“People with disabilities are often locked out of the diversity and inclusion space.”
Two things in particular attracted Derek Manners to A&O, where he has worked as an Associate in our Washington, DC office for six years, joining the firm straight from law school.
The first was the chance to be involved with international projects that are genuinely global in nature.
But mostly, it was about the people in the DC office, that he first encountered as a summer associate back in 2015.
“They are just a great group of people to work with – they are serious, but do not take themselves too seriously. And they have a real interest in helping young lawyers to grow and learn,” he says.
“That all came through in the recruitment process. A lot of the people I met in other firms either didn’t seem that interested or were a little full of themselves.”
By contrast he instantly got a good feeling about the culture in the DC office, and his experience has since lived up to that first impression.
“When you are working a lot of hours, it’s good to enjoy being with the people you are working alongside. Big law isn’t always like that.”
A supportive environment
Working in a supportive environment is important in another respect.
Derek is legally blind and has been since birth. His condition – Albinism – he explains, means he has about a tenth of the sight of people with 20/20 vision. “I have to be ten times closer to something to see it in the same detail as they do.”
Given that his work – straddling political law and financial regulatory work – involves drafting, reviewing and amending hefty legal documents, he relies on special Zoom Text software.
The software allows him to zoom in on a documents say to three times magnification, but meaning that only a third of the document is in view on the screen. He uses the mouse to manoeuvre around the rest of the document. “With simple things like reviewing a document that’s pretty much how I do the visual things.”
From his very earliest days at A&O, he has always had the technology he needs to complete this part of his work.
“When I started, I told IT what I needed and got it immediately and, pretty much, I’ve had no trouble since I started as a summer associate six years ago,” he says. “The office is very accommodating. If I need something I just ask, I prefer people to just assume that I’m doing my job and that if I need assistance, I’ll let them know.”
Attitudes at work
He has encountered issues on the periphery of the work environment, however. He recalls in the past attending an externally facilitated Diversity and Inclusion workshop, ironically on the issue of unconscious bias.
The workshop leaders did not take the trouble to check if he needed any special help to access the session, relying instead on PowerPoint presentations projected at the front of the room. None of the examples used in the session featured a person with a disability.
“People with disabilities are often locked out of the D&I space. There’s a view that people with disabilities don’t work in an office, that we are not professional people.”
And there have been instances where he has felt a bit patronised, usually by people who don’t quite know how to handle the issue of disability, but that, he says, is the exception at A&O.
“I’ve been told multiple times at A&O that people just forget I have a disability because the process we have in place to allow me to do what I do is seamless. If there’s ever an issue, there are always people around who I can ask for help.”
A passion for politics
Politics has been a consistent passion in his life for many years. As an undergraduate he temporarily withdrew from his studies in economics, accounting and government (making his parents “very nervous”) to work on Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign.
“I was kind of bored with reading text books. I was young and idealistic,” he says.
He worked first as a field organiser in the Texas Democratic primary where Obama was up against Hilary Clinton. During the election campaign itself he got promoted to head up a field office in Virginia, his first time in a state that is now home to him and his long-term partner, Martin.
Did he get to meet the President to be?
“He visited our office and we ordered in pizza. I didn’t have a one-to-one meeting or shake his hand, but I did eat pizza in the same room as him,” he says with a laugh.
Given that interest in politics, it is perhaps not surprising that he was drawn to working in political law. Shortly after joining A&O, he got the chance to help out the financial regulatory team on a long-term project and his practice now involves working in both areas.
Although no longer so deeply involved in political campaigning, he continues to advocate and provide advice on key issues related to disability, and provides mentoring to help people with disabilities to advocate for themselves more effectively.
He has, for instance, given testimony on sub-minimum wages. Since the 1930s, U.S. employers have been allowed under the law to pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage – something that is clearly exploitative and unfair.
“I had one of those jobs in High School where I was paid USD3.14 an hour compared to the minimum wage of USD7.25. They promoted me to manager but didn’t give me a raise. I stayed at USD3.14 but had the ability to hire and fire people making USD9 or USD10 an hour.”
More recently, he managed to get provisions into a bill allowing veterans with disabilities to fly free on military transport planes when space is available.
“Colleagues at A&O are very supportive of these efforts.”
Work life has not been the same in the last year and a half as the Covid-19 pandemic raged. Derek has spent most of that time working remotely near his parents’ home on the Texas/Oklahoma border.
“The pandemic – bad as it was – has forced me to slow down a bit and allowed me to spend more time with my partner and my family. That’s been good.”