Blind lawyer carves niche practicing employment discrimination law
July 8, 2013 12:00 PM
Paul Sullivan's seeing eye dog, Bravo, is a regular at the law office.
Attorney Paul Sullivan of Mt. Lebanon, who has been blind since birth, recently opened his own firm focusing on employment discrimination law.
By Jessica Contrera Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If you walked into Paul Sullivan's office, you could easily guess what he does, given the big mahogany desk and the law degree hanging on the wall.
Then you look closer.
A small silver hook in the wall for attaching a dog leash, a magnification machine nestled against the windows, software on the computer that reads aloud the words displayed on the screen -- it confirms what you might guess when you first meet him.
Visually impaired lawyer hopes to defend disabled employees
After years of fruitless job searching, Paul Sullivan, 30, has opened his own law firm in Pittsburgh. (Video by Jessica Contrera; 7/8/2013)
The Mt. Lebanon man would rather have you focus on the attorney part of his identity, rather than his blindness. That's why he opened the Law Office of Paul R. Sullivan Jr. in Downtown in January. After a lifetime of living with a disability and years of unsuccessful job searches, Mr. Sullivan, 30, has taken his future into his own hands.
Following graduation from Temple University's Beasley School of Law in 2008, Mr. Sullivan had fruitless job searches. He continued to search for attorney positions for four years while financially supporting himself through his guitar duo, Blind Drunk.
On the surface, Mr. Sullivan said, his difficulties in finding legal work makes sense. The economy was in shambles and law firms were firing, not hiring.
"I'm not certain that I was subject to more than the market forces that everyone is facing," he said. "Did anyone tell me, 'Oh, I don't think you can handle this job?' Certainly not."
But it's hard to get around the fact that people with major vision impairment have a tough time finding work, and most drop out of the labor force as a result. Among those in the labor force, people who are blind or have "serious difficulty seeing" encounter an unemployment rate of around 13 percent.
"Did I get put at the bottom of the pile because people didn't want to think about what I would need to do the job? Or didn't want to undertake the so-called hassle of hiring someone who might need accommodations? It's plausible," he said.
Mr. Sullivan and his guide dog, Bravo, moved to Pittsburgh in August 2012 to follow his fiancee, Kathleen Miller. It was the ideal opportunity to get back into law. This time, on his own terms.
He plans to take on workplace cases -- employment discrimination, unpaid wage claims, contract disputes and unemployment-compensation appeals.
Choosing employment rights as his area of service was a natural fit, his fiancee said. "Paul really feels strongly about trying to level the playing field for employees, disabled or not," Ms. Miller said. "He wants people to be aware of their rights in the workplace."
After Mr. Sullivan found an office, bought computer equipment and set up a website (paulsullivanlegal.com), his main remaining challenge is finding clients. So far, he has worked on personal consultations and case evaluations, but has not formally taken on a case.
"I started with no family, friends or connections here," he said. "I'm trying to meet as many professionals, lawyers and non-lawyers, as possible. That's key."
Mr. Sullivan and Bravo are a constant presence at networking events through the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Pittsburgh Young Professionals and social networking portal Meetup.com. When the pair are in a room, it's difficult not to notice them.
"I knew right off the bat he was a smart guy," said attorney Andrew Flenner, who also runs his own practice. "It's so challenging to start your own business. To do it with a visual impairment, that just compounds it."
Mr. Flenner now refers anyone with employment law questions to Mr. Sullivan. He sees the attorney as a resource for clients in need, as well as for his own 16-year-old son, who is also visually impaired.
"Knowing Paul has given me the ammunition to talk to my son about what's ahead for him," Mr. Flenner said. "If he ever thinks he won't be able to achieve something, Paul is who I will point to."
Asked about his own challenges growing up with a disability, Mr. Sullivan shied away from the question.
"It wasn't difficult, or even different," he said about his childhood in South Florida. "I have a genetic condition, so being visually impaired since birth, it's all I've ever known."
From elementary school to law school, his attitude has remained the same: He can do everything that anyone else does, but he does it with different tools.
As Mr. Sullivan aged, those tools progressed with him. By the time he was in high school, Braille was mostly phased out of his life. His college textbooks came on cassette; by law school, all of his work was digitized and accessed easily by his computer's screen-reading software. With the tools now available, there's not one task as an attorney that Mr. Sullivan believes he would be incapable of performing.
And after six months in business, he's happy with his progress and hungry for more.
"I'm not going to put dollars and cents on it," Mr. Sullivan said. "I want every day, every month, to be a step forward."