By Katherine Macfarlane • June 03, 2018•Writers in Residence, Law School, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job, Issues, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
During my 1L year, I was thrilled to receive a summer position at an employment rights firm that represented plaintiffs in anti-discrimination suits. I’d convinced the firm to waive its practice of hiring only rising 3Ls for summer law clerk positions. I entered my summer job with high hopes about the extraordinary cases I’d be a part of, and an understanding that, as a rising 2L, I’d need to prove myself.
I knew that the firm’s associates worked around the clock, but for summer law clerks, the hours were reasonable. Feedback on my research and writing was strong, and it appeared that I would continue working for the firm in the fall.
Back then, in my mid-20s, my disability—Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)—was largely invisible. The firm that hired me did not know I was sick. I did not look sick, and my high grades gave the impression that I was like any other overachiever. Though RA was a big part of my life, it was not something I spoke of at work, and certainly not during interviews. I had the privilege of choice in this regard, one that many other disabled people do not have when their disability is visible.
I decided not to disclose my disability until it conflicted with a firm demand.
Midway through the summer, I was invited to attend a weekend event hosted by the National Lawyers Guild. NLG lawyers are my people. I wanted to meet fellow progressives. The networking could only help me. Still, I told the managing partner that I wouldn’t be able to make it. At first, I didn’t explain why: I was having a bad RA flare that summer and was usually exhausted by the end of the workweek and needed the weekend to rest my body. The week of the NLG event was one in which I was in a great deal of pain and really needed weekend rest.
The managing partner called me into her office and asked me why I’d declined the invitation. I explained that I was sick and often needed to use weekends to recover.
The partner removed her glasses and stared me down, frowning.
“We don’t just hire our summer law clerks because of their grades. We hire them because we assume they’re committed to the causes we support. This event is a tremendous opportunity for you.”
All I could say was, “I understand.”
The message was clear: my attendance was required. That Saturday, I iced my knees for a few hours, threw on a nice dress and took my place at a table in a fancy downtown hotel ballroom, eating dry chicken, trying to find someone I knew in the packed room. The same partner who told me to go did not attend the event herself. My knees were swollen that night so I couldn't network my way around the room, cocktail in hand. I felt embarrassed and very much alone.
I learned a couple of lessons that summer. First, it was clear that lawyers who litigated race, gender or disability discrimination weren’t necessarily committed to eliminating the same kind of biases in their own workplaces. I was invited to return to work at the firm during the following school year, but I declined.
Second, I questioned my decision to say anything about my disability. Even though RA is relatively easy to accommodate—all I’ve ever needed is flexibility to attend medical appointments and ergonomic office furniture—sharing my need to rest on the weekends had been met with resistance and criticism.
The difference between school and the workplace was stark. In law school, I benefited from a system that approximated a meritocracy. Anonymous grading and understanding friends helped me succeed in law school despite my disability.
After clerking, I entered private practice, and remained quiet about my disability for as long as I could. My first few months were spent overperforming, striving to be perceived as a dedicated, loyal worker bee. At the end of a big project, say, a summary judgment motion that required all-nighters, I’d crash. The behavior I perceived as necessary made me sicker. But by the time I needed to take some time off to recover, no one complained because I was exceeding my billable hour targets. If I had not met my targets and still needed time off to recouperate, I'm not sure the reaction would have been as accepting.
I wish I could tell you don’t follow in my footsteps. I want you to disclose as much as you want to disclose, whenever you’re ready. I wish that anti-discrimination laws could truly protect you if you did just that and someone retaliated.
But we all know that perceptions inform employment decisions. Employers hold on to ridiculous stereotypes that women with families will be torn between work and home, and that married men are, by contrast, more likely to be stable and therefore focused on their careers. Disabled applicants must contend with assumptions that they will miss work due to illness or be unable to perform essential work functions, even if studies have shown that disabled employees take fewer days off. Of course, there are laws that protect all of us from the adverse impact of these false stereotypes. However, it is too easy to create a non-discriminatory reason to explain why someone wasn’t hired. We aren’t free from the impact of these stereotypes. Yet.
If you’re disabled and have scored a wonderful summer position, I want you to convert that position into long-term employment. In my experience, given the choice, it’s best to disclose your disability once you’ve already accepted the long-term offer.
I wish my advice were different.