Robert Hunter: What it’s like to work in the City as a lawyer who is deaf, and why I set up City Disabilities

Posted on May 26, 2015

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Many years ago I did something that was, at the time, seen as foolish. Despite the fact that I suffered from progressive hearing loss, I decided to pursue a career in law in the City of London.

Being deaf in those days was often seen as a source of amusement, and it was regarded as irresponsible to exceed what were regarded as ones limitations.

Back in the 1980’s political correctness was in short supply and I suspect supplies were at their shortest in the City of London, a traditionally conservative arena. I was told to choose a specialism that required me to analyse documents more and deal with people less.

Again, I was foolish. People tend to interest me. Documents often bore me unless they have a human context. I wanted to specialise in litigation.

At that time, I could conceal my deafness to some extent. Like many people who will read this, I got to be quite good at it.

At times I pretended to understand what I couldn’t, hoping that I would catch up afterwards. I would change the topic of conversation to something I chose, so that I could anticipate people’s answers. I probably lip read to some extent, although I did not realise that I was doing it then.

I was able to get a job in a City law firm by a combination of concealment, bluff, and sheer luck (I was in a quiet room and my two interviewers spoke loudly). By the time my new employers realised I was deaf, I had already established that I could work as a solicitor. One grumbled I should have told them. I didn’t mention the maxim “caveat emptor”, though it was tempting.

The decline of my hearing has continued ever since. But again, I got lucky. I was able to establish a reputation and was made a partner in a City firm before my hearing required too much accommodation.

I am now profoundly deaf. My specialism is fraud litigation. Ironically, an area that I now lecture to other lawyers in is interviewing techniques. I teach interviewers how to ascertain the truth from an interviewee.

Perhaps I would not be doing it if I hadn’t been able to conceal my deafness from my own interviewers 30 years ago. I have met other deaf lawyers here too. They have had experiences that are similar to my own.

I have met some of the most decent, inspiring people I know in the City, but it can be an inhuman place. Nowadays, that’s not how it wants to be seen. Commercial pressures have resulted in most major organisations advertising their policies of diversity and inclusivity. Some are right to do so. I have come across people and organisations that are as forward thinking as you will find anywhere.

Some, however, do not do what they say on the tin, but advertise their diversity and inclusivity policies anyway. You have to be very careful to speak to people with disabilities who actually work at a company if you want a good picture of what an employer is like.

Having worked in the City for some 25 years I decided in November of last year to form, with two of my friends, a charity. The charity is called City Disabilities.

We offer mentoring schemes, advice and support to professionals in London with disabilities or long-term medical conditions. It’s early days, but we have already taken on our first full-time employee. You’ll find us at www.citydisabilities.org.uk. If you are interested in a career in law in the City (and we cater for all professionals), you might like to see a paper I have written on it at http://citydisabilities.org.uk/working-with-a-disability-in-a-city-law-firm/

We now have a full-time trust officer and are busy reaching out to students, as well as disabled professionals who are already working in the City. The stories we hear are sometimes inspiring and sometimes shocking.

Over the next few months I will share some of them – on a no names basis – with you. The City may be an unusual place, but despite its idiosyncrasies, working in the City with a disability can give rise to the same emotions and struggles that all people with disabilities experience.

Robert Hunter is a partner in a major city law firm.  He is profoundly deaf having suffered from progressive hearing loss since his early teens.   He has conducted advocacy in fraud and trust cases at all stages in the proceedings including carrying out cross examination at trial.  Together with Kayleigh Farmer and Kate Rees-Doherty he founded City Disabilities, offering mentoring and advice to professionals in London.   In his spare time he is a keen pilot and supports Aerobility, a charity that assists disabled pilots to fly.

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