When tax associate Kaleem Khan, who is registered blind, received feedback from a senior partner to improve his visual checking of documents, he had one thought.
“Are you kidding me?”
Travers Smith lawyer Khan lives with a genetic eye disorder called Cone-Rod Dystrophy, as a result of which his vision started to deteriorate when he was four years old.
Speaking to Law.com International, he recalled being made to feel like a “burden” by his colleagues when he started out as a trainee at another global law firm several years ago.
His first trainee seat was in banking, where the bulk of the work is typical to most transactional work — proofreading, scanning documents and building document bibles — which he said he “obviously wasn’t able to do as easily”.
So when his appraisal process feedback from a partner was that his “attention to detail on the visual checking of documents needed some work”, Khan’s feelings of being unsupported were reaffirmed, which in turn negatively impacted his mental health and confidence.
“At some times it felt like I was only there because of a quota — I wasn’t there to be trained as a lawyer”, he explained. “I think the direct sub-team saw it as a burden on them, like they were carrying someone and that my disability was more of an inconvenience for them than it was for me to deal with.”
His overall feeling was that the partners — mainly junior and mid-level ones — did not want to invest the time. By contrast, the more senior partners were far more empathetic and took the time support him, he said.
As a person with a disability, Khan experiences stigma and unconscious prejudice daily, which he said only serves to add to the challenges professionally. Treated more like a disability rather than a person, Khan added that the innate anxiety around discussing disability in wider society seeps into the professional world and stalls progress.
Since joining Travers Smith in 2019, Khan said he has benefitted from a more inclusive nature and sees the work being done by disability working groups as a positive. Despite this, the general industry has a “heck of a way to go” when it comes to disability inclusivity, in his opinion as he believes disability is “at the bottom of the profession’s agenda compared to other protected characteristics”.
Khan said that two crucial issues for law firms when bringing in disabled lawyers is the investment into the reasonable adjustments they may require and the challenges of ensuring that colleagues are inclusive and aware of the lawyer’s capabilities. He believes many firms are “quite poor” on the latter point.
“If colleagues don’t have the awareness and the empathy and are not willing to adjust their working style for you, then there’s no real point in having the adjustments”, he explained, adding that law firm D&I policies are “only as good as the people who work in the law firm”.
Additionally, Khan reminds firms not to assume that workplace adjustments mean disabled staff no longer have any challenges with their day-to-day job.
He has faced what he describes as an “ignorant assumption” at various points. For example, when he joins calls to negotiate documents with opposing counsel, his software reads documents and emails out to him but there is a perception that this is a “cure all” for not being able to read because of his eyesight.
In reality however, Khan has to listen and navigate by ear a usually 100 plus page document, listen to what the opposing lawyers are saying, digest that point in the context of the relevant clause, think about his response, and finally communicate that back on the call all at the same time.
“It isn’t easy, I can tell you that”, he said.
Although not without its challenges, he would still encourage people with disabilities not to give up on a dream to become a lawyer.
“Don’t veer away from a career in law if the only reason you’re hesitating is because of your disability”, he said, adding candidates should spend time finding the right cultural fit and support, be that via an informal coffee or meeting with other disabled lawyers in the industry to hear their experiences.
A King & Spalding lawyer who suffered from bowel cancer agreed in 2020 that disability is “lagging way behind” in the industry and feels it is “barely on the radar”. One of the few notable D&I pushes in the disability space was GC-led in 2021, with GlaxoSmithKline GC Bjarne Philip Tellman calling for GCs to take action on the “shockingly low” number of disabled people in the legal industry.
In July, Law.com International’s research into disabled representation found that the proportion of disabled people in the trainee ranks stands at over 20% at some of the largest law firms, but retention will be crucial to ensure this translates at more senior levels in the coming years.