In early 2022, I connected with attorneys interested in forming a Minnesota disability affinity bar association. Since that time, we have incorporated and obtained nonprofit status. The Minnesota Disability Bar Association (MDisBA) is an organization of Minnesota legal professionals including attorneys, judges, staff, and students with disabilities as well as nondisabled allies. We seek to educate the legal community about professionals with disabilities, provide a supportive and inclusive community for professionals with disabilities, and elevate professionals with disabilities to create a more diverse and equitable profession.
I am so pleased to moderate this conversation about disability in the legal profession by my fellow MDisBA directors. At a time when disability disclosure still can carry professional risk, I am proud of and grateful for their openness. Although we all have different disability experiences and perspectives, you will see a common thread of resilience and a desire to imbue disability pride in the profession. Disability can bring great challenges, but I am thrilled it has brought us together and we look forward to supporting and elevating the disability community in the legal profession.
How has your disability affected your legal career?
My network is much broader than it used to be. After my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, I have found an entire community of legal professionals to connect with that I may not have found otherwise. Additionally, I have learned to care even more about my time. I try to be as efficient at work as possible to ensure I have time to invest in myself and my health.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an immune system disorder, when I was a 20-year-old undergraduate student. I underwent nearly two dozen surgeries and numerous medical diagnostic interventions while my doctors worked to get my symptoms in check. The surgeries were so frequent I had to withdraw from coursework for a semester. I underwent several surgeries during law school as well, affecting my ability to participate in classes and be a fully engaged student.
These days I am in remission and have not suffered any flare-ups for about seven years, but the looming possibility of severe symptoms returning has affected my career trajectory. Right out of law school, I turned down a unique offer to clerk for the High Court of American Samoa because I could not receive my refrigerated medication while on the island. I have had to keep a keen eye on insurance offerings of employers due to the high cost of medication to keep my symptoms in remission. It also means I’ve not been able to take breaks when switching jobs because a lapse in insurance is an impossibility for me. That said, I have been able to devote my career thus far to public service and couldn’t be happier about it. I have worked with tremendous colleagues and managers who have been nothing but supportive.
My legal career was all going according to plan. I had completed a federal appellate clerkship and was in my third year of litigating class actions. Then I got really sick. I suddenly had frequent breathing issues, nausea, chronic pain, fatigue, mood swings, weird rashes, and more. For years, no one knew why. When people think about disabilities, they usually don’t consider that sometimes disability occurs before a medical diagnosis is reached. I spent four years in diagnostic limbo. While I sought a diagnosis, I had to take several health sabbaticals and ultimately change firms to achieve more accessible hours. Then, about a year ago, a smart and compassionate doctor started treating me for a mast cell disorder—a condition involving over-sensitive immune cells. Thanks to treatment, I have made incredible strides.
The years I spent advocating for a diagnosis and treatment for myself have only improved my resilience and problem-solving skills and have made me a better lawyer in many ways, but I still deal with flare-ups regularly. Fortunately, my firm and my team are very understanding, and I work a 75 percent schedule. Without the ability to work these reduced hours, I would have had to leave the legal profession altogether.
In some ways, I do not believe my disability, Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, has affected my legal career at all. But that is largely because I have downplayed my disability for a majority of my career and have worked to address any issues stemming from my disability in the privacy of my personal life and on my own time. I also rarely found that I needed to request any formal accommodations—perhaps I wanted to believe my disability wasn’t severe enough to need any—so I felt that my disability didn’t affect my career.
In reality, my disability affects my legal career in many ways, including accessibility of courthouses and law firms, fluctuations in energy and pain levels, or the pressure to “look” like a lawyer. You will not catch me in high heels, carrying binders and racing to keep up with everyone around me. For many years, I thought that made me a lesser attorney because I couldn’t wear high heels or a perfectly tailored pencil skirt. Now I’m grateful to have had extremely supportive colleagues who are teaching me that my disability can also be viewed as a strength. I am a creative, persistent, and dedicated advocate for my clients, and I have greater empathy for my clients, colleagues, or others I come across in my career. In fact, having a disability is now opening new doors, such as the Minnesota Disability Bar Association and Littler’s Affinity Group for Individuals with Disabilities, that would not have been available to me without sharing about my disability.
Why is the Minnesota Disability Bar Association important to you?
Gordon Knoblach: It took a long time to come to terms with my disability. I struggled with the idea of labeling myself as disabled, or even believing that my illness qualified as a disability. I felt that having a disability that others could not see would make me less deserving of identifying as disabled, or that I would be intruding upon a space that was not meant for me. With the Minnesota Disability Bar Association, I am excited to be around other individuals with visible and invisible disabilities, as well as allies and supporters. These are people who understand my journey because they, too, have faced similar journeys. MDisBA has shown me a new side to persons I had already known professionally and introduced to me others I may not have otherwise met. It is empowering to see and feel that you are not alone, that others understand you, and that others support you. I want that for myself, I want to provide that for my colleagues in MDisBA, and I want MDisBA to be a beacon for anyone else who may be just starting their own journey.
Eleanor Frisch: Part of the goal of MDisBA is simply to raise awareness of people with disabilities in the legal profession. It is important for lawyers with disabilities to make ourselves visible, to stand up and show the legal community that we’re here and have a lot to contribute. In fact, we have unique contributions to offer. Many people with disabilities have to problem-solve, advocate for ourselves, and overcome obstacles just to function in society. The resulting skills serve us well as lawyers. These experiences can also give us a better capacity to empathize and connect with clients who are enduring hardship.
MDisBA also provides a way for legal professionals with disabilities to find and help each other. This can be more difficult than it seems, especially for those of us with invisible disabilities.
Lauren Clements: The Minnesota Disability Bar Association is important to me because navigating the legal field with a disability presents challenges that my other colleagues, friends, and family simply cannot understand. Through the Minnesota Disability Bar Association, I am gaining an entire new network of individuals who understand a part of me, a part of my life, that no one else is able to relate to. It also brings a new sense of comfort and confidence in knowing that I am not navigating this field with a disability on my own. By developing the Minnesota Disability Bar Association, we are creating a new network that can provide support, encouragement, and understanding.
Brianna Chamberlin: When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in my fourth year of practice, I didn’t know where or who I could turn to. I was lucky to connect with another lawyer who had been through something similar. His advice ended up pushing me through the first few months after my diagnosis and gave me the confidence that my diagnosis didn’t have to affect my professional career. It is important to me that I pay that forward. The Minnesota Disability Bar Association, through our mentorship program, will be able to provide similar support and mentorship to legal professionals who either have or develop a disability.
How can the legal field become more accessible for professionals with disabilities?
Eleanor Frisch: People with disabilities are seriously underrepresented in the legal profession. Less than 2 percent of lawyers identify as disabled, even though 1 in 4 adults in the United States have a disability. This is largely due to the long hours and lack of flexibility in the legal profession, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no reason the legal profession can’t become more flexible. Firms could offer a partnership track with a 75 percent schedule and 75 percent compensation, for example. This kind of schedule can greatly benefit those with disabilities—and of course others as well. Personally, I am not only happier and healthier working reduced hours, but also more efficient and a better lawyer. As another example, many firms are now insisting that workers return to the office—without considering how their return-to-office policy might affect those of us with disabilities. Allowing legal professionals with disabilities to continue to work from home is an easy and inexpensive accommodation.
Lauren Clements: The legal field can become more accessible in many ways, but I think the key is getting the conversation started—opening the doors for individuals to feel more comfortable about sharing their disability and what they need in order to be their most successful. From there, we can all have a better understanding of how we can assist each other, including by providing accommodations. I’m amazed by how the barriers to disabilities often shatter once a conversation gets started. It is not often that colleagues, opposing counsel, or courts do not want to help—it’s merely a matter of not knowing what they can do to help. With that, it is also important to continue educating the legal field about disabilities and how to navigate conversations in a productive, respectful manner.
Beyond getting the conversation started, I think it is also critical to take a look at the physical surroundings we are working in. Is your law firm, courthouse, or other workplace accessible? Do you have information on your website about who to contact for accommodations? Do you have accessible parking? Is your website easily navigated by someone using other software to do so? Overall, we need to close the gap between what is merely ADA-compliant and what is truly inclusive of individuals with disabilities.
Brianna Chamberlin: Often the barriers for those with disabilities are in plain sight, but still may be difficult to identify. The pillars of the legal field, including courts, law firms, and governments, should consult with people who have disabilities to identify those barriers and how best to fix them. Further, implicit disability bias is still highly relevant. I believe education specific to implicit disability bias should be offered in the hope of promoting a culture where those with disabilities feel seen by, respected by, and trusting of their colleagues.
Gordon Knoblach: When you encounter a disabled legal professional, know that they have persisted not only through school and the legal field, but also their own disability. Disabled professionals are strong and capable. Disabled professionals can enrich your team, the legal field, and the community at large. Communicate with your colleagues with disabilities; figure out what everyone can contribute.
How has the pandemic changed your view of disability?
Lauren Clements: When we first started working from home, I felt I finally achieved “equity.” Not only was I working from home, which meant my physical limitations were a non-issue, but all my colleagues were also working from home. In fact, even the courts were working from home. We were all in the same boat—all dealing with similar challenges. But now that we are returning to a hybrid model, I can’t say I believe an accommodation of remote work is the perfect answer for someone with a disability. Sure, I am able to focus on my job more and less on the pain of the day or whether my shoes are comfortable for walking, but remote work also isolates me from the majority. If I’m working from home, I’m missing out on the hallway conversations, the unplanned lunches, and the inevitable mentorship and camaraderie that develops in an office setting. The pandemic has brought me a new perspective on the pros and cons of certain accommodations for disabilities, for both myself and others.
On a separate note, the pandemic also helped me to realize that absolutely everyone is dealing with something that is affecting their career. For me, it might be my physical disability; for another, it might be caring for their children, having a sick dog, assisting an elderly parent, or dealing with anxiety or depression for the first time. I also believe that attention to disabilities is gaining more traction as a result of the pandemic. As a collective, more people are facing mental health and physical challenges. We are seeing more anxiety, depression, long covid, and other areas that are affecting professionals in the legal field. This is allowing us all to be more comfortable with sharing our perspectives and experiences so that we can help one another better navigate the legal field successfully. Although the pandemic was extremely hard on those with disabilities, I think there are some benefits we are also starting to see arise because of what we all faced the last few years.
Brianna Chamberlin: Disability as defined by the ADA is a very broad term, and personally, the pandemic helped me understand why. The pandemic had disabling effects on many, especially those with mental health issues that are highly prevalent in our field, such as depression and anxiety.
Gordon Knoblach: The pandemic really shed light on how many immunocompromised persons live among us and how those persons are affected by the choices of society as a whole. Please get your vaccinations, get boosted, and keep up healthy hygiene practices. You not only protect yourself, but you also protect your immunocompromised colleagues. Another side-effect of the pandemic is that I think we are going to see the rise of more invisible disabilities, particularly with persons experiencing long covid. I am hopeful that research into long covid will lead to further understanding and treatments for a wide range of disabling conditions. The pandemic showed that investment in medical research and public health pays off, so please continue supporting a robust public health system.
Eleanor Frisch: The pandemic was a mass-disabling event that grew the number of people with disabilities. Millions of people who were previously perfectly healthy now have an invisible long-term condition—long covid. Many legal professionals who are now dealing with long covid require ongoing accommodations. If there has been any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it has led to certain accommodations becoming readily available, like working from home and taking remote depositions. All of this makes things considerably easier for many people with disabilities. Ironically, the pandemic—the largest mass-disabling event in recent history—also created an opportunity for change that led to the legal profession being more accessible for people with disabilities and chronic illness.
LAUREN E. CLEMENTS is an employment law attorney practicing at Littler Mendelson’s Minneapolis office. She was born with a physical disability, Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita. A founding member and co-chair of Littler’s Individuals with Disabilities Affinity Group, Lauren is also a founding member of the Minnesota Disability Bar Association (MDisBA), where she serves on the leadership committee. email@example.com
BRIANNA CHAMBERLIN is a litigation associate in the Twin Cities office of Fish & Richardson P.C. She is also on the leadership committee and a co-chair of the mentorship committee of the Minnesota Disability Bar Association (MDisBA). firstname.lastname@example.org
ELEANOR FRISCH is an associate at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, where she litigates ERISA class actions on behalf of plaintiffs. She has a mast cell disorder and is a founding member of MDisBA. email@example.com
GORDON KNOBLACH, a 2013 graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School, is an assistant Ramsey County attorney in the Trials Division. Previously he worked in the Rochester City Attorney’s Office and clerked for several judges. He has Crohn’s Disease. firstname.lastname@example.org
ANN MOTL is a litigation attorney at Greenberg Traurig. She has a mobility disability and uses a wheelchair. email@example.com