It is well-known that competition for holiday jobs in the legal profession is fierce. But what is it like job hunting when you also have a disability?
A discussion paper produced by the independent think tank Maxim Institute, Acknowledging Ability: Overcoming the barriers to employment for people living with disabilities, reports that 74% of people with a disability who are not in work, want to work, but face more complex barriers during the hiring process than those without a disability.
Battling pre-conceived prejudices and misinformation are the obvious barriers to gaining employment, and for students studying to work in high pressure professions like law, job hunting is even harder.
In late 2018, Buddle Findlay joined with the Halberg Foundation to create the Buddle Findlay & Halberg Career Experience Programme.
The pilot programme they designed was a way to provide practical work experience for university students with physical disabilities to combat prejudices and pre-conceived ideas and give them practical workplace experience. To achieve this, Buddle Findlay partnered with the Halberg Foundation’s Youth Council and hired three of its members to work in their Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch offices.
“When the Halberg Foundation approached us about a work experience opportunity, we got really excited,” says Buddle Findlay Chief Executive Philip Maitland.
“This is a way for us to be able to give an opportunity to Youth Council members to experience day-to-day work in a professional services firm.”
One of the three council members employed was first-year Māori studies and law student Thomas Chin, who has cerebral palsy. He worked out of the Christchurch office for one week in June this year.
His time at Buddle Findlay consisted of participating in daily tasks performed by the firm’s staff, networking with legal professionals, and picking the brains of its lawyers about what it’s like to work in the legal profession.
“The experience at Buddle Findlay has reignited my purpose for choosing law as my chosen field of study and allowed me to grow my understanding of law on a much deeper level,” says Mr Chin.
“Opportunities for disabled people looking for work are limited, thus simply having the opportunity to work and contribute to a work environment is personally exciting. Not to mention the wider implications of having an organisation that is so willing to combat issues surrounding access for people with physical disabilities to employment in the future.”
Seeing the practical side of things
Thomas Chin says he thrived off being able to talk to and think through ideas with the firm’s lawyers, to ask as many questions as possible and apply the knowledge he had learned in school.
“On a personal level, the placement is helping me in the sense that it’s hard to see the end goal when you are sitting in a lecture listening to someone talk for an hour.
“Getting to see the practical side of things and getting to work out what a week in a law office looks like, and how I would have to adapt in terms of my disability and working on how things work in that sense,” he says.
Before the placements took place, Buddle Findlay partner Hamish Kynaston was asked why it is harder for those with a disability to find employment.
“I think people just default to the easy option,” he said.
“When presented with two candidates, people take the path of least resistance, and that’s the wrong approach. We should be building stronger and more inclusive workplaces and valuing the diversity that a range of people bring into an organisation.”
An important part of the programme involves inclusion training and the Halberg Foundation provided Buddle Findlay with this before the work experience week.
Benefits from inclusion training
The feedback was that staff found the training useful. It educated them on how to engage with the Youth Council members, they learned about different types of physical disabilities, and it also provided them with an introductory skillset of how to engage with clients and other colleagues with either mental or physical disabilities.
“The Halberg Foundation is all about an inclusive New Zealand, and working alongside Buddle Findlay, we can see that they’re committed to diversity and inclusion,” says Shelley McMeeken, Chief Executive of the Halberg Foundation.
Buddle Findlay also took away some lessons from the Career Experience Programme. “It’s a great challenge for us to see how well we respond and what we can learn from working with people with disability in a really open and positive way,” says Mr Kynaston.
“I think I knew what I was getting myself into when I initially came across this opportunity,” says Thomas Chin of his time at the firm.
“Work is work at the end of the day, and there are going to be good bits and there are going to be hard bits and I think that’s just the reality of it. And yes, it is tiring but that is just work and part of living.
“The placement is helping me in terms of solidifying why I am going down the path I am, in terms of my career and what I want to achieve in that career, and knowing the good bits and the bad bits and being able to make an informed decision as a result. Nothing beats the real thing.”
The response from both Buddle Findlay staff and the Halberg Foundation Youth Council members was positive all round. While this year’s intake was a pilot programme, Buddle Findlay will be continuing the programme in the foreseeable future.
Angharad O’Flynn is a Wellington-based journalist.