INTERVIEW: Katherine Ramo discusses Disability in the UK

Contributed by
Woman smiling
26 Sep 2019

We sat down with Katherine Ramo to talk about the importance of networks, what true inclusion entails and whether revising the billable hour model could boost both diversity and business. 

Katherine Ramo, CMS.

FOLLOWING a traumatic civilian tour of duty in Afghanistan, Katherine Ramo began to lose her sight. A few years later, she was diagnosed with a rare condition, Stickler Syndrome, which can cause joint problems as well vision and hearing loss. At this time, Ramo was at law school in London, having moved from the US in order to start afresh and enter the legal profession. She’d previously worked on international development projects (which was why she was in Afghanistan) as a contracts, sub-contracts and grants manager. 

It was during this time at law school that Ramo became keenly aware of the need for networks. When she joined her current firm, CMS, in 2014, she noticed that it was active in external disability networks but, aside from a few individual events done organically, didn’t have an internal one focused on the area. Within just a couple of months, she had set up the CMS ENABLE Disability and Wellbeing Network. 

For Ramo, it was important to ensure that the network covered everything that would be needed by a person with a disability. And not just for the firm’s lawyers with disabilities: ENABLE also services the firm’s staff and its clients – indeed, it can be described as an extra service that the firm provides for its clients. Among these services are awareness-raising events, and previous sessions have focused on dyslexia, hearing loss, and inclusive leadership for talent with disabilities. 

“Even though in one sense they are a competitor, when it comes to disability it is important to get this right across the industry.” 

For firms that do not yet have a disability network, Ramo has some advice on how to set one up. First, she notes that the senior management in a firm must have buy-in to effectively lift the network off the ground and provide ongoing support. She goes on to add that it also helps if the network is spearheaded by an individual who can oversee direction and encourage participation. This individual does not have to be a person with a disability, but they do have to have a detailed understanding of the issues involved and also of what they are trying to achieve. Thinking of the network’s impact from the onset is key for lasting success. 

Even other firms can be willing to help – Ramo herself helped a Magic Circle firm to set up its network. “Even though in one sense they are a competitor, when it comes to disability it is important to get this right across the industry,” she says. If in doubt, adds Ramo, the best thing is to “go to the source,” by which she means the Law Society and the SRA, who can also offer guidance. Ramo has worked with both and highlights the benefits of reaching a broader audience by doing so: she helped to make a short film on inclusion for the SRA and a podcast with the Law Society, both of which were created to reach parts of the industry not already touched by the more London-centred networks. 

This leads us to a point that Ramo is keen to stress: the need for collaborative networking. She currently co-chairs Interlaw’s Disability Forum Enable (dis)Ability Network alongside the organisation’s founder Daniel Winterfeldt (the organisation was originally set up to help LGBT+ lawyers but has since expanded its reach). This platform allows lawyers from many different firms to come together, share experiences and network across firms. The knowledge sharing element is key, Ramo explains, as it can encourage and develop best practices across firms. For instance, one firm may have more employees with visual impairments than another and is in a position to give guidance on how to best offer support. Another example of law firms collaborating with regards to disability is the Inter Law Firm Forum on Disabilities, which has a mix of human resources and diversity and inclusion individuals representing various law firms in the City. 

It’s the same pool of talent we are competing to get – then it’s about how we support and retain them.” 

With collaboration in mind, Ramo is keen to avoid a “disability silo” and promote awareness of intersectionality. She takes a holistic approach, having done, for example, events with LGBT+ and women’s networks: “It’s not just one strand or another. We’re all facing the same root issues. It’s the same pool of talent we are competing to get – then it’s about how we support and retain them.” 

We were keen to hear Ramo’s views on diversity efforts beyond networks too. What should legal services providers be focusing on in order to improve? When it comes to inclusion, Ramo is clear

Katherine with her guide dog Cora, who is the first free dog in the history of the City of London since 1237.

that it must be considered in the context of a whole career lifecycle and not just at the recruitment stage. She emphasises that people with disabilities need to be able to access all the services they need to do their jobs and that this consideration includes equal opportunity when obtaining work assignments. Successful inclusion, she explains, often relies on effective communication within the right context: that context requires lawyers with disabilities to feel that they can be open about their needs without any fear of repercussions, but it also depends upon firms being able to ask (with sensitivity, an awareness of inclusive language and an understanding of the issues) the questions that will help them to support their staff with disabilities – visible or invisible – and mental health issues.  

But for Ramo, the subject of inclusion goes right to the heart of how firms are structured. The legal industry, Ramo feels, is still conservative and that its traditional ways of doing things – for instance the enduring billable hour model and the pressures that it brings – may in some instances impact the effectiveness of inclusion efforts for lawyers with chronic health conditions and/or mental health issues. She adds that developing different models of working (e.g. flexible working) and other changes to the traditional models would help to bring lawyers with disabilities onto a level playing field. What’s more, it is not just from a diversity perspective that firms are being asked to reconsider long-standing structures – Ramo raises the point that there are clients who don’t like the billable hour model and would like to see change. 

“Checklist exercises will not do.” 

This, says Ramo, presents an opportunity for firms to take note of – one that will improve the inclusion of lawyers with disabilities and potentially boost business. Ramo notes how difficult it is for UK firms to grow their market share given the competitiveness of the industry and its current reliance on mergers. One way for firms to stand out and potentially grow may be, she explains, to provide other models as an alternative to the billable hour model or those that work alongside it. This would incentivise clients to instruct them over other firms and simultaneously create a situation that would help lawyers with disabilities. It’s also important, Ramo adds, to make it clear to clients the value that lawyers with disabilities bring to the table. 

Looking ahead, Ramo highlights three points that she feels the legal industry should focus on over the next five years. These points, she explains, are designed to effect meaningful change in the lives of the protected classes under the Equality Act – and by meaningful Ramo means change that is of substance and not for show. As she says, “checklist exercises will not do.” The points focus on: 

– Visible leadership roles being held by members of the protected classes in private practice and the judiciary. 

– Active inclusion, especially post-recruitment. “It’s not enough just to say they’re there. Are they being utilised and are they being treated fairly and afforded the same opportunities as others?” 

– Accountable investment in the talents of members of the protected classes. “They should be valued as an asset, not a liability, and shouldn’t be cast aside before they even begin.” Under this accountable investment Ramo includes leadership development, reasonable adjustments awareness and education on changing misconceptions and attitudes.