How Indian law firms can become more inclusive spaces for persons with disabilities

Law graduates and experienced lawyers with disabilities alike continue to face manifold challenges while navigating the law firm ecosystem, but things are changing for the better.
Disability inclusion in the legal field
Disability inclusion in the legal field

Disability Pride month this year witnessed an Indian law firm making attempts to ensure that its workplace ecosystem is more inclusive and considerate of persons with disabilities.

In July, a graduate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore highlighted the proactive approach adopted by Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co (SAM) to understand the needs of persons with disabilities.

So what are the initiatives that law firms are taking to make their workplaces more inclusive? What are the challenges that law graduates with disabilities continue to face at these firms?

For the longest time, inclusion of persons with disabilities in law firms was mostly a tokenistic endeavour at projecting the tenets of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPwD Act), 2016. However, the overt and covert discrimination that persons with disabilities face when they join law firms becomes apparent only a few years into the system.

Bar & Bench’s Jelsyna Chacko spoke to recent law graduates with disabilities - Anchal Bhateja and Ali Feroz - as also lawyers who have pivoted from law firm practice to working in-house or starting their own initiatives in disability rights activism – Tapas Bhardwaj and Amar Jain.

SAM's reforms for inclusion of persons with disabilities

NLSIU alumnus Bhateja is among the very few blind persons who received a pre-placement offer from SAM after two internships at the firm. Sharing what her experience was like while interning with the firm, she said,

“Apart from the screen reader software JAWS that is required to use my laptop, they are also making provisions to give me access to other software required for daily tasks. I am also given pick up and drop facility to and from the office.”

Anchal Bhateja
Anchal Bhateja

The firm is also taking the assistance of V-Shesh, a disability representative organization working in the space of employment inclusion, to ensure that specific needs of persons with disabilities are taken care of. SAM will also conduct sensitization training for all lawyers and other staff in the firm to ensure the smooth induction of new recruits.

Most times, due to the lack of awareness on the approach to be adopted while working with persons with disabilities, able-bodied individuals tend to exhibit discriminatory behaviour by default. To overcome this hurdle, V-Shesh consulted with Bhateja.

“The person from V-Shesh asked me detailed questions about my disability, the nature of my disability, the kind of work I am capable of doing, the limitations I face, the software I require and what I would expect people in different verticals like housekeeping, security, IT, and my team to know before I join. We had this conversation over 3 meetings 5-6 days before my joining so that by the time I reached, they have already made the necessary adjustments to accommodate my needs."

Elaborating further on the recommendations put forth to V-Shesh, Bhateja shared,

“It was a very nuanced discussion...They asked me questions about competence and optimal work allocation, among other things. I emphasised that the initiatives taken shouldn’t be a sympathetic approach but rather a rights-based approach, and that solutions should not be ad hoc but a policy must be designed for disability inclusion after consulting with us on our needs.”

Bhateja, who suffers from visual impairment, intends to avoid preconceived notions about what work should be given to her.

"Just like any other sighted person, I might fail sometimes, and it’s okay. It’s not important to associate it with my disability, it could just be a lack of skill set and everybody can make such a mistake, whether they have a disability or not...In private institutions, inclusivity is seen as an instrumental goal. If we have some persons with disabilities around, it will be nice for the work culture, not just from a PR standpoint. All law firms should do away with this approach, and they should intrinsically see inclusivity as an important component of functioning,” she added.   

She reminisces that on the day she got to know of her acceptance by the firm, Managing Partner Shardul Shroff explicitly mentioned that her appointment was merit-based and not out of sympathy.

Ali Feroz, a visually-impaired graduate of National Law University, Delhi, also shared his experience at the firm.

“I interned with SAM’s Insolvency and Bankruptcy team in December-January of 2021-22. Initially, I had issues with some software. However, the IT Cell put in considerable effort to sort things out. My second internship with the firm was exactly one year later, and they made sure to communicate my needs across practice areas so the issues I had during my first internship did not repeat.”

Ali Feroz
Ali Feroz

On his recommendations to V-Shesh, Feroz shared,

“I needed some mobility training because I have trouble finding my way in a new environment. Apart from this, for scanned documents that are of poor quality, the Optimal Character Recognition (OCR) software will not be able to interpret it correctly. Since I can’t read anything handwritten nor can OCR recognize handwritten documents, access to these records becomes very difficult. Another concern flagged was the inaccessibility of the SCC Online database.”

Entry barriers and hampered career trajectories at law firms

Recalling the selection process adopted by Trilegal and Luthra and Luthra, Bhateja shared,

“While being interviewed for both the firms, I was upfront about my disability so that employers know what they are signing up for. I discussed my disability with the Partner at Trilegal who was taking the interview and they assured me that they are more concerned about what I can deliver. To that extent, generally in the corporate law space, I would say that entry level barriers are not as big for someone who studied at NLSIU...But the experience of my other friends with disabilities from non-NLUs who have worked in tier 1 law firms, show that they are not so open to giving promotions and increments. That’s something we have to struggle with. SAM told me that I am the first disabled person to join their Delhi office, so I don’t know how SAM would be. A few other firms have either not given promotions or have been very slow in giving promotions. The pace at which you grow is very slow when you have a disability.” 

On this aspect, Amar Jain, a 2013 graduate of Government Law College, Mumbai and co-founder of Mission Accessibility, shared his experience of working at Trilegal and Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas cumulatively for 7 years without any promotion. He shared that there are unique challenges that lawyers with blindness face in every practice area.

I was told not to bother about promotions and to look at the overall learning trajectory at the firm. The practice area makes a difference too. When I worked with the Banking & Finance team, my major problem was that MCA e-forms were not accessible at all for due diligence. Capital Markets is a data-intensive practice area. We are very much capable of practicing like transaction lawyers if given the right support systems.

For example, I once had a couple hundred files (2 GB of data) to review in 3-4 days or so, and I had to run OCR on each of them. My time was not only invested in due diligence-ing those files, but to even convert and get them into a format that I can read, and then deduce my findings. If clients didn’t give OCR rights, we had to print the document and rescan it. A lot of labour, as a blind person, goes into converting inaccessible material into accessible or readable material."

Amar Jain
Amar Jain

"At one point of time, I was made an offer to become a part of the Knowledge Management team because that was best suited to me, given my limitations. I had put my foot down and resigned after that,” Jain added. 

Further highlighting the lack of adequate technology to assist persons with disabilities, he said,

“Technology was really in its nascent stage back then. Initially, I could not read the red lines because the tech did not support it. I worked with my software vendor to enable that facility and now everyone can read it. Also, virtual data rooms at that point were not accessible at all. At that time, a couple of third party tools used for telecommunication, document management, etc were not accessible. I could only deliver 80-90%. For the remaining part, I needed human assistance. That human assistance was only available when people had time and the work didn’t have tight deadlines. Otherwise, the work would not come to me. So there was no level playing field."

Hurdles to success at law firms

Speaking of the challenges that persons with disabilities face in the legal industry and especially in the law firm setup, Bhateja shared,

“The remote software used by the firm – CITRIX, is not very accessible as it isn’t compatible with screen readers. A lot of firms use CITRIX for confidentiality purposes. I don’t really think there’s any way around it. This is an inherent problem in the industry itself. It’s just about developing better software solutions, which we do not have at this point. Other industry-specific problems include research databases like SCC Online which are not accessible for persons with visual disabilities. Manupatra is a good alternative to SCC Online, but courts and law firms don’t rely on this database.”

Recalling the hurdles faced during her initial days while interning at the law firm, Bhateja said,

“I had to negotiate with the IT department for getting all the software into the system because they were very skeptical in the beginning thinking that it might cause viruses. Only after speaking to the higher management did they welcome my inputs.”

We also caught up with Tapas Bhardwaj, Trustee and Head of Inclusivity at Raindrops Foundation, to understand his decision to not venture into the law firm space after doing internships at several leading law firms in the country.

He lists the exclusionary approach adopted across law firms in India as one of the primary reasons that made him averse to joining a law firm after graduating.

Tapas Bhardwaj
Tapas Bhardwaj

Speaking of the practicality of persons with disabilities working in a law firm, Bhardwaj said,

“There are technical challenges, there are physical barriers and also attitudinal barriers. A law firm job is a lucrative job, but getting into it, and most essentially, surviving to get to the next step of the ladder - whether law firms have the ability or willingness to promote - is a grey area. A person can thrive in a law firm by performing to the best of their abilities. However, when platforms used for carrying out daily tasks are inaccessible, legal research databases and scanned images are not OCR-friendly, how can persons with visual impairment or blindness be expected to perform? Convenience of one leads to incompetence of others.

Another challenge is acceptance of PwDs in a team. When giving them tasks, you need to consider whether reasonable accommodations are being incorporated in the law firm or not. Whether lawyers in a law firm are empathetic to the needs of PwDs is something to be discussed. Law firms need to be sensitized.” 

Reiterating the need for an empathetic environment for PwDs to thrive, Bhardwaj said, 

During my internships back in law school, I realized that if you sit at a desk in a law firm, your work will be monotonous. You need to move around, you need to have the entire law firm moving with you. Whether the law firm is ready to move hand-in-hand is a big question. PwDs need an empathetic environment, which ranges from awareness, to sensitization, to hand-holding, to training, to believing in them…These should also extend to people with invisible disabilities."

Commenting on the recent initiative by SAM to conduct sensitization training for lawyers and staff, Bhardwaj said,

“I do appreciate the initiative by the law firm. It’s certainly a very positive move and a ray of hope. But then, why should a PwD not have options to choose between law firms like persons without disabilities? Equality needs to be universal. Universality of the application of these principles - whatever SAM is doing - needs to be there across firms. If one law firm does it today, two or more should do it tomorrow. Lawyers are the protectors of law, and when we have the RPwD Act which specifically talks about the concept of reasonable accommodation, why aren’t PwDs given equal opportunities at law firms?

Sharing a similar sentiment, Jain expressed that since lawyers with disabilities need additional human assistance in the form of secretarial support, it generally entails spending two resources for the same work.

"From a profitability perspective, a billing hours perspective, it becomes an issue. For instance, nowadays diligence is becoming sophisticated. Reviewing board minutes is very sensitive and clients may not want to share copies of the same. In some cases, you are on a secure system where they only give you viewing rights, you can’t even download, print or OCR it. This kind of diligence work is not accessible for blind people.”

On the steps that law firms need to take, Jain shared, 

“Third party tools used by law firms such as document management systems or the timekeeping records systems, are not accessible right now. If one law firm talks about making it accessible, there’s a cost impact. We also need to use the existing legal provisions of the Rights of PwDs Act to say that whatever we are procuring, the responsibility to ensure compliance with accessibility standards should be on the vendor. It is ultimately their legal obligation. They are doing business in India, they are bound to comply with the law and ensure that it’s accessible. If we put in some kind of contract with vendors, then we are going to facilitate more inclusion of PwDs."

On the approach that should be adopted by the leadership in law firms, Jain opined, 

“Lawyers, especially Partners when they have an Associate or Junior who’s a PwD working on a deal, must inform the senior leadership or the counterparty that there’s a PwD on the team who has accessibility needs. This should become a standard process for every transaction where a PwD is involved, so that clients are also sensitized in case somebody reaches out for any assistance. I recall in my days, I was diligencing huge volume of clients’ material and initially they had not allowed OCR rights. My Partner reached out to the company and its CFO and she was kind enough to allow it. At that time, in 2013, there was no RPwD Act, so there was no legal obligation. Given the relationship that Partners and law firms have with clients, this is something negotiable.”

Jain expressed hope in the positive impact Artificial Intelligence (AI) can have in the legal sector.

“AI is improving a lot. Our challenges, in some sense, are similar to machine learning challenges. For AI to even understand or extract data, it also needs OCR-enabled documents. Since law firms are now adopting AI increasingly, for them to process documents on an AI-driven platform, they automatically request clients to provide some of these access rights, which will by extension also help.”

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