KatMacfarlane

What does it mean to be a lawyer? Navigating disability and unexpected physical demands.

I was a scrappy lawyer. I always had enough energy to write another motion. I was a tough negotiator, willing to endure my adversaries’ insults and bullying.  I was versatile. Well, if that's what you call taking a depo in a Jiffy Lube employee break room because it's the most convenient place for the deponent to appear. Like so many of my peers, I prepped witnesses on weekends and took calls at all hours. I was never off limits. The job wasn’t always easy on my body, but when it came down to what I needed to do to win, I was ready and able.

There are jobs I know I can’t do because of my disability. I can’t work a retail job that would require me to stand on my feet for eight hours because my knees will swell and buckle. I can’t fly an airplane because my vision in my left eye is impaired. But disability has never limited my mind. And as a result, I always thought that a lawyer’s essential job functions were within my reach. Despite my disability, I was qualified to be an attorney.

This makes sense in theory. An attorney meets with clients, writes motions, reviews documents, participates in mediations and arbitrations, drafts contracts and closes deals. Litigators spend more time in court, and perhaps on their feet. Still, we know that trials are rare, and that most cases are decided by dispositive motions or through settlement and pleas. With respect to the classic lawyer duties, I could meet or exceed expectations. In the abstract, nothing should preclude someone like me—an enthusiastic go-getter with mobility and visual impairments—from lawyering. 

But when it comes to work, the devil’s in the details. Sometimes the "lawyering" I was expected to do was quite physical. During my early years as a lawyer, I worked for a firm notorious for its lean staffing, which meant that afterhours assistance on administrative work was left to young associates. I didn’t mind making my own copies, but it was difficult to load exhibit binders into bankers boxes at midnight. And I understood that if those exhibit binders weren’t ready the fault would be mine.

There's a hierarchy in law. It's understood that the people at the bottom do the work that the people at the top don't want to do. I spent several years working for a partner who staffed his cases with far more women than men. He refused to read drafts received via email. You had to print and deliver the drafts to him yourself, and only then would he discuss them. This remained his practice even when I spent three weeks on crutches—I trudged up to his office, hard copies in hand. I did this for three weeks, but wouldn’t have been able to do it for the rest of my career. Why didn't I say anything? What more can you say when a partner sees you carrying hard copies underneath your arms while you're balancing on crutches? It's hard to stand up for your body when the power trips are messing with your mind.

Lifting, carrying, fetching and hauling became a regular part of my job. I was assigned to a team that spent countless hours preparing for a key evidentiary hearing. In addition to briefs and oral argument, we used large posters to make our case to the court. On the morning of the hearing, a thoughtful paralegal arranged for the posters to be delivered to the courthouse. But no one was available to ensure the posters made it back to the office. This very physical task was mine to complete. A senior associate took pity on me and together we schlepped the posters back to Midtown. I was sweating and in pain once we were done.

Office moves are another very physical aspect of lawyer work that I didn’t anticipate. Good offices open up when people leave or get promoted, and if you’re next in line for the good office, you have to be ready to move into it at a moment’s notice. Packing and carrying large boxes of heavy books hurts my body. I've had to procure a note from a physical therapist to excuse me from carrying or lifting heavy boxes even though it would have been ridiculous for “carrying or lifting heavy boxes” to be part of my job description.

But whose job is it to move your office, books and all, for you? It’s hard to navigate these details without giving off the appearance that you are receiving special treatment. Negotiating your way out of a physical task takes time, and a high tolerance for humiliation.

Maybe we should be more honest about what legal work is about—it can require a mental and physical hustle. What set of skills makes us great attorneys as opposed to great gophers? The answer matters when it comes to disability. I'm not equipped to burrow around after you, but you can have all you want of my mind. 

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