Readers may recall our interview with Jack Chen, a highly accomplished patent attorney at Google. This interview features his older brother, Richard Chen, who also happens to be blind.
Richard and Jack, despite having the odds stacked against them, have had extremely successful careers. Their interviews stand testament to the fact that with the right mind set, fair opportunities, and hard work, lawyers with disabilities can achieve great heights.
Richard is a highly accomplished counsel in the corporate and securities practice group at Arnold & Porter LLP. He received his B.A. with honors from Harvard College and he then went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1998. In this interview, Richard speaks to us, at length, about his corporate career spanning over 18 years and the challenges that he faced and overcame in college and at his workplace.
This interview was conducted by Rahul Bajaj and Anusha Reddy over telephone and transcribed by Arvind Rao, IDIA intern and first year student in School of Law, Christ University. The interview has been edited for clarity.
The aim of our interview series is to foster some much needed dialogue on reasonable accommodation. Far too many sighted people underestimate the capabilities of persons with disabilities. We hope that our interviews challenge these unfounded notions and change mindsets. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Can you describe to us the precise nature of your disability?
I was born with a severe visual impairment. Like my brother, I had sclerocornea and microphthalmia. I developed glaucoma also and that triggered more of my recent decline in sight. But I’ve always had a visual impairment; it’s always been very acute. As early as, first grade or kindergarten, my parents got us used to adaptive technology. At that point, I was able to use a T.V. up close to read with and that was definitely helpful in terms of getting a lot of work done. It was also helpful because it was before the invention of text to speech output, JAWS and other types of technology, which I didn’t get until college.
[Note: A closed circuit T.V. (CCTV) enables people with low vision to read printed material in a magnified form. Since Richard had some usable vision when he was younger, he used to use such CCTVs to read printed material himself, without having to rely on text-to-speech software or sighted assistance.]
- Do you have any vision right now or are you 100% blind?
I have very little. I have light perception.
3. You graduated from Harvard College in 1995 with a BA in government. Two decades ago, blind people did not have access to the tools and resources that now enable them to compete effectively with their sighted counterparts. This being the case, how much harder was it for you to attend college as a blind person back then?
College started the transition to the point where adaptive technology was available. The earliest version of text to speech output in terms of JAWS was actually built into very large laptops. They were made available from the beginning of my freshman year. That was a really huge jump from high school where I had to type documents and do everything via a typewriter which could create a lot more hassle. I think that it was still challenging because even at that point using a laptop was a pretty new phenomenon. I remember, it sometimes bothered students in class to have that around. But I will say that it was an improvement to what I had in college and what I had through law school too. Even though the internet was available I wasn’t really able to connect to the internet at that early stage when I was in law school. So, unfortunately, any sort of online resources and email didn’t help. But a lot of what I did was made easier with the text to speech output. The reading at that point I could still accomplish through the closed circuit T.V.
4. Was text material made available to you on time and in accessible format while you were completing your undergraduate studies?
Effectively at that point, I could still read with my closed circuit T.V. It just took a bit longer to read them. With respect to handouts that we’d receive in class, no, none of that stuff was made available. I would basically have to go back and try to read whatever handouts and closed material were printed up; I would have to read them after class. You know, you just sort of had to adjust and adapt.
5. Immediately after undergrad, you started pursuing law at the Harvard Law School. Did you grapple with any feelings of self-doubt and insecurity when making this career choice, especially on account of your disability, in light of the fact that the profession of law is widely perceived to be a lot more demanding in terms of time and effort than most of its counterparts?
No, I didn’t at the time. I think I had contemplated law for a variety of reasons and felt like there was nothing that would hinder me from a disability perspective. I later discovered that there were a lot more challenges in the workplace but that is another story I think. The study of law was not a problem. It was just a matter of being able to understanding legal reasoning and analysis and the other challenges that everyone else faces, i.e., trying to understand the methodology that they teach you in terms of how to think and reason like an attorney.
Like I mentioned before, I think some of the challenges are associated with not having electronic access to emails or certain documents that make it more difficult. I remember, in my intellectual property class, some of the classes were conducted via email threads and I didn’t really have an opportunity to communicate that way. However, law school was not nearly the challenge that the legal practice was or is.
6. You studied law at one of the world’s leading law schools. To what extent, do you think, was your extraordinary journey made possible by the fact that you were born in the world’s most advanced country and had access to resources that blind people in the developing world sorely lack? Do you think that you would have attained the kind of success that you have as a blind person if you were living in, say, India or China?
I’ve thought about this before because when I was young, we actually moved to Taiwan. I don’t think there’s any way of being able to tell for sure but I can say without a doubt that many opportunities open up here, in a country with not only technological advancements but also one which tends to promote individual self-achievement as a mindset. We came through school with government funded programmes to make sure that we were trained in dealing with different adaptive technologies and different ways of handling issues at an early age with respect to our disability. The government funded programmes helped and I’m sure that a lot of resources were expanded towards that effort.
7. Can you briefly describe these government funded programmes?
When you are in school they have programmes that the state sponsors through organizations like Commission for the Blind. They provide resources that are funded through tax dollars, to make teachers available to you, and to give you special adaptive training. At that time, when I was going through grade school or elementary school, that was still the time when most people with disabilities were not mainstreamed. They were sort of set apart. Now, it’s a different approach, it’s more integrated and mainstream. Back then, you got technology help and you got assistance from people who track your progress like a case worker or a social worker. They track how you’re doing and make sure you’re getting the resources that will allow you to do as much as you can and achieve as much as you can with your God-given ability. A vast majority of states have that at the educational level and also have that it once you leave school, on a vocational level.
8. One of the key distinguishing factors between pursuing education in a country like India and the US is that, in case of the latter, the state actually sponsors programmes that can help you acquire the skills that you need in order to compete on a footing of equality with your able-bodied counterparts. Can you briefly describe to us the role that your school education played in equipping you with the skills that you needed to succeed and instilled in you the confidence to compete in a world that is designed for the sighted?
I think that a lot of credit is not necessarily due to the school but my parents and I think Jack, will probably have the same feeling, that they had the same expectations of us as they would of any other child from a very early age. For instance, they had me start piano lessons when I was 2 years old. With respect to the confidence – I don’t think that that was really something I lacked going through school. I went to a mainstream school — we also had time apart where you are in classes only with a few other people with disabilities. During those classes, there is much more individualized time where you can focus on things and they can sort of monitor how you’re progressing from an academic achievements perspective. I think that the mindset is important and at the school level in the US, there’s no hindrance in mindset. People have fully embraced the idea that people with disabilities should have the same opportunity in school.
9. Was there any programme to ensure any meaningful integration with your classmates, especially in recreational activities?
No, that’s actually one area where it is extremely limiting throughout school. Now that you’ve refreshed my memory, there is definitely a sense of divide there. In terms of certain activities that you just can’t participate in like softball or other types of sports. I mean, they did some integration. We did field day activities and races. That I do think was helpful. I think you’re right that a lot of people do develop bonds or friendships being on the playground and I think that is important growing up. As a lot of our classes were with people with other disabilities, very early on, a lot of our friendships were with people with other disabilities. But as we grew up, with more mainstreaming of our classes, we developed more friendships.
10. Moving on to your professional career, you have been a corporate law practitioner for 18 years now. There is a widely held belief that lawyers with disabilities are better suited to pursuing a career in corporate law on account of the fact that there are fewer accessibility barriers as compared to litigating in courts or being a judge. Was this part of the reason why you chose this career path, and to what extent does your experience bear this out?
That is not why I chose it. I actually chose it because I felt like the adversarial nature of litigation was really not something that suited my personality. I liked negotiating ever since I was in law school and studied it with some prominent professors and learned to find win – win solutions.
Nowadays, I think even if you are in corporate law, there are definitely challenges because it is very heavily documented, time pressure is very intense, and tolerance for mistakes is very low. I’ve noticed this and this is despite the fact that people inherently want to be understanding but when it comes down to dollars and cents, at the end of the day, that’s what rules. I will readily say that technology has made tremendous improvement since the start of my practice. There are certain things that you need significant help with, even with today’s technology. I have to encounter significant issues when I’m black lining documents. Some people I know have gotten readers who can help with this process.
As far as I can tell there are a number of lawyers who start the practice of corporate law but very small number of them stay in corporate law. It’s just a matter of finding an environment where the firm and the blind lawyer can communicate in a way that there’s a lot of open dialogue about how things can be done and there is a certain level of patience. Firms may have patience but the clients don’t. I think that’s the reality of it. I think that clients get annoyed, especially when they’re paying large fees. I have in the past 6-7 years billed around 500- 650 USD or more an hour, so I guess there isn’t a lot of patience when you’re getting billed at that rate.
11. Do you face any issues with conducting due diligence or for instance handwritten mark – ups because sometimes the documents that the clients send over are inaccessible and given the tight time frame you may not be able to convert them?
Now as a senior lawyer I basically have my junior read the hand mark – ups to me. When I was young I could still use my closed circuit T.V. and do it, but now I have my juniors read out the documents. Most black lined documents I still handle on my own. I just figure out ways of trying to understand all of the changes that are being done. I did do due diligence when I was a junior and I would say that if I did not have my closed circuit T.V. at the time, it would’ve been extremely difficult. And that is the problem for a blind lawyer in a large firm because the bulk of what you do as a corporate junior associate is due diligence, so, you’re doing those tasks which unfortunately don’t have an easy way of being handled.
The reality is unfortunately that a lot of the documents in due diligence are not documents that firms can put on a CD . It’s just not practical for them to download them all to CDs or to intralinks, which is like an electronic data room. Unfortunately, it’s very visual so, you have to be able to tell where you are on the screen in order to figure out the type of documents you’re going to review. I couldn’t do it. Even with some level of sight before, I couldn’t do it. Electronic data rooms are not accessible as far as I can tell. They have no incentive to make their applications or their software accessible. Very few folks are actually practicing in the area so they just don’t do it. Pdf documents are a bit easier to work with, now that you have optical recognition software and apps that can scan documents easily. That’s really helpful but handwritten documents are still a pain.
And one of the things I have particularly seen and I think this goes to what you’re saying as well, is that if given a choice between assigning work to a sighted person and a person with a disability, the employer is more likely to choose the former. And therefore, in my situation, and this is something that a lot of people seem to share, if you want to get quality work you really have to take the effort in reaching out to people and telling them that you’re interested. Basically, if you don’t have the ability to take the initiative, then you are unlikely to get any meaningful work at all.
And, therefore, you should make allies, make friends, let them know you’re interested but even that’s not enough. You have to communicate with them constantly and ask them how you’re doing, how it’s going, things which you can improve on, etc.
At this point on, the practice of being a partner at a law firm is extremely competitive. Our partners used to enjoy immunity from being let go but that’s no longer the case. Law firms are set up as a partnership but in fact while that might be true in the general sense, the reality is that you have individual partners who are trying to make sure that they build their individual practice and so they will take whatever measures are necessary to work with the people to get the best output for their clients. It’s market economics even within the law firm.
12. At Arnold and Porter, you primarily advised hedge funds and PE funds with respect to their organizational structure and issues connected with regulatory compliance. How did your disability impact your relationship with your clients, and what steps did you take to address any concerns that they may have had about your ability to discharge your functions in the desired manner on account of your disability?
I tried to be upfront with my clients. Interestingly enough, generally speaking, many people are, whether the institutional clients in my larger firm or nowadays the small entrepreneurial clients, pretty understanding to the extent that they know and are able to accommodate you to the extent that they can. I think communicating is important to lay on the ground that this is how I get stuff done and let me know of the things that we can do to improve it or things that we need to change, and try to come up with something that works.
But to be forthright is very important. As an attorney now I just counsel. So, a lot of it is just research and counsel which makes it easier to do. I just find a way to slip in information about my disability somehow as I am introducing myself to a new client or if I say something is posing a challenge to me in terms of a specific technological issue. I’ll explain to them that I have a visual disability and so I use various technologies to accomplish the tasks that I do in the workplace. And if people have questions, I deal with them. I just tell them I have JAWS text to speech output and how it works. I don’t find that it awkward. I just somehow lay it out there because it should be expressed. Again, I don’t know how that is different from here to how it is in India and how it’s received. For the most part, people here are intrigued. Most of them are fine with it and a number of them are actually interested to the point where I trigger dialogue.
13. A key part of your job is advising clients either telephonically or in meetings. So our question in this respect is twofold: First, when you were starting off, what strategies did you adopt to seamlessly take notes during meetings that you could refer to afterward, given that it is hard for a blind person to listen to their screen reading technology and converse simultaneously? And, second, have you ever faced any difficulty on account of your firm’s internal software for recording billable hours, making calls and the like being inaccessible?
Over time, I’ve just learned to take notes on a notepad or word document. There might be spelling mistakes that I have to correct later on but I just take notes using screen reading software. That way I think I can be engaged as much as I can. To the extent I need to check something, I’ll have an earphone or an earpiece on low volume, using which I can go back in the note and edit it.
Second question, yes. We have a number of different technologies we use, some are CRM based technologies and billing technologies that are not really compatible from an accessibility standpoint and so I submit my time entries to someone to input them at this point because they can’t figure out a better way to do it. But at least in the US, the American Disabilities Act compels them to find some reasonable accommodation. I remember earlier on in my career, document management systems were harder to access which was a big pain. But nowadays, document management systems for most firms are quite accessible with text to speech output. So, it’s not nearly so much of a problem from that perspective.
14. You typically draft a large array of documents such as hedge fund offering documents, service provider agreements and compliance policies. In addition to the strategies that every ordinary screen reader user deploys, are there some specific functions or features that help you in your everyday work? Have you developed any strategies for utilizing the track changes function in the most robust fashion as a screen reader user?
I try to familiarize myself with the contours of the document before I start editing it. It’s helpful to go through content and figure out what’s in the document. The other thing is, generally with respect to corporate documents, once you see the general format of documents, content may be extremely different from document to document but you generally know what they include. And same with compliance mails, they may have significantly different policies and procedures but they have roughly the same type of policies and procedures based on the type of firm you work with.With respect to track changes, sometimes the text to speech output is difficult when it tells you when you have deletions and insertions and revisions here and revisions there. So, often, I turn it off in the course of doing track changes to make sure that my document looks okay and that the changes are being made appropriately. Also, I use the quick navigation function with the insert z+r keystrokes that will navigate you from revision to revision. One other thing that I do is if I have a black line document, I could easily accept all changes but if I have a track line document I will copy and paste it into a new document and that automatically accepts the changes in the document. And when you are reviewing the text side by side with the black line, it may be a little bit easier to read it to understand what changes are being proposed. It helps if you have a good memory as to what the document had been before and what the revision looks like after. Sometimes it makes it easier to understand what the changes are that are being proposed as you read a sentence in its entirety as opposed to having it broken up by all of the JAWS indicators.
15. You state in your AFB profile that persons with disabilities should view their disability as a springboard to success and not as a hindrance. Can you explain to us why you think so? Are there any advantages that you think your disability has endowed you with which your sighted counterparts do not possess?
Well, I believe the Lord has blessed me with the ability of being able to deal with my disability and to not only handle but be successful with what he’s given me. In addition to that, folks surrounding you, who have a similar mind set, at an early age, really set the tone for how you think about things.
When people would tell me I couldn’t do something, I always used it as an extra incentive to prove people wrong. It was a secondary incentive to wanting to succeed. I don’t feel as strongly about that anymore but I can’t quite explain why that’s not as strong an incentive for me anymore. I want to be a positive example to show them that there are ways to adapt and that there are senses and things that are made more acute by the visual disability. For me, it’s being able to develop my memory to the point where I can retain quite a bit of what I need to sort of multitask and to juggle and tackle a lot of things which you have to do when you’re practicing in the corporate law field. I think that those are probably the things that helped me focus instead of having to rely on everything visually.
I feel the Lord has blessed me in handling a lot of the things that have come along. It’s helped me to put things in perspective and to try to think positively and be positive because having a resentful and bitter attitude also which partly sprung up from that desire to prove people wrong in some respects, is harmful to the psyche, to a way of thinking. We need to think about things in a more positive way and to think of how we are blessed to utilize the God-given gift that we have.
16. A lot of persons with disabilities, on account of the fact that they have to function in a world that is essentially designed for the able-bodied, possess an insatiable desire for success that their able-bodied counterparts often lack. As someone who possesses impeccable academic and professional credentials, to what extent has the desire to break barriers and set an example for other persons with disabilities been a driving force behind your success?
Honestly, early on, not particularly for me, because my school life was basically proving sighted people wrong and wasn’t so much of a framework for how I could be a positive influence on people with disabilities. It was more centered on how am I going to achieve this and how am I going to prove someone wrong that they thought this way. Now I think a bit more in terms of how to be a positive role model to the extent that I can offer advice to the people who can benefit from it, about how to frame things, how to adapt to situations.
The IDAP interview series aims to solicit actionable insights from lawyers with disabilities on the strategies adopted by them to excel in their field. The series also seeks to educate and increase awareness within the legal fraternity, with the ultimate aim of fostering meaningful dialogue on reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities. If you have any comments/feedback on our series or if you would like us to interview a lawyer, please reach out to us at email@example.com.
You can read our other interviews here.