Seyfarth Shaw was founded in 1945 in Chicago by attorneys Lee Shaw, Henry Seyfarth, and Owen Fairweather. After World War II ended in August 1945, Shaw and Fairweather returned to Chicago from a stint with the National War Labor Board and, together with their senior colleague, Seyfarth, set up a boutique law firm specializing in labor law. In 1947, Lee Shaw helped draft the Taft-Hartley Act..
Today, the firm’s clients include over 300 of the Fortune 500 companies, and its practice reflects virtually every industry and segment of the economy. It has over 850 attorneys in 15 offices.
After attending the ILG National Conference and HERC’s Southern California’s regional conference, ABILITY met with Seyfarth partner Valerie Hoffman. Valerie shared with ABILITY the firm’s progressive efforts in the area of disability and inclusion and how its work in the disability space has brought about a natural progression of change in the workplace. Seyfarth is one of the few big law firms with not only a recognized specialty in representing employers in connection with these issues, but also a national Title III access defense presence and focus. Title III prohibits discrimination based on disability in places of public accommodation, among other things.
Valerie introduced attorneys Kevin Fritz and Loren Gesinsky for a chat.
ABILITY: What is your background?
Kevin Fritz: I’m a litigator and a counselor. I focus my practice on single plaintiff and complex class litigation, as well as counseling and workplace solutions. I’m also a member of our firm’s Tittle III access defense team, for which I regularly counsel clients and litigate on their behalf on issues of accessibility in places of public accommodation. These could be physical spaces, as well as websites and other effective communication methods for people who have disabilities.
I’m also physically disabled. I have been since birth. So I’ve always fought for my rights and navigated various areas of the law growing up and even when I first started out as an attorney. So practicing in this space comes naturally to me.
ABILITY: What type of law do you practice?
Fritz: The surface answer is a combination labor and employment and public accommodations law. But I do so much more. Most fundamentally, I’m a problem solver for the workplace and businesses. I work with major hotel brands, national sporting leagues, retailers, and others navigating issues of accommodation and access. I also represent companies that have been sued by either a single plaintiff or a class of plaintiffs in complex discrimination actions. So while my focus is on the employment relationship and also the customer-facing brand of a business, it’s really about solving problems and defending companies faced with challenging situations. The two sectors apply different laws. But they are a natural outgrowth of one another.
Loren Gesinsky: Just building off of that, briefly, labor and employment is different than Title III and physical accessibility in places of public accommodation in that it doesn’t inherently involve a worker-employee relationship. But it’s a natural outgrowth. So our labor and employment group nationwide has, we believe, the largest and most prominent Title III access advice and defense team. Kevin’s a vital part of that. My colleague in the office, John Egan, who’s now the chair of the New York City Bar Association Disabilities Committee, is also a vital part of that, and the nationwide team. One other thing that we have focused on is a universal design ethos in built spaces. Our firm adopted a universal design mission statement. We’ve shared this with clients also.
ABILITY: You’re talking about physical space when you talk about universal design?
Gesinsky: Yes, but more as well. You could take universal design into multi-dimensions, even beyond physical space. Website accessibility, for example, could be viewed through a universal design perspective. Our mission statement and our initial focus has been on the idea of how do we make things accessible for all in a well-designed, integrated way that doesn’t seem institutional, doesn’t seem like, “This is just a thing for a person with a significant disability.” This is for everybody, and it’s beautifully integrated, and it helps with inclusivity. That’s what we’re going for.
This approach dates back to when I was active in the New York City bar in a number of roles, and they asked me to take over as chair of the disabilities committee, which at that time was called Legal Issues Affecting People with Disabilities. While a number of disability rights activists had been running it, and they were really passionate, a lot of them didn’t have the support needed to run a large committee at a bar association. So I was asked to take it over.
ABILITY: About what year?
Gesinsky: This was 2004 – 2006. I had a lot to learn; and a few things struck me. One was that it really was a forgotten area of diversity in a lot of people’s minds. We prioritized essentially evangelizing in an inclusive and educational way. Integral to this effort, we encouraged people with disabilities to self-identify and share their stories.
Another thing that struck me at the time, although I think it’s getting better, is that, because an impairment is very individualized by nature, there is no clear, single disability rights umbrella organization or community. Some of the constituencies seemed to view themselves as being in a zero-sum competition for recognition and resources in relation to one or more of the other constituencies. As an ally, I thought that it was not constructive to approach the issues as a zero-sum competition. There’s no reason why everyone doesn’t benefit from paying attention to the issues affecting people with mobility, vision, hearing, mental, and other disabilities. Everybody benefits if more attention is brought to the diversity within the disability community. These realizations helped spur my involvement in a variety of diversity and inclusion efforts. I spearhead Seyfarth’s New York Diversity and Inclusion Action Team. I’m an ally to a lot of different groups. But the issues of people with disabilities have still been near and dear to my heart.
For example, as our firm began to explore an ally initiative, which was one of the more recent iterations of a hot topic in the D&I world, we saw an opportunity to engage colleagues firm-wide. Previously, it seemed too daunting to try to start an affinity group just for people with disabilities because of the very low incidence of self-reporting. But our ally initiative presented us an opportunity to start ...
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