In conversation with Oliver Collins

Earlier this year, Queensland Law Society hosted a meeting of members who share diverse abilities.

This meeting was a culmination of months of discussion between individual members who were seeking mentorship, support and understanding within the legal community.

QLS is proud and privileged to be able to provide its member – advocates in their own right – with a platform to better advocate on behalf of our diverse abled colleagues in law and lead us into a more inclusive future. After all, true inclusivity means there is a place for every (diverse) ability in law.

One of the members of what will be known as the QLS Diverse Abilities Network1 is Oliver Collins. Oliver reached out to QLS in response to a staff member’s LinkedIn post recognising the International Day of People with Disability.

We spoke with Oliver about his journey and interests in forming the QLS Diverse Abilities Network.

SD: Oliver, thank you for agreeing to be this month’s feature. I’m excited for you to share your story in light of all the work and attention around lawyers with diverse abilities. Would you mind telling our readers about yourself and your journey?

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OC: Thanks Sheetal, happy to. I studied a Bachelor of Laws/Commerce at the University of Queensland and graduated in 2016. I started working at King Wood Mallesons not long after in the dispute resolution team, at first as a law clerk and then as a solicitor once I was admitted in October 2017.

Insofar as my personal journey, at 18 months of age, I was diagnosed with a rare neuromuscular condition called Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva, or FOP for short. This condition causes my muscles, tendons and ligaments to turn to bone, and for bone to grow through and across joints – essentially encasing the body in a second skeleton.

There are only about 17 people in Australia with this condition, and less than 1000 known cases worldwide. As a result of excess bone growth, I now walk very slowly over short distances with a pronounced limp and a walking stick, and I require a manual or electric wheelchair for any distance. If I am attending any meetings or seminars at work, I cannot flex my hips to sit in a normal office chair and so use a stool.

SD: How has your diverse ability affected your, pardon the pun, ability to work as solicitor?

OC: Working in law is actually pretty good in terms of accessibility for my particular needs. Much of my job is centred around working on a computer or telephone, both of which are easy to use.

Also, my boss, Justin McDonnell, and King & Wood Mallesons, have been very open to the idea of allowing me flexibility when it comes to working from home. This allows me to be in a more comfortable position at home and also to rest, as it can be quite physically exhausting for me spending a day in the office.

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This does not hinder my ability to fulfil my obligations though, as I am fully accessible to my colleagues during the days I work from home, via phone, IM or email.

SD: Where would you like to see the legal profession in five years’ or 10 years’ time, in relation to diversity and inclusion (of diverse abilities)?

OC: Personally, I view disability, or in fact any quality which is viewed as
‘diverse’, to be a strength in many respects. The way I see it is that my disability has given me a very unique perspective when it comes to problem solving, as problem solving is part of my normal everyday life. I often find that, given the progression of my disability further limiting my movement, I suddenly have to come up with a new way of doing some of my everyday tasks.

Evidently, as a lawyer whose job it is to solve clients’ problems, this comes in handy. To further assist me in my career, as a result of my physical situation, my attitude has always been that no problem is insurmountable and so I always try to maintain a determined mindset when it comes to overcoming obstacles. These skills have proven very useful, particularly as a young and early career lawyer.

I appreciate that there is some way to go when it comes to how others view disability. It is still largely viewed as ‘less than’ and as a burden, which is a mindset that needs to be shifted. In an ideal world, things like disability would be a non-issue, and everybody would instead be accepted and celebrated for the unique contribution they can give. It will take time, but I truly think we can get there and the QLS Diverse Abilities Network is a great initiative to facilitate this.

“In an ideal world, things like disability would be a non-issue, and everybody would instead be accepted and celebrated for the unique contribution they can give.”

Oliver Collins

SD: What would be your advice to someone who is struggling with their diverse ability in the legal profession?

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OC: My advice would be to stick with it. I know life with a disability, and work in particular, can be tough, with pain, exhaustion, and physical discomfort sometimes proving very challenging. But it is possible. Also, I would recommend finding people to talk to. It doesn’t necessarily have to be even a lawyer, or someone with a disability, but it is always good to have some people who can help you talk through your problems.

That being said, it is very helpful to talk to someone who can understand what you’re going through. For this very reason, I look forward to working with the QLS to get the committee for lawyers with diverse abilities up and running so that there is a resource for those in the legal profession dealing with these unique challenges, which we can add a personal perspective to, given our direct knowledge of the challenges faced by disabled lawyers.

In Oliver we find yet another reminder that deeply entrenched stereotypes about lawyers and the legal profession is no longer the status quo. The legal profession is diverse and through stories like Oliver’s we can learn how to be more inclusive and actively work towards the future Oliver believes we can achieve.

Sheetal Deo is Queensland Law Society Relationship Manager – Future Lawyers, Future Leaders

1 Theresa Jennings, Legal Advisor at Cancer Council Queensland, is another founding member of the QLS Diverse Abilities Network.

This story was originally published in Proctor April 2020.

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