Anat Maytal wears her hair down at work. Always down.
She wore it down in college, and in law school, and when she dazzled hiring partners at BakerHostetler to get her first job. She wears it down in court.
It is a statement as well as an omission; when Maytal wears her hair down, it ensures that her cochlear implant device and hearing aid aren’t the first things people notice about her.
“I have that privilege,” she said. “Other people with disabilities that are more visible don’t have that option. I’m very much aware of that.”
Her “deaf accent,” as she calls it, is fairly subtle. She lives in New York and went to school in Boston, and she says some people who pick up on it tend to assume she’s just from somewhere else.
Maytal is open about her disability. She’s enjoyed success and support at BakerHostetler and is a founder of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association.
But she says the idea of allowing colleagues and clients to judge her by her disability at first sight still makes her uneasy.
In a profession marked by the hypercompetitive pursuit of clients and partnership slots, experts say lawyers often face pressure to downplay any disability because of the risk of facing bias and stigma. And while many law firms offer affinity groups for female, minority and LGBTQ attorneys, fewer mention disabilities in their diversity efforts.
For disabled attorneys, this can make the legal profession a lonely place. A recent survey of law firms found that fewer than 1 percent of attorneys had disclosed a disability to their firm, while direct polls of lawyers report higher numbers.
And the profession may be getting lonelier still.
Just five years after its formation, the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities is in the process of dissolving. It was run by volunteers who tried to form a team of professional managers but couldn’t find enough money or support, and the group struggled to attract active members.
“My impression, to be quite honest with you, is I think it has been something that really hasn’t been given a lot of energy by a lot of firms,” said Rebecca Glatzer, a managing director for legal recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa. “Unless the attorney themself is raising their hand and saying, ‘This is an issue and I need accommodations,’ it’s really gotten a lot of short shrift.”
There are a few reasons for this, according to Glatzer and other disability rights advocates. Few law firms openly encourage people with disabilities to apply and provide points of contact for applicants to request accommodations during the interviewing and hiring process.
Attorneys often fear that disclosing disabilities could cause others to wrongly see them as weak or unreliable, pushing that next brass ring out of reach, Glatzer said.
Glatzer described it as a chicken-or-egg scenario: If attorneys don’t disclose their disabilities, then firms just carry on as usual without giving thought to their accommodations — or even to simple improvements that could greatly improve the attorneys’ quality of life.