The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. It “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government’ programs and services.” Since that time, opportunities and barriers for individuals who are blind or disabled have improved. However, individuals with disabilities are underrepresented in the legal community. According to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2021 Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms, the Class of 2021 self-reported that 5.5% of graduates are disabled, and there has been slow progress in hiring disabled lawyers within law firms, growing from just 0.6% of all lawyers reporting a disability in 2019 to 1.2% in 2021.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin interviews ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno about his experience as a blind lawyer. They discuss Richard’s professional journey, his lessons learned, technology and professional support to get the job done, and recommendations for law firms hiring individuals with disabilities.
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ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: Acceptance and inclusion of individuals with disabilities has come a long way since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. However, as a society, we still have miles to go. The percentage of self-reporting law graduates with a disability was 5.5% for the Class of 2021, according to the latest data from the National Association for Law Placement’s Employment Report and Salary Survey. Although we do not have exact statistics, it’s safe to assume that visually impaired lawyers are a fraction of that small percentage.
Today, I am delighted to be here with ACTEC Fellow Dick Nenno to talk about his experience as a successful lawyer and a person who is blind. This video should inspire employers and individuals with disabilities.
So, Dick, before we get started, please set the table and tell us what you hope listeners will take from this presentation.
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Thank you, Terry. Hello everyone. In recent years, leaders in the legal community have attempted to open the field to people who historically have not been welcome. Until now, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts have focused largely on three issues: gender, ethnicity, and LGBTQ issues. And I challenge the legal community to open opportunities to disabled individuals in general and specifically to qualified blind candidates. I encourage law school diversity and placement officers to help create career paths for blind law students and legal employers to evaluate blind applicants with an open mind.
Becoming a Successful Attorney with a Disability
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: That’s a helpful framing. And maybe to help us understand how this could work for other people, why don’t you give us a little bit about your background and your legal career, and how you’ve come to work through these issues and be a successful attorney?
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Well, thanks to a rare recessive gene, I have been legally blind my whole life and essentially totally blind throughout my legal career. As I neared the end of law school, I had to be concerned about finding a J-O-B, whereas most of my Harvard Law School classmates had their pick of choice of judicial clerkships, federal agency slots, and big law firm positions.
My two other blind classmates and I found the market quite a bit chillier. In the end, I received a few nice nibbles and accepted an offer to join Ballard Spahr Andrews Ingersoll in Philadelphia. So, even though I had grown up in Buffalo, New York, in the bicentennial summer of 1976, I moved to an unfamiliar city, Philadelphia, where I literally knew no one.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: That sounds like a considerable challenge.
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: That’s for sure. As someone with very limited eyesight, how was I to find an apartment, feed myself, and get to and from work? Pretty scary stuff. And then there was the office. How would I get to know my colleagues, find the men’s room, and, most importantly, do my work? This was before computers, Lexis, and Westlaw. At the time, the only viable option was to hire sighted readers. And in retrospect, I probably should have gone about that process differently. After a few years, it became clear that things weren’t going to work out at the law firm. Although it took a bit of time, I did find a job with Wilmington Trust Company in nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
Some of you from around the country probably aren’t aware of how smooshed together the states are where I am. I’m sitting at my desk in Wilmington, Delaware, and New Jersey is about 15 minutes away, Pennsylvania is about 20 minutes away, and Maryland is maybe 45 minutes away. So, they’re all very close. When I changed jobs from Philadelphia to Wilmington, it happened that my wife and I lived in between, so we didn’t have to move to make that change.
Although I did have to work out new transportation. Before, I was able to take the train into Philadelphia. That wasn’t really available to get between Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where I lived, and Wilmington. So, I had to line up carpools for the most part. But fortunately, someone had given me advice early on in my career that, as a blind lawyer, I should really look for niches where I would be valuable to other attorneys and clients. Wilmington Trust gave me the opportunity to develop not one niche but several, such as Delaware trust law, asset protection trusts, jurisdiction selection, directed trusts, and the state income taxation of trusts.
And so, my career gave me the opportunity to get on the stage at conferences all over the country and even abroad. As you know, Terry, I’ve spoken at the Heckerling Conference many times, and I’ve spoken at the Notre Dame Conference. I’ve spoken at conferences in California, in Hawaii, and in London. And along the way, I’ve been able to do quite a bit of writing.
About two years ago, Wilmington Trust Company eliminated my position, but Vince Thomas, an ACTEC Fellow, invited me to join his practice at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, and our offices are right across the street from where I worked at Wilmington Trust for almost 40 years. Vince and I recently wrote the book that I’m holding up on the state income taxation of trusts. And I’m also holding up the book that I wrote a few years ago on Delaware Trust Law. Vince and I are looking to do a new version of the Delaware trust book in the near future.
A Message to Employers Hiring Individuals with Disabilities
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: What’s interesting to me is that you saw there were challenges in finding a firm that would hire you in the first place, then you got to a firm, and there were additional challenges there. But what you recognized was that you needed to find a way to make yourself valuable. To find that niche that would make people recognize that you had value, that you had something to bring to the table, despite the fact that you happened to be a person who was blind. I think that’s a real message for people who are blind out there—and a message to employers as well.
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Well, it’s interesting that you say that, Terry. We talk a lot about inherent bias these days. And often, when I’m introduced to someone, I sense the reaction, “He’s blind. It’s not worth my time to get to know him.” And then the person reads the nametag and says, “Oh, you’re Dick Nenno. I didn’t know you were blind.” So, there are obstacles at every level.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: That’s a reminder to us that we should check our biases and recognize that they’re there, and then try to take a step that doesn’t move in the direction of the bias but instead moves in the direction of something positive.
As I think about that, and I think about how people come up to you and will say, “Hey, I didn’t know you were blind, Dick Nenno”—to me, it seems like there are many steps in just making sure that you can have access to the information that you need and then be able to share it. Would you tell us a bit about how you do your job?
Tips for Visually Impaired Attorneys
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Well, first of all, I think something that potential employers would need to be concerned about when they’re considering a blind candidate is logistics. How will the individual get to and from work? I have been fortunate that over the last 10–15 years, I’ve been able to line up transportation through a local agency for the blind, which happens to be located almost halfway between Wilmington, where the job is, and Swarthmore, where I live. And they have been able to provide really reliable transportation for me.
Because I’ve been blind since before age 26 or so, I’ve been able to set up an ABLE account, an Achieving a Better Life Experience Account, under 529(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. And if I contribute to that, it gives me a Pennsylvania income tax deduction and also allows me to pay for expenses like transportation without having to pay income taxes on the earnings of that account. Also, I found in the last few years that Uber has been available to do transportation at times that are out of the normal routine, when the agency is unable to provide transportation.
My job functions probably are quite familiar. I correspond by email; I read trust documents, cases, and articles; I write and edit conference papers and articles; I give presentations; and I meet with clients and other attorneys.
My PC has a screen reading program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech) that reads aloud what’s on the computer screen. And because I have good keyboarding skills, I’m able to handle email rather independently. I don’t need to worry about dictation software.
It’s also very easy to retrieve cases and articles from Westlaw, because it works well with my speech program to get them, and then to read them to me. And it’s interesting: a sighted reader gets tired. The computer can just keep going and never gets tired. A sighted reader still works with me for about 20 hours per week. She assists me with things like writing and editing and other functions for which JAWS is not well suited.
There are certain things that are just done more efficiently with sighted assistance. I compose remarks for my presentations and other documents in braille on what’s called a Braille Note. I’m holding that up to show what that looks like. It’s essentially a personal computer with braille output. And so, I use a combination of technology and sighted help to do the job that I’m doing every day.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: What do you think about a person who’s applying for a job, either with a law firm or with another legal employer, explaining how they might be able to overcome obstacles? I don’t know if that’s something that we should expect anyone to have to explain to an employer, but you’re noting the fact that employers sometimes might be concerned about whether a candidate will be able to do the job.
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Well, absolutely. And I guess the first thing I’d say is that just as every sighted individual is different, every blind individual is different. So, the following comments that I’m going to give are based on my experiences.
And I think that, first of all, coming into a legal job, no candidate really knows what to expect. So, I don’t think it’s really fair to expect a blind candidate to come in with all perfect solutions from Day One. I think it would be helpful for the legal employer to be willing to work with the candidate on finding the ways to help him or her do the job.
It’s my sense that that is going on a lot with recruiting any candidates these days. We want to make it possible for the people we hire to succeed, because if you paid them a lot of money for a few years and that doesn’t work out, then that’s not money well spent. I’d say for a blind person, for me anyway, don’t be afraid to approach me. I’m not able to read your nametag, so please come up and say something like “Hi, it’s Terry.” And don’t worry about what words you use. I’m blind, not visually challenged. I watch TV. I see what you mean.
And don’t be reluctant to ask if I need help. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. Attending some of these conferences, one of the big challenges is finding the men’s room. So, don’t be afraid to ask if I need help. Be persistent. When you do introduce yourself, don’t assume that I’m unfriendly or that the message has gotten through. I might be thinking of something else. There might be a lot of background noise, so I might not have gotten exactly what you said.
Although I must rely on my sense of hearing, I’m not gifted with superhuman hearing. In fact, I have significant hearing loss. And I’m not gifted with the superhuman ability to recognize voices. So, please, please, please, don’t come up and ask me to guess who you are.
And for everyone—for law candidates and for legal employers, for people coming into the industry—I think it’s good to look for a mentor. And for those of you who are in the field already, to be a mentor. If you’re new to the field, blind or otherwise, seek out a mentor. Your prospects for success will be much better if someone is interested in your progress. And similarly, if you’re a grizzled veteran, recruit good people and take time to train them. That way, they are more likely to become more productive members of your organization, and they might even become good friends of yours.
Recommendations to Employers Hiring a Blind Individual
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: That sounds like sound advice for anyone. You’re trying to find those win-wins of opportunities, where the employer’s desire to hire the best person meets with a person who has potential that they can show and demonstrate their ability to do the task just like you do every day. I wonder if you might have three recommendations for a law firm or another employer looking to hire a law student or someone who’s been in practice for a while and who is blind.
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Three recommendations that I would give, Terry, would be:
First of all, as I said earlier, please keep an open mind that a blind candidate might turn out to be an excellent trust and estate lawyer, might be an excellent litigator, might be very strong in another field, or he or she might not work out. I think what we should be looking for is what blind candidates are looking for: opportunities to succeed or fail, just as sighted candidates are.
The next thing—and I touched on this earlier—is don’t assume that a blind candidate has all the answers. Be willing to work with him or her early on, perhaps as a summer student, to work out the ways for him or her to become a productive member of the firm.
And again, the recommendation would be to be thinking about how your organization can become a more inclusive, more open-minded employer of people in areas that traditionally have not been the focus of DEI efforts.
I recently spoke with a candidate who graduated from a very top-tier law school. He is blind, speaks several languages, and can’t find a job. I also have spoken with an attorney acquaintance who just found out that his two-year-old daughter is blind. And it would be my hope that when she goes to college, and perhaps law school, that she will find employment opportunities much more available than they have been for people of my generation and even to people in the current generation.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: Well, that’s an encouraging message. A message of looking for opportunities right now where they exist and encouraging people who you might not otherwise think of as potential candidates. But to also remember that as we move to the future, hopefully, the technology will continue to improve and give opportunities to both the candidates and the employers to find ways to get together and take advantage of that, as you’ve managed to do with your career.
Thank you so much, Dick, for being here with us. I think the insights that you have shared will be useful, as I said, both for employers and potential employees. And hopefully, people will give an opportunity to a blind person or to a person with another disability to show what they can do. So, thank you so much, Dick.
ACTEC Fellow Richard W. Nenno: Thank you, Terry. And I will be glad to talk to potential employers and law school representatives if that would be helpful.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: In the words of Helen Keller, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” I challenge law firms to open your eyes to the gifts that diverse lawyers can bring to your business.
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