Work & Education

The legal profession: recruiting disabled graduate talent in the age of austerity?

In the current economic climate, unemployment is increasing and one may question the interest of recruiters to employ people with disabilities. Disability Horizons covers the work of Helen Cooke, Director and Founder of Disability Consultancy MyPlus, who recently organised an event in the City of London for disabled graduates interested in law.

According to Helen, one of the main problems among recruiters is a lack of understanding about the needs and abilities of disabled graduates.  Some organisations are fearful of “getting it wrong” when dealing with disabled candidates and others think they won’t be able to afford the necessary adjustments for a colleague with a disability. In both cases, this hesitation can lead to a lack of proactive work to attract and recruit graduates from this talent pool.

In order to address such misconceptions and motivated by the desire to ensure talented disabled graduates gain employment, Helen, who is a wheelchair user herself, teamed up with Greenlight, the UK’s leading diversity communications agency, to organise the OPEN Legal Sector Careers Event in January this year.

Helen has an impressive track record of organising events for the UK’s major graduate recruiters that have the overarching aim of breaking down barriers by helping recruiters understand the value of the disabled graduate pool and the business case for increasing the diversity of their workforce.  Last year, MyPlus consulting launched the Graduate Recruiter’s Disability Café Club, a series of events hosted by major companies such Ernst & Young and Citi, designed to provide a forum to allow attendees to share best practice and know-how in relation to the recruitment and retention of talented individuals with disabilities.

OPEN 2010 was designed to bring law firms together with talented, motivated disabled students or recent graduates.  Delegates from all over the country joined trainees, partners and recruiters from Allen & Overy (“A&O”), Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Hogan Lovells and Freshfields at the offices of A&O in London.

For students, this meant the opportunity to gain a privileged insight into the reality of a legal career through talks and networking.  The law firms wanted to show students that their disabilities need not be a barrier to their applications.  Students were encouraged to see themselves as highly desirable employees and given a Personal Impact FasterClass by motivational speaker Jim Harvey.

A panel discussion drew on the knowledge of members of the disability press, recruiters and disabled lawyers alongside Helen Cooke.  Feedback from the disabled students who attended the event found that many students were struck by the firms’ willingness to judge all candidates on a level playing field and by their own responsibility to be confident in asking for adjustments to make this possible.

The law firms said they gained a new insight into disabled applicants’ aspirations and needs through the event and that they valued the opportunity to speak to the students one-on-one.  Caroline Lindner of host firm A&O described OPEN as “a very important event for the legal sector to be involved in” and indicated that A&O would continue to support the events.

One student said the event had made them feel valued, respected and inspired to get stuck in to their applications.  Other comments by attendees included:

“I feel I’ve been treated as an equal and that I actually have a chance”

“The representatives demonstrated that they really ‘meant it’ in their wish to attract the best disabled applicants”

“The whole day has been a huge boost to my confidence.  I hope this kind of event will become a permanent fixture.”

On analysing the attendees of the event, MyPlus discovered that a surprisingly low 18% of the highly academic students invited to OPEN attended Russell Group universities.  Of the 4 who achieved 480 UCAS points (AAAA), only one went to a Russell Group university.  These facts demonstrate how important it will be for employers to recruit from a wider selection of universities if they are serious about finding the best talent.

The OPEN event for the legal sector will be repeated in winter 2011 and plans are also in the pipeline to run similar events for other industry sectors.

To reach the point where disabled graduates are amply represented in a spectrum of industries across the economy will undoubtedly take time. Progress is continuously being made and events such as OPEN 2010 are a step in the right direction. It remains to be seen whether years from now, such events will translate into increasing the number of disabled graduates in the legal profession, but with the tireless efforts of people like Helen and her work with the UK’s largest recruiters, one has strong grounds to be very optimistic for the future.

For more information on Helen’s work with MyPlus Consulting visit their website.

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