Disability Illness Discrimination– Acting Against It

Everybody wants to be different, to stand out. That was certainly the approach Karen Jackson, Senior Solicitor of didlaw, took when envisioning the practice of her boutique law firm specialising in discrimination around disability and workplace health issues. From the approachable tone of voice to the personalised greetings card that each client receives, didlaw is unique. Ask any Marketing Director and they will tell you the same about their own firm. What makes didlaw really stand out is how it acts and who it acts for.

The key for Karen was to distance didlaw from a typical city firm; high in prestige, low in empathy. Whether acting for disabled clients, or for people suffering from mental health, it is absolutely imperative that there is an understanding of the human condition, not just the legal technicalities.

In the legal world, with such an intense focus on billable hours, there is a disturbing perception that if you are disabled or suffer from ill mental health you are likely to be less reliable; the insinuation is that if you suffer from one of these afflictions, your profitability will suffer.

But when you consider that one in four people will suffer from ill mental health in their lifetime, and when you look at rates of depression amongst law students and lawyers, it is clear that the old ideas and practices just aren’t working.

I met with Karen to talk about why mental health and disability are often ignored, what can be done to change perceptions and attitudes, and her own simple, highly effective, methods.

Karen Jackson


Karen had always known about her hereditary heart condition, which was thankfully cured when she received a transplant in 2006, but it never stopped her entering the high-pressure worlds of broking and law. In fact, she enjoyed the environment: “Certainly working in the city when I was younger, it was exciting, the stress was just part of the job and it was fun.”  But she knew the toll it was taking on her body.

After a reasonable period of time, I thought, really? This might actually kill me. I absolutely loved it, but I knew I couldn’t do it long term. I’m used to working in a stressful environment, the long hours culture, but I know that it’s not healthy to work 90 hour weeks… I have to take a step back and think: ‘Oh my god, I’m working like a maniac at the moment, this can’t be right. I need to slow down.’ It’s hard, when you’re a determined person, to control your own level of commitment. Certainly among my clients I see people that push themselves so hard that it’s no wonder that they then develop mental ill health, because they don’t take care of themselves.”

While the need to look after her physical health was particularly relevant to Karen during her years working in the city, the same applies to everyone in all aspects of wellbeing. Having a work culture which does not have a positive approach to health and wellbeing is surely illogical and imposes limits on the profession. Karen is all too aware that she wouldn’t have even got a job as a broker if she’d been honest about her heart condition: “Purely from a health and safety point of view, they’d have said: ‘No we don’t want you, you’re too high risk’.”

There appears to be a perception in some law firms and companies that your health should not get in the way of your work; that you should be an automaton that will hibernate at the weekend, because that’s all the sleep you need, and be energised and efficient at work during the week, regardless of your personal health. There is a belief that you are only worth your market value, which decreases if you are a faulty product, creating neither a compassionate nor inclusive culture. The reality is that a lot of people, through no fault of their own, need support structures that are not made a priority in the legal profession.

“Unfortunately for a lot of managers, and I’ve been in the position myself, they are offered promotion and then nobody teaches you any of the skills you need to manage with. You don’t know what to do, and you try to do something that you think is right but you end up stressed… Where is the line between being an individual with your own right to not say anything about your mental health, and the employer who could be liable if you get ill, but at the same time isn’t really allowed to ask you about it?”

Part of the problem may be that in a male dominated, city firm culture, situations like disability and mental health, where it is necessary and essential to have open and clear communication about this sensitive subject, are neglected: “I think there a lot of people who feel that if they mention that they’re struggling to cope then that in some way implies that they aren’t up to the job.” Karen’s job is to listen to and act upon the cases where it goes wrong: “Often they are quite simple things. A person off sick with cancer gets a card signed by everyone on the team with flowers, while a person off for the same length of time with depression hasn’t had anything, because cancer is considered really ill and mental health isn’t.“ She believes that in the same way a complaint about sexist behaviour might be responded to with a, ‘if you don’t like it, leave’, attitude, somebody suffering from ill mental health or disability can feel cut off from their peers.

“There is this perception that mental health is second class compared to physical health. And that’s reflected in the NHS as well, because if you need a hip replacement or you’ve got cancer or heart disease, you’ll get specific treatment reasonably quickly. But unless you are clinically insane, to the point where you need to be committed, the access to mental health treatment for the average person is really difficult. It’s treated in the system as a second rate illness, which is also how society by and large views it, which is ridiculous when so many people are affected.”

A culture that excludes groups of employees or appears exclusive to a certain type of person, could exacerbate the symptoms of ill mental health,[i] and lead to feelings of being stigmatized. The law firm culture does not lend itself to empathy. Competition and comparison are the dominant forces, whether it’s billable hours, cases won or profits earned. There is little time for checking on the wellbeing of a colleague. It is damaging to say that if you can’t cope with the lifestyle, if you can’t work a 20 hour day or you’re struggling to get by as a junior barrister, you aren’t cut out for the job. First and foremost we must pose the question of whether the firm is doing enough to support its staff and ensure their wellbeing.

It can be the case, however, that whilst help is available, people do not know about the provision or do not feel comfortable asking for it. Disability and mental health can have a massive effect on the confidence of an employee or a candidate for a job. Karen points out that these issues are not going to be resolved until managers also feel confident about dealing with them. “I went into a big cosmetics company (not the one I used to work for) and had a roundtable discussion with the senior managers. It was an opportunity for them to say what they found difficult when having conversations with staff around disability.” By engendering confidence in dealing with these issues amongst senior managers, it gives employees and potential candidates the confidence to feel comfortable with their disability; not stigmatised, but understood and treated equally. This is where didlaw EDUCATION, Karen’s most recent business initiative, comes in, offering bespoke training, seminars and conferences to businesses and HR teams.

“The good employers recognise the importance of our staff knowing that it’s ok to talk about any kind of problem they experience at work and to encourage that sort of dialogue, and to focus on wellbeing initiatives rather than simply health. Encouraging regular conversations with managers, recognising when somebody might be struggling and asking them if everything is ok.”

There are more immediate and practical measures that can be taken too. Organisations like access2work offer to pay for support if you have a disability, health or mental health condition: “They stay below the radar, but I’ve worked with a barrister who has done really well with the scheme. When they told me the extent of what they had done for her I was amazed. Without it she wouldn’t be able to practice and it’s all provided by the government, which is quite right, because otherwise you would lose a really talented person just because they have a physical impairment.”

Practical action like this is essential to combat the problems retaining employees from diverse backgrounds. At the same time, it must be reinforced that you are not expected to sacrifice your health, that if stress becomes a problem it will be addressed: “There are certain kinds of people who are naturally going to be more stressed than somebody else because they make high demands of themselves. That’s what I think is wrong with so many corporate cultures. They don’t really give you allowances for being a human being…There is an expectation that we all have to be super-human, it’s just not possible.”  

Honestly, it’s easy to see why this culture exists. When speaking to lawyers and learning about what they do and how hard they work – admittedly sometimes for a large income, but more often than is imagined because they love to help people – it is easy to expect super-human feats from them. But it’s actually inefficient and unhealthy to demand these requirements from people. The people who can’t keep up, for whatever reason, may be made to feel worthless, like they aren’t good enough for the job. In reality it is the unwillingness of firms and companies to invest in everyone that is not good enough.Didlaw_LOGO-Pantone-ol

When it comes to making the changes required and behaving differently, for Karen it starts with the interview process, and continues with the small touches that make up every working day. “I’m just very open when I talk to people and interview them…I don’t think it’s difficult to make people feel appreciated, just really simple things like saying ‘that’s great… thank you… you’re a star…’ We have a weekly team meeting on a Friday for us all to share. There’s no real agenda so to speak. And also because we’re often all over the place, it’s really nice to have a place where we can centrally connect, and talk about what we’re doing. If somebody gets a new client in we have a ships bell on the wall that we ring. Just fun stuff.”  There is logic in this approach. With the interview process as the starting point, the first step to employer and employee gaining a true understanding of the other and what is expected, making a point of being inclusive is essential.

Recruitment, retention and promotion are three key areas where diversity and inclusion are failing. They are, however, three key areas where there is plenty of advice and measures for practical action. What is needed is the willingness to be bold and try something new.  It seems that, at the core of the issue, is this fear of changing. ‘This is how things are done, this is how they’ve been done for years, and it’s worked for years’. But it simply isn’t working now. The more knowledge we obtain, the more data we gather, the clearer it becomes that progression in diversity has stalled.

“I can’t see that it’s really going to change till the old guard say goodbye. Unfortunately what happens with senior men in the profession is that the younger men emulate them, see them as role models, and behave the same way. How is it ever going to change?”

Shared parental leave is a key example where there is a lack of desire for the established order to change their habits. “Do you honestly think male lawyers are going to use that? Of course not, because they’ve seen what happens to their female colleagues who go off and have babies. It’s the kiss of death because they’re perceived as someone who isn’t committed to work because they want to see their family.”  What we have to recognise is that in terms of their careers, men have been able to advance quicker because, traditionally, they have not gone on paternity leave, giving them an unfair advantage. Only when men recognise this and start to change their behaviour by actually taking paternity leave, or attending unconscious bias workshops, will the balance of the workforce and the balance of power in the profession begin to shift. The influx of women who remain in the profession and reach key leadership positions will automatically change the attitudes of firms from the stereotype of the white, middle class, male. A different voice with a different background in the boardroom brings diversity into that communication. It opens doors to fresh insights and shatters glass ceilings of perception.

Of course, this can just as easily apply to disability and ill mental health. Only when people are willing to open up to the fact that the legal profession does not have a healthy and inclusive environment will things change. Only when people are aware of the fact that some people need more support, which is neither a bad thing, nor their fault, will things change. Only when people are open to the idea that maybe they could do with some support, or could have done with more in the early stages of their career, and that it doesn’t make them a failure, will things start to change.

We need to talk about the vicious cycle. We need to have open and candid discussions about diversity and commit to changing attitudes. “There’s always a danger with firms that are promoting their awareness of issues, that’s it is all marketing. What they want to promote is that they are aware of it. But on the ground, are they? Have they trained their staff?“ The fact that Karen does what she does shows the truth behind this deception of marketing that is rife in the legal profession. There is a lot of talk and very little action.

It becomes clear that the commitment to change has to come from the top down and be fully enforced, not just given lip-service. At didlaw, they built the firm on a foundation of practical measures for inclusion and diversity.

“It was quite organic. I’d interview people, I’d say: ‘This is what we do. It’s not just law, it’s how do you feel when somebody rings up crying or when they can’t speak because they’re so upset’.The proposition of didlaw was always ‘how can we do more than just give legal advice?’ And it wasn’t a PR stunt. It was, genuinely, how can we support people? Because nobody wants to see a lawyer, it’s really stressful, really expensive – what can we do to make it a better experience?”        

The whole dynamic of the company was very deliberately about being different and making people feel comfortable and accepted. “We answer the phone with first names. We’re quite prescriptive about what an email to a client should look like… I call it the McDonalds proposition: Everybody gets the same experience every time, regardless of who they’re speaking to.” There is an argument that this kind of approach would be difficult or impossible in a big firm or company, but it doesn’t ring true. They certainly have the manpower and the ability to make those changes, all that is required is the willingness to prioritise health and wellbeing, rather than keeping with tradition for tradition’s sake.

While a criticism of these kind of measures could be the lack of practicality or cutting edge, you soon come to realise that these small steps create an environment where staff genuinely feel cared for and accepted: “This morning something went wrong and someone on my team just had to apologise because it went under their radar. And instead of them trying to say, ‘oh it wasn’t me’, they were perfectly happy to admit to the mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That to me is an example of a good environment. It’s all about communication.”

The ability to communicate openly is essential to creating inclusive environments, but that can only come from a foundation of trust. “There’s really no formality in what we do. It’s very much, we’re a team… if somebody is working late I’ll ask them why they’re still here. When I’m interviewing people I’ll tell them they very rarely have to work late. So, how do you ensure good mental health? Enjoy what you do, do something that you’re good at, eat well, rest well.” As employers, make sure that your staff are doing the simple things to look after themselves. It makes such a difference to know that colleagues and clients appreciate the work you do and that you matter to them.

“It’s really important that I do something meaningful, so I don’t want people working for me who don’t know that what we do is meaningful, that it matters. I don’t want people faking it. I want people who genuinely think what we do is cool and important.”

Karen does not rest on her laurels: “About a year ago I sat down and read my business plan from day one. And we’ve actually ticked all the boxes, we’ve done everything we set out to do. So now we have a whole host of new boxes to tick. The biggest of which is didlaw EDUCATION.” It is never enough to enforce one new policy, or do a certain number of hours of pro-bono work. It is clear that there will always be issues that need to be addressed in the workplace. How they are resolved and at what speed will vary. But as employers, colleagues or friends, we can always be working to address those issues. We can educate ourselves in new ways, pay close attention to our behaviour and the impact it has and adjust it where necessary. By slowly changing our attitudes we can make the legal profession a more diverse and inclusive place.

[i] See bottom of page 5.


Karen Jackson will be joining Chambers Diversity as a panelist at the Chambers European Leadership and Diversity Summit, taking place 15th October, in Dublin.

For full details, and to register free of charge for in-house counsel, please click here.









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