Working in a Courtroom Presents Challenges for Lawyer who Uses Wheelchair
By Kelley Simoneaux
Atlanta Attorney and Former Shepherd Center Patient
I am a lawyer. I am a lawyer who loves to be in the courtroom. But it inevitably happens each and every time I appear – those dreaded words, “ALL RISE.” And I sit, respectfully, reverently, but ultimately I do not rise because my wheelchair and I are tucked behind the counsel’s table.
It was during my first trial after graduating law school that I realized what I may be comfortable with, others, who I encounter in my daily work, may not be. It all started when the chief bailiff made his first announcement to the court: “All rise. The Honorable Judge is now presiding, and this court is now in session.” The bailiff had seen me preparing things in the courtroom before the start of the day, but the judge had not. So, when the judge entered and saw me seated behind the table, his eyes glared down at me and said, “You may be a young lawyer, but you need to show respect.” I knew what he was talking about. I politely backed my chair away from the table, and said, “I am sorry your honor, but as you see, I use a wheelchair.” The judge apologized, but there was a fumbled awkwardness now associated with me and my chair.
During a jury trial, it is not uncommon for the presiding judge to call all counsel to his podium for a conversation outside the ears of the jury. During the same trial, I was sitting with the other lawyer at my firm at our table when an issue came up and the judge requested that counsel approach the bench. As I started moving toward the judge, he interrupted my movement and said: “Don’t worry about it. You can stay put, Mrs. Simoneaux.” I was embarrassed, frustrated and baffled. How was I supposed to represent my client when I could not be a part of the process? What was my client going to think? What was the jury going to think?
At our next break, I sat and discussed the scenario with the partner at my firm. We didn’t want to make an issue of it in the middle of a trial with the jury watching, but how was I going to continue to practice law and zealously represent my client when the judge saw my wheelchair as uncharted territory in the courtroom?
My wheelchair is a part of me and an extension of who I am, but it does not define me – whether it be personally or professionally. So, to the extent I can, I use it as a tool to educate others. I devised a plan moving forward: Before entering any new courtroom in front of any new judge, I contact the clerk/assistant/secretary/staff attorney, whoever may be the eyes and ears of that judge, and speak with them. I ask if there is a lowered podium because most of them are far too high to be of any use. I ask if the judge would mind if I use counsel’s table instead of the podium. I ask how the judge would like for me to approach when an issue comes up. I ask any type of question that gently lets the judge know I will be entering in his/her courtroom in a different way than most, if not all, other lawyers she sees. But I am entering with the same goal I would have had before being in a chair – to represent my client to the best of my ability.
Thankfully, I have not run into these same technical issues since my groundbreaking trial, but I still am often welcomed with a sense of surprise when I appear in front of a judge or opposing lawyer, who up to that point has only known me by voice over the phone or via email. It puzzles me why me being in a chair in the workplace has to be looked at as an anomaly. Yet a little preparation on the front end – whether it be making sure a deposition location is wheelchair accessible or that the judge’s courtroom is set up so I can easily maneuver – is worth it to allow the focus of my workday in front of my professional peers to be on my job. It is important that you communicate what you need to make your day be about your job, rather than your circumstance. Oh, and by the way, when I hear those words, “All Rise,” I sit up real straight and make sure I get the heck out from under that table as quickly as I can, in full view for that judge, so I don’t dare get that look again!
KELLEY SIMONEAUX is a volunteer at Shepherd Center and a former spinal cord injury patient at the hospital. She and her husband, Bradlee, live in Atlanta. Kelley is an attorney at Harris Penn Lowry LLP, where she focuses on representing individuals who have been catastrophically injured. Kelley is also a new mom to four-month-old daughter Mary Brooks.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.