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Blind Insight

By Alexandra Brown | Feb. 2, 2008

Law Office Management

Feb. 2, 2008

Blind Insight

The law is a good place for a blind person. As a commercial litigator, I don't need eyesight to think, read, and write.

I wake up. Darkness. In my dreams I can see, but awake I am blind. Even now, 20 years after retinitis pigmentosa (a degenerative eye disease) stole my last shreds of usable vision, it sometimes surprises me. This darkness. This world of vague contours and sudden corners. This soundscape of melting echoes and rattling ricochet.
      I dress for work in the suit my wife, Meghan, puts out for me. She makes sure I look like a lawyer for a big, downtown L.A. law firm. We live one block from where I work. I go north on Bixel, east on Seventh Street, and south on Figueroa to 777. I have barely any sense that I am surrounded by soaring skyscrapers, only the feel of sudden cool as I walk from sunshine into the vertiginous slant of a building's shadow. It's a short walk full of foreign accents, honks and sirens, belching buses, skateboard chatter, high-heel click-clack, and the tap-tap-tap of my white cane, clanging off a light pole ("To your left, no, your other left!"), banging on a fire hydrant ("Watch out for that fire hydrant!"), and pranging off a homeless person's shopping cart ("Damn you ... got any change?"). And the bass-beat of a passing lowrider booms up through my polished shoes to my shaved head.
      I fire up my talking computer in my 35th-floor office, which my wife decorated with travel and family photos, tapestries, plants, and a hundred little details that make it feel more like a den. I have software that is supposed to read aloud any onscreen text. Most of the time it does. Sometimes it doesn't. Today, it is behaving itself. I check my email. Nothing too apocalyptic. I check my voice mail. Ditto. I check my to-do list. The law ebbs and flows, but it tends to ebb all at once or flow all at once.
      My secretary, Mark Wilson, brings me strong black coffee and a stack of discovery documents. We plow through the paper, figuring out the best way to make it all accessible to me. PDFs? My computer doesn't always read them. Optical character recognition scan? OCR doesn't handle graphics. Have Mark describe the inaccessible stuff? Sometimes we do a combination of all three-done in about the same time it would take a sighted person to do it.
      With the right strategies, the law is a good place for a blind person. Practicing law is thinking, reading, and writing. You don't need eyesight to do any of these. And as an added plus, I've managed to avoid the bane of associate life-document review. It just doesn't make sense to have the client pay for something that would take me many times longer to do than a sighted colleague. But this helps put the emphasis on the things I can do: research, think, and write.
      Every year my firm trains associates through mock trials. I participate in these exercises, choosing not to use my talking computer (too distracting) or Braille (too cumbersome). So I do everything from memory, to be as poised, present, and proficient as possible. In contrast, my colleagues weld themselves to their notes and often miss the way the jury is responding to them or what the witnesses are really saying. Each year our instructors turn to my sighted colleagues and say, "Look at Will, he doesn't use notes."
      I am a commercial litigator. My firm usually defends large corporations against class actions, other corporations, or government investigations. These clients are usually fascinated with how I do things and accord me the same respect they give my colleagues.
      Before appearing in court, I introduce myself to the staff and go over the layout of the courtroom so I have a mental map of where everyone and everything is. In the dozen or so times I've gone to court, I have encountered only interest, support, and encouragement from judges, staff, and even opposing counsel. One judge, after a conference in chambers, took the time to describe her office, including her display of collectible bottles and cans.
      For years, I fought the idea of becoming a spokesperson for the disabled. I was blind, not disabled. That meant I resisted using a cane, which seemed to announce to the world, "Here comes the blind guy!" But eventually I came to understand that having a disability isn't only how you feel about yourself, it's also how the world feels about you. And slowly I became more and more involved in the disability community. I have spoken at conferences and written white papers. I have come to realize that part of being a disabled lawyer is to help people-disabled and nondisabled-realize their full potential.
      William H. Grignon is a senior associate in the Los Angeles office of Kirkland & Ellis specializing in
      commercial litigation

Alexandra Brown

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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