Cody J. Davis
The story of David and Goliath tells of a military standoff between the Philistines and Israelites. The Philistines greatest warrior, a giant named Goliath, challenges the Israelites to send their greatest warrior to fight him in hand to hand combat. As the story goes, a small shepherd boy, David, inexperienced in battle, is the only volunteer. David prevails over Goliath by stunning Goliath with a strike from a single stone propelled by his sling. With Goliath incapacitated, David beheads the giant, defeating the Philistines.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book "David and Goliath: The Advantage of Disadvantage," illustrates how this biblical allegory reflects our habit of underestimating the value of people based on inaccurate assumptions about or misconceptions of the able and competent person. Goliath and the Israelite army underestimate David’s ability by relying on their understanding of a capable warrior. They assume David’s approach to combat would be similar to theirs, and they fail to consider how David’s skills could be utilized in this battle.
In a similar way, people may discount or fail to accurately perceive the capacity of individuals with disabilities as collaborators, adversaries, leaders, or in a variety of other roles. I believe this is not due to malice but to one’s failure to comprehend how a person with a disability can do what they cannot imagine doing themselves were they to be the one with the disability. This often stems from uninformed, false or harmful perceptions of disability that we rely on in assessing the aptitude and competency of persons with disabilities.
The legal profession is not immune to discrediting the abilities of persons with disabilities. Just as the Israelites and Goliath underestimated David based on their perceptions of a capable warrior, so might we underestimate our colleagues with disabilities based on our perceptions of the capable lawyer. One obvious impact this has on our profession arises in the employment context. When employers fail to understand the competencies of a candidate with a disability, they not only prejudice the candidate, they also deny themselves, their firm or their organization the value of the candidate’s contributions. In the aggregate this reality starves the legal profession of talented lawyers, judges and leaders, stifling the legal profession’s validity in the eyes of the public.
Perhaps less obvious is how a failure to recognize the capacity of persons with disabilities may affect a lawyer’s approach to her work with a colleague or adversary with a disability. In the context of collaboration, a lawyer who underestimates the competency and abilities of a colleague with a disability may fail to ask for contributions to a project. Similarly, a lawyer may believe they must overcompensate for what they think the colleague with disabilities is lacking. Further, a collaborating lawyer may inadvertently place arbitrary limitations on a colleague with a disability by denying them an opportunity to demonstrate their true aptitude.
As an adversary, it would be a great disservice to oneself and one’s client to discount the capacity of a lawyer with disabilities. To do so could result in being ill-prepared for a negotiation, hearing, or trial. This is Goliath’s fatal flaw. He underestimates David as a warrior; thus, he is ill-prepared to match David’s skill. The key to David’s success is his aptness to capitalize on his abilities rather than highlighting his weaknesses. David cannot defeat Goliath by the means the Israelites and Goliath expect him to use. Instead, David takes a different approach to battle, relying on his remarkable skills as a stone slinger.
To avoid the fault of Goliath and the Israelites, we as a profession must refrain from assessing colleagues with disabilities based on our own limited conception of a capable lawyer. In every interaction with a colleague with a disability, we must reach beyond our own understanding of legal practice and be open to learning about myriad alternative techniques and approaches to practice that colleagues with disabilities offer. It very well may turn out that, through their efforts to conquer some barrier, they have developed more efficient or effective methods that you can use to your advantage.