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Meet Leanne: Coping with Crohn's disease on my journey to become a lawyer

The law only really became important to me when I went into my teens and became more aware of human rights injustices. In fact, I can pinpoint the key event that motivated me to be a lawyer one day: the Boston Marathon Bombing (although, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be a criminal defence lawyer.) I am three years into my four-year dual qualifying degree, and studying the law is a huge part of my life. Law is not the only big thing in my life, however. I live with disability, and during my second year I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, then during my third I spent seven weeks in hospital, was given a feeding tube and told that due to Gastroparesis, my stomach had effectively stopped working so I probably wouldn’t eat a normal portion of food again. I decided it would be best to take the defer the rest of this year so I could recuperate and adjust to this way of life.

This is not the first time my health has interfered with my studies, when my school exams hit my chronic pain and joint stiffness due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was so bad that I could barely get out of bed. My attendance at school dropped. At its lowest it was sitting at 20%. My school didn’t think I would achieve my Nationals. Then they didn’t think I would achieve my Highers. Then my Advanced Highers. I was told that no law school would want to take me on because of my bad attendance and ‘poor attitude’, but I received four university offers and accepted my offer from my top choice. This is something so commonly experienced by disabled students, and I wanted to prove my school wrong. I was one of only two students to go to study law in my year.

The stigma around being a disabled student is immense. You have to ensure you study somewhere with a supportive disability department first and foremost. Then if you’re in halls adjusting to your independence in first year is much harder than normal, especially if you previously relied on others to help with your routine. You have to switch GP practices and meet a whole new medical team, perhaps for the first time in your life. It’s hard, and experiencing all of that on top of my very intense law degree wasn’t easy. Nobody wants to talk about their additional needs, especially if it’s something like a notetaker or extra time in exams, so often you feel alone when trying to organise these even though it’s nothing to be ashamed of and gives you a level chance of achieving what you’re capable of.

Walking into my lecture hall for the first time, nobody outwardly looked like me, and I felt like a sore thumb. This was made even worse when my lecturer read out some statistics from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, telling us that only 3% of lawyers in England and Wales are disabled. I’ve held this statistic over my own head since: why so few? Is it because the degree is so intense? Set in its ways? Is it the law schools or the law firms? That lecture was in 2017, and upon checking the SRA website today the statistic has stayed the same.

It's harder to commit to work experience when you’ve got no idea how your symptoms will be day-in, day-out, and in second year I had to give up opportunities for hospitalisations. When I apply for work experience, or get to interview for an opportunity, I have to explain why I haven’t had as much in firm experience compared to my peers, which is often ‘I was too sick’. However, my conditions do not stop me from being a capable law student or a capable lawyer! My conditions are not the only part of me: I am my academics, my extra-curriculars, my interests, just as every other candidate is. In fact, I would say that doing a law degree while experiencing a health condition shows your resilience and strength, and pure determination too. Before I was hospitalised in my third year, I was elected disability representative for my university Student Representative Council, which is a role I really cherished in my short time working on it. You can use your struggle for good, and I would encourage anybody to run for such an important role if they were so inclined.

For other students in my place: your illness does not determine your worth, just as your grades do not determine your worth. It is a hard push, but entirely worth it. Do not be ashamed if you need to go slower than the people who surround you, work with your illness instead of being drowned by it. You will find an area of law that you love, for me this is technology or family, and this passion will pull you through. Remind yourself of why you chose law, and affirm your capability. It is not a weakness to use the support services. Most importantly, you can do this!

I want to help other disabled students, and show that the law can be accessible to all of us. Many people want to hide their invisible disability for fear of being singled out, but now that my disability is visible, there’s no escaping it. My legal journey has not been linear, but I’ve battled my own school and my own health to get to where I am, there’s no way I’m giving up now.


Follow my journey on Instagram, @chronicallystudy or connect with me on LinkedIn I am always keen to talk to others!

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