorders

The study found that these attorneys with disabilities “reported experiencing proportionally more overt forms of discrimination, such as bullying and harassment, as compared to people who do not have such conditions.”

Workplace accommodations is one way disability discrimination varies from other forms of bias. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, disabled workers may request reasonable accommodations from their employer to make it easier for them to perform their assigned tasks. In the study, more than one-quarter of total respondents (28.4%) had requested workplace accommodations. Among those who identified as a person with a disability, that number increased to 65.0%. These accommodations included:

  • 3% asked for changes to a work schedule (including flex time, shift changes, or part-time work)
  • 3% asked for modifications to their personal work environment (such as orthopedic chairs or lowered desks)
  • 8% asked to work from home or telecommute

When workers did request accommodations, their requests were granted 76% of the time, and another 15% had some accommodations made. However, in more than 10% of cases, their requests for accommodations were denied.

What Can Be Done to Mitigate Discrimination Against “Invisible” Traits

Mitigating discrimination in the legal industry, and other workplaces, requires employers to break down unintentional biases and take active steps against more overt discriminatory practices. The study asked respondents to gauge the effect mitigation efforts in their organization. Nearly half (46%) of respondents said mitigation efforts had been effective in lessening bias against discrimination. This can serve as a guide for employers looking to improve the diversity and inclusion in their workplace:

  • 5% said mentoring within the organization helped
  • 4% said external mentoring was effective
  • 1% said membership in specialized law networks or support groups also helped

Ultimately, the study’s authors encouraged the legal industry to change the way they think about diversity and inclusion to focus on 3 core areas:

  • Diversity of talent (appreciation and meaningful representation of valued benefits)
  • Inclusion of talent (understanding, accepting, and engaging with those with different perspectives)
  • Accommodation of talent (providing meaningful support to enable people to contribute to the maximum extent possible)

The study concluded:

“These diversity, inclusion, and accommodation strategies, both individually and in combination, contribute to an organization’s mission and success. They also contribute to individual commitment to and satisfaction with the organization.”

By narrowing “the divergence between the person’s particular profile of job-related strength and needs, and their work environment” the authors say employers can mitigate social biases and help everyone in their workplace feel accepted and work to their greatest potential.

At Eisenberg & Baum, we understand how to work with state and federal law to fight back against sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability discrimination at work. Our employment discrimination attorneys, help LGBTQ+ and disabled workers protect their rights under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and state civil rights laws. If you have been the victim of disability, transgender or sexual orientation discrimination, contact us. We'll meet with you and help create a strategy that protects you and moves you closer to equality.

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