When George (Bill) Walls Jr. of Houston was paralyzed from the shoulders down at the age of 23, he settled on a legal career as a way to earn enough money to live independently.
But after working as an associate for another lawyer and then as associate in-house counsel at SFX Entertainment Inc., a venue operator and promoter, he realized that going solo was the best fit.
Walls found that he earned too little as an associate after splitting fees and administrative expenses with the partner. Working for SFX offered a better income and interesting opportunities, such as speaking at the U.S. Access Board in Washington about legal issues related to structural changes in the design of public venues. But ultimately, the travel and long hours of the SFX job proved too taxing.
The 48-year-old has developed a practice mostly built around serving as a court-appointed family lawyer. “Being solo, I can make sure my health stays OK, and I can do the work I need to do,” Walls said. With only trace use of his right arm, he uses a mouth-operated mouse stick to type, turn pages and sign documents.
Walls is not alone in his choice. Disabled lawyers across the country say hanging out a shingle helps them manage their physical needs and limitations. Those who receive Social Security disability benefits can maximize income without exceeding government-benefit restrictions and even provide low-cost or free legal help to disabled and low-income clients.
STILL VASTLY UNDERREPRESENTED
Lawyers with disabilities are still vastly underrepresented at larger legal employers and usually opt for government jobs or solo work, said Scott LaBarre, a Denver solo who specializes in employment litigation, disability rights and Social Security disability appeals. LaBarre is president of the National Association of Blind Lawyers and the former chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law.
LaBarre, 42, worked as a summer associate for Minneapolis-based Lindquist & Vennum and for the now-defunct Popham, Haik, Schnobrich & Kaufman, which Chicago’s Hinshaw & Culbertson absorbed in 1997. After graduating from law school in 1993, he spent five years in the nonprofit world. In 1998, he hung out his own shingle.
Firms large enough to have summer associate classes are “kind of looking for people who look like them,” LaBarre said. “There are a lot of questions about whether you’ll be able to be a good long-term fit. We run into the same stereotypes and misconceptions that we do throughout society. In terms of getting into that market, it’s traditionally been very difficult.”
Corinne Corley, a Kansas City, Mo.-based family lawyer who has been disabled since she contracted viral encephalitis as an infant, said she doesn’t fit most people’s image of a female lawyer because she “wears Doc Martens and Mary Janes and walks funny.”
Corley, 55, said she walks with “a very spastic gait” and has some disability of the upper extremities. She also has very mild cognitive impairment stemming from the virus. In law school, she was struck by a car and now has one artificial knee.
“People don’t look at my eyes, they look at my legs,” Corley said. “It happens every day. It’s reality. In the profession of law, there’s this pervasive view you need to look a certain way in order to have this surface credibility.”
Matthew Famiglietti, a Washington lawyer who’s had cerebral palsy since birth, has had similar experiences. He has a solo practice focusing on special education law and employment discrimination cases, but he interviewed with a lot of law firms before and after he passed the bar in 1994. “I found that, as soon as I walked in the room and saw the interviewing lawyer, it was like a change in their facial features,” Famiglietti said. “What’s nice is that I’ve [since] beaten a few law firms who turned me away.”
Working solo means always drumming up clients, but lawyers who receive Social Security disability payments must keep their income below a particular threshold. On the plus side, that gives them the freedom to pick and choose their cases and do pro bono work.
David Roulston, a legally blind attorney in Greenfield, Mass., who specializes in mental health issues in the law, said Social Security income is a foundation of his economic setup. “I can cherry-pick my cases and do a lot of pro bono,” Roulston said. “I have very low overhead.”
Roulston’s practice covers criminal cases, special education matters, guardianships and estate planning and Social Security disability applications.
Roulston, who’s 58, opened his private practice 21 years ago, well before he learned a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa would slowly deteriorate his retina until he was blind. At the time, his practice stretched across four western Massachusetts counties. Since his diagnosis, Roulston has reduced his caseload to the local area. “I had had enough experience to be known in this community to be able to stop taking regular court appointment and just be called in for the ones that needed my expertise,” Roulston said.
For Corley of Kansas City, working solo means she can take on Americans With Disability Act cases pro bono and tackle ADA access problems she encounters in daily life. “I can do what I need to do from a moral and social standpoint to be socially responsible to help disabled persons,” Corley said. “I might not be allowed that luxury if I had a firm and a boss.”
On a practical level, setting her own hours helps Corley because “there are days that I can’t walk because of various medical complications.” She said, “To a large extent, being self-employed means that I can have some liberties that are necessitated by my disabilities.”
Famiglietti said he’s able to help low-income clients and do some pro bono work partly because he’s married to a woman who earns a good salary. He’s passionate about special education law because “my mother literally had to knock down barriers to get me educated. One of the things I wanted to do was to make sure that no other child or family, if I could help it, would go through what my mother went through to get me educated,” Famiglietti said.
Sheri Qualters can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.