Creating a client-centered practice means creating law firm accessibility standards for all clients. This means taking a close look at all aspects of your practice. Your office, website, and firm culture should consider and adjust for other populations. It not only ensures your practice is inclusive and accommodating of a diverse client base; it’s also a smart business choice.
While there are the common considerations, like having a wheelchair ramp to access your office, you should also be thinking about how a blind person or person with low vision can access your website. Consider whether your practice and firm culture is welcoming to people of color and the LGBTQ population, or whether it’s easy for someone without transportation, or a lot of spare time, to connect with you in person.
Paying attention to these issues helps you think about how others experience the world and how you can make your practice more accommodating. Client accessibility means having a practice where your clients feel comfortable, connected, and included.
Populations Needing Accessibility
In Lawyerist Podcast #202, Haben Girma, the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard Law School, notes that nearly 60 million Americans have some sort of disability. If you include the limitations of hearing, vision, and mobility that often come with aging, that number only increases.
The CDC defines a disability as “any condition of the body or mind (impairment) that makes it more difficult for the person with the condition to do certain activities (activity limitation) and interact with the world around them (participation restrictions).
Disabilities can affect a person’s vision, movement, thinking, remembering, learning, communicating, hearing, mental health, and social relationships. Disabilities can affect people in different ways. No two people will experience a disability in the same way. Disabilities can also be temporary, like when someone is recovering from a surgery or healing from broken bones, conditional, like when an individual is using slow internet, or permanent, like when a person is blind or deaf.
During a discussion of accessibility in Lawyerist Podcast #105, Heather Hackman makes the point that we should stop thinking about people with disabilities as different from us. All our bodies are changing. Just because we can do something now doesn’t mean we’ll be able to do the same thing 5 years from now, let alone 50 years from now. At some point, most of us will need some sort of accommodations to adapt to changes we experience in life.
But accessibility isn’t just limited to those with disabilities, whether temporary or permanent. It also includes people of color, the LGBTQ populations, and those of all socio-economic backgrounds.
Having an accessible law firm means that everyone, regardless of ability or background, has equal access and equal opportunity to engage and participate with your firm.
Why an Accessible Law Firm is a Better Law Firm
Creating a more accessible law firm helps you help those that have been historically underrepresented, increasing fairness and access to justice. It also helps increase your potential client base, so it’s good for business too.
The Business-Growth Case for Accessibility
An accessible and inclusive law firm doesn’t just increase your potential client base, it also helps improve your client’s overall experience and satisfaction, potentially leading to more referrals. While it’s up to you which populations you want to focus on serving, you should be mindful of how everyone can interact with your firm.
Having an accessible law firm also helps protect your practice. In 2018, there were over 10,163 ADA Title III lawsuits filed in federal court, including 2,258 lawsuits related to website accessibility. An accessible law firm not only makes a more welcoming environment for your clients, but also helps protect you from potential, and easily avoided, lawsuits.
The Justice and Fairness Case for Law Firm Accessibility Standards
While the business reasons for making your law firm accessible are motivating, there is also a social responsibility for your law firm to provide an accessible practice and website. Your law firm provides legal services to your community. Having all aspects of your firm be as user-friendly as possible shows a commitment to openness and inclusion for everyone in your community. An open and welcoming presence both on and offline isn’t just a good business decision, it’s just good manners.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 ensures access for people with disabilities. The ADA Standards have design requirements for better accessibility to places of public accommodation, commercial facilities, and government facilities, which includes law firms. There are also state laws that govern accessibility standards that may add to federal requirements for building design accessibility.
The ADA may also apply to web accessibility. Specifically, Title II states that communications with persons with disabilities must be “as effective as communications with others.” (28 C.F.R. § 35.160(a)) Title III deals with public accommodation of people with disabilities, which may include websites. The Department of Justice has stated it believes that Title III of the ADA applies to the websites of public accommodations, even though there is no explicit mention of the internet in those regulations.
Another important standard for web accessibility is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA (WCAG), however, the DOJ has declined to accept WCAG 2.0 as a standard, though DOJ settlements and court filings have used this standard for ensuring accessibility of websites and mobile applications. The WCAG is a set of 12 guidelines organized under four principles, that websites must be:
Perceivable. That information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive.
- Guideline 1.1: Provide text alternatives for any non-text content so it can be changed into other forms people need, such as large print, braille, speech, symbols, or simpler language.
- Guideline 1.2: Provide alternatives for time-based media.
- Guideline 1.3: Create content that can be presented in different ways (for example, simpler layout) without losing information or structure.
- Guideline 1.4: Make it easier for users to see and hear content including separating foreground from background.
Operable. That users can interact with all controls and interactive elements using either the mouse, keyboard, or an assistive device.
- Guideline 2.1: Make all functionality available from a keyboard.
- Guideline 2.2: Provide users enough time to read and use the content.
- Guideline 2.3: Do not design content in a way that is known to cause seizures.
- Guideline 2.4: Provide ways to help users navigate, find content, and determine where they are.
Understandable. That information and the operation of the user interface is clear and limits confusion and ambiguity.
- Guideline 3.1: Make text content readable and understandable.
- Guideline 3.2: Make web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.
- Guideline 3.3: Help users avoid and correct mistakes.
Robust. That content can be interpreted and accessed by a wide range of technologies, including old and new user agents and assistive technologies.
- Guideline 4.1: Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.
Each guideline offers a list of techniques and testable success criteria to see how accessible your website is. The techniques are periodically updated to account for new technologies, but the principles, guidelines, and success criteria do not change. WCAG 2.0 is an excellent reference guide as you build to make your website accessible.
In addition to state accessibility laws and the ADA, you should also have policies for your firm to promote the safe, inclusive, welcoming, and nurturing environment for minority populations, including LGBTQ and people of color, when they’re seeking your services.
Take the time to think about the populations you want to serve and how you can create standards for your firm to improve the legal experience for everyone.
Technology and Website Accessibility for Lawyers
People with disabilities surf the web and your website in different ways depending on their individual needs and preferences. While there are ways to configure standard technology, some individuals use specialized software or hardware, called assistive technology, to help them browse the internet.
Assistive technology includes screen readers that read web pages out loud for those who cannot read the text; screen magnifiers for people with low vision; and voice recognition software and selection switches for those who can’t use a mouse.
In addition to assistive technology, there are certain accessibility features you can incorporate on your website, like:
- Audio descriptions. Provide narration in the video that describes visual details. Similarly, you can provide captions and transcripts for any videos or recordings you have on your website.
- Auditory, tactile, and visual notifications. You can prompt or alert users to things on your web page or mobile web page through blinking, displaying visual dialogues, or through vibration.
- Text-to-speech. This is the conversion of text into a synthesized voice that reads the text on a webpage out loud.
If you’ve already implemented law firm accessibility standards into your website, you can use web accessibility evaluation tools, like WAVE, that can help you identify errors on your site so you can make it even more accessible.
Best Practices for Law Firm Accessibility Standards
Best practices for accessibility isn’t limited to what state or federal law state you must do. Take some time to think about the population you’re serving, and how you can make their experience at your law firm better. Think differently about diversity, accessibility, and inclusion. Consider driving to your clients instead of them coming to you, making sure that even your restrooms are accommodating to everyone, or how you can make your clients more comfortable and confident when interacting with your firm.
For web accessibility, you’ll want to make sure you have law firm accessibility standards written into the contract if you’re hiring someone to build your website. If you’re building your website yourself, here are some best practices you can incorporate to make it accessible for everyone:
- Provide appropriate alternative text. An alt-tag is used to describe an image. It looks something like this:
<img src = “image-location” alt=”this is where the alt-description of the image goes”>
The alt-description should describe what people need to know about the image, like instead of “lawyer” you could write “lawyer talking with clients in a conference room.”
- Provide appropriate document structure. For web accessibility, use the default HTML tags, like <H1>, <H2>, <body>, <table>, etc. Using different HTML tags or document structures will confuse screen readers.
- Provide headers and descriptions for data tables. This way, screen readers can make more sense out of tables.
- Make your website able to be navigated by keyboard alone.
- Ensure all users can complete and submit all forms. Test the forms on web and mobile to make sure your web forms are able to be completed and submitted by everyone.
- Ensure all links make sense out of context. Is it obvious that a link is leading to Wikipedia or a news site or is it ambiguous?
- Caption and/or provide transcripts for media.
- Ensure accessibility of non-HTML content, like PDF files, Word documents, Adobe Flash content, etc. Are your website downloads accessible by all?
- Do not rely on color alone to convey meaning. Some users will be color blind, so if you use color to convey meaning, that meaning will be lost to come.
- Do not have excessive blinking and flashes on your website. Not only are these annoying, but they could also trigger epilepsy symptoms in individuals.
- Make sure the content is clearly written and easy to read. Having gray text on a dark gray background is difficult to read, but it’s also a bad website design. Use design best practices.
- Design to Standards. Like the WCAG 2.0 AA.
Another good practice is to have an Accessibility Information Page (AIP). An AIP is a page about your law firm’s accessibility efforts. Your AIP should:
- Include details about your law firm’s web accessibility policy, accessibility enhancements, accessibility standards, and FAQs on how your site can be used.
- Have a phone number, email address, or accessible web form that people can use to provide feedback about site usability.
- Be easily found from your home page or your footers.
If you’re looking for inspiration for your own AIP, CVS has a good example.
You should also implement SEO best practices, have quality assurance testing and procedures to make sure your website truly is accessible, and train your staff on law firm accessibility standards so your website’s accessibility policies and procedures are implemented and maintained.
Your law firm can and should be designed to create an inclusive environment for everyone. Make accessibility for all a core principle of your law practice. If your law firm isn’t designed with accessibility in mind, it may exclude a segment of the population that stands to gain the most from your services. Creating and maintaining an accessible law firm means making your clients feel comfortable and welcome when they interact with your law firm.
If you’re ready to create an accessible law firm to accompany your client-centric practice, take it to the next level by signing up to be a Lawyerist Insider, if you haven’t already. You’ll get access to our library of downloads and our private Facebook Group. If you’re really eager to build an efficient and future-oriented practice, check out Lawyerist Lab for hands-on, personalized training to help you build your dream law practice.