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LOS ANGELES � When William Grignon was a little boy, his parents rolled an orange ball across a green carpet, and he didn’t react. It was the first sign that he had retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disease that would gnaw at his vision until he was completely blind as a young adult. Still, Grignon became the first blind student to attend Pepperdine University School of Law and the fifth-year associate is now the only completely blind attorney at Kirkland & Ellis. While there are about 1,000 blind lawyers nationwide, there are few at major law firms, and leaders at Kirkland’s L.A. office say they’re glad they took a chance on Grignon. “We got talent the quality of Will, and there isn’t enough talent to overlook bright, dedicated people,” said Jeffrey Davidson, a senior partner in the L.A. office. “His success shows an incredible strength of character.” Grignon’s downtown office is clean and uncluttered, with the soft light of a desk lamp illuminating rows of photographs, prompting a visitor to ask about the trip he and his wife took rafting in New Zealand, or visiting La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s basilica, in Barcelona. Three large plants obscure the view of the L.A. skyline, and the cherrywood furniture and plush pillows give the office an inviting, den-like feeling. Grignon, 50, leans back in his chair comfortably, sprinkles his stories with broad gestures and laughter, and looks intently in the direction of the speaker. He is dressed stylishly in a crisp blue shirt and matching blue, gray and white crisscrossed tie. When Grignon needs to read a document or check e-mail, he deftly maneuvers the mouse across the keyboard, using a program called JAWS. As he glides the cursor across the screen, the computer voice reads out the text in a voice so fast it can sound like a foreign language to the untrained ear. For the most part, it works well. But the proliferation of PDFs, some of which have to be converted to text, are a challenge �the computer may mistake an “I” for a “1.” And, anytime Kirkland updates the system, the software gets confused. “But it is a blessing,” he said. “It’s the only way I can do my work.” As a child, Grignon went to a mainstream school, something that helped with socialization, he said. He would read using a magnifying glass and a strong light. He made it through college in New York with what little vision was left, and then surrendered to depression as it disappeared completely. “Typically, people who lose their sight spend a lot of time in denial,” he said. After that, they pass through the stages of grief, he said, moving through sadness and anger before eventual acceptance of the loss. In the years after college, Grignon attended a gym where he met his wife, Meghan, a trainer who wasn’t intimidated to work with a blind man. She helped him create a mental map of the gym, and guided him through a regimen vigorous enough to win him a bodybuilding award. When she went on a trip around the world, he composed 47 poems for her. Upon her return, he braced himself for the worst when she told him, “We have to talk,” but four months later, they were engaged. After 14 years of marriage, Grignon still refers to Meghan as his “sun bubble” and can’t stop smiling when he says her name. In their early days together, they took a road trip into the South, driving until they reached an island off the coast of Florida, framed with mangroves. There, he worked as a massage therapist and personal trainer for two years. Afterward, Meghan drove the two West as they headed out to UCLA for him to attend film school. He graduated � and even succeeded in a class on silent films � but he was put off by the prospect of selling his work. So he put away his box of unpublished scripts, including one of his favorites: a tale of a grandfather and his blind grandson, a story spurred mostly by “wishful thinking,” he said, and prepared for the LSAT. The first criterion for law school: It had to be warm. He narrowed the choices down to UCLA, the University of Miami and Pepperdine, which offered him full tuition and a living-expenses stipend. He went with Pepperdine, and graduated second in his class in 2003. He was the school’s first blind student, but Pepperdine didn’t hesitate to support his efforts. “Their attitude was ‘Great, what can we do for you?’” Grignon recalled. The biggest challenge was getting textbooks in the right format so that his software could read the words. The textbook companies probably feared the electronic version could end up for free on the Web, he assumed. “You’d ask for it, and they’d act like you dropped in from a UFO,” he said with a laugh. Grignon would sit front and center in his classes, with rows of seats empty behind him � a true gunner, he said, laughing again. A former Kirkland attorney and Pepperdine professor, James Gash, persuaded him to apply for the firm’s summer program, and his high grades made him a good candidate. Now, as a fifth-year associate, he practices litigation, mostly for large companies. “I like it when I get the sense I am actively helping someone,” he said. “Litigation is a huge upheaval for corporations.” He does a lot of research, writes a lot of briefs, and responds and generates discovery. The one area he’s stayed away from is document review, since the computer reading services aren’t always 100 percent accurate. When it comes to research, he uses text-only on programs such as Westlaw, and is just fine, he said. “I don’t take any longer than other associates to research and write.” He does quite a bit of pro bono work, including an adoption case for a blind child � the pictures of which fill an album on his desk. “You get great hugs,” he said. Grignon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine; he taught a class last spring on trial preparation and settlement. He also works on an American Bar Association commission that focuses on disabilities, and at the L.A.-based Braille Institute, where he serves on the board of directors. Just last month, he arranged for Kirkland to donate 100 computers to the institute. “He’s very interested in being able to serve,” said Leslie Stocker, the institute’s president. “Will is top-notch. He has a heart for helping other people.” Stocker said he also likes working with Grignon because of his dry sense of humor and sharp intellect. It’s impressive to watch his adroitness when working on the computer, he added. For Grignon, working at a big firm like Kirkland has been instrumental to his success, he said: “I can’t imagine being a solo practitioner � here I have oodles of support.” And Kirkland management says they’re happy to have him � though it wasn’t an easy decision to bring Grignon on board. “We all sat there and wrung out our hands,” said Davidson, the most senior partner in the L.A. office. “We knew it was the right thing to do, but how was it going to work? How much would it cost us?” Once they hired Grignon, those anxieties were eased. The accommodations � such as the additional software � ended up being pretty trivial. And the benefits have far exceeded any extra efforts. “Fear is generated by ignorance and a lack of knowledge,” he said. “The fear was far worse than the reality. Once you walk through that door, you stand there and say, ‘What was the big deal?’” Grignon’s involvement in organizations such as the ABA is also important for the firm overall, Davidson said. “I can’t tell you how proud we are to see one of our midlevel associates being a major presenter and speaker,” he said. As for clients, their response has, for the most part, been great, though it varies with the experience they’ve had. Ones that might be hesitant at first quickly want to work with Grignon again once they see his work, Davidson said. “There is no reason why they shouldn’t expect first-class work,” Davidson said. Now, Grignon said, he feels a quiet acceptance about his blindness. But he still gets down occasionally � such as when he’s traveling and wishes he could see a beautiful vista. And frustration can rise when he drops something and struggles to find it. He’s optimistic about technology continuing to improve his practice and his life. He talks about a chip that could one day be implanted to simulate vision, joking “I am waiting for the 3-D HDTV version.” But the biggest reason he’d like to see again doesn’t have anything to do with work or vistas: “I’d like to see my wife.”

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