Q&A: How Lawyers with Disabilities Can Change the World
Marc Maurer’s story is nothing short of inspiring. He’s been blind since he was an infant, and he attended law school at a time when accommodations for students with disabilities were a far cry from what they are today. But he was determined to succeed, and his perseverance paid off: He’s been practicing law for more than 40 years. What’s more, he served as the president of the National Federation of the Blind and continues to advocate for the organization today, and he’s received numerous awards for his advocacy work on behalf of blind people.
I recently was honored to speak with Marc about his background, the challenges he’s faced in his career, and how those with disabilities can make a difference in the legal profession.
Leanne Shank: Marc, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. To start, tell me about your background and what made you want to enter the legal profession.
Marc Maurer: I went to law school because I’m interested in the society in which we live and the law touches most aspects of that society. As an undergraduate, I started out in engineering, but my mentors told me that while I’d probably make a good engineer and build some good things, if I wanted to build a society better than the one we had, I should approach the topic differently, because engineers generally don’t do that. That made a lot of sense to me, so I decided to go to law school. I’m 68 now, so I’m coming to the end of my “working years,” but I’m still learning and I don’t think I’ll ever learn enough about law to be satisfied. And I’ve been a lawyer since 1977.
LS: In general, why is it important for people with disabilities to become lawyers or otherwise be involved in the legal profession?
MM: In my experience, there are two motivating factors for people to be in law school: an interest in serving and an interest in making money. I happened to be in the first group. I noticed there were people who were not being represented in the legal community or protected by our laws — namely, people with disabilities. For example, by the time I got into law school, I knew it was legal to pay blind and otherwise disabled people less than the minimum wage. I thought, “How could this be possible?” After law school, I fought to get some of those laws changed and became active in the NFB to advocate for blind people.
Helping people who would otherwise be without representation, and helping them know that the law applies to them and that they have rights they didn’t know they had, has been a great joy in my career, and it’s the primary reason I got into the law business. Additionally, a law degree gives you lots of options. You can do litigation, which has always attracted me; you can write legislation, which sometimes attracted me; or you can create entities and organizations that can build programs to help people like you. There are hundreds and hundreds of places to use a law degree once you’ve got one; it’s a liberating kind of degree that opens huge corridors of opportunity.
LS: What sorts of challenges or obstacles has your blindness posed in your career? And, in terms of accessibility, how has the profession changed from when you started out?
MM: Access to information was, and is, the primary obstacle. When I was in law school, all the technology we have today did not exist, so hunting down information had to be done almost exclusively on paper. We went to the library and dug the books out, and I hired people to read to me. Today, much of that information is available electronically, but many of the case management systems are not that accessible, so there’s a hodgepodge of systems that can be a challenge for blind law students and lawyers.
Additionally, it was hard to find opportunities. If, for example, I wanted to clerk for a judge, the judge would say, “We use a lot of paper here, and you have to be able to read paper documents,” and I wouldn’t get the chance. Then I would get a similar response from some other place I wanted to work. You get arguments from all points of view about why you can’t do the job — that you couldn’t be an effective lawyer because you couldn’t see the demeanor of a witness on the stand, and so on. One of my priorities in my career has been fighting to make sure the blind get the same opportunities as everyone else.
LS: In your experience, how has LSAC improved accessibility to legal education for those with disabilities?
MM: When I was coming up, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether you could take the LSAT at all as a blind person. As a result, I’ve never taken the test — although I’ve always wondered how I would do on it. Nowadays, not only can you take the LSAT, but LSAC has worked so hard to make it accessible for all students. Overall, the organization has become very committed to getting people from all walks of life into law school, and I’m delighted that it has.
LS: What would you say to college students who are blind, or have another disability, and may think a career in law is unobtainable?
MM: If you’ve got the patience for it and the willingness to work, you can likely do it! You have to be interested in puzzles because law, and unpacking a decision by a group of judges, is sometimes a puzzle. You have to have an open mind. You have to be willing to learn a new language — because law looks deceptively like English, but the terms mean different things.
But if you can do all that, the opportunities are enormous. A legal education gives you a handle on making our society a more accepting, more livable society than we’ve ever had. That’s what I find so fascinating about law. It’s a lovely opportunity to make something new and useful.
LS: Where can people with disabilities get more information about a career in law?
MM: If you have a disability and want to practice law, know that there are many who have done it already. The Disability Rights Bar Association is one of the principal gatherings, but not the only one. Specifically for blind people, you can contact the NFB or the National Association of Blind Lawyers. Any of these groups can help you get started.