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Law Firm Cultivates Expertise in Disability Rights

From founding to future

When the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) approached Dan Goldstein in the late 1980s about legal representation, he was thrilled to pursue the types of civil rights cases that he had always imagined would define his legal career. Growing up in the 1960s, Goldstein saw his father’s passion as he pushed for school integration. Likewise, Goldstein knew he wanted to dedicate himself to civil rights. He also knew that he wanted to support and spend time with his family. Both interests, he felt, were at odds with any future in corporate law. So, after five years litigating white-collar crime in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he joined Chris Brown, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law with a background in legal aid, to start their own small firm, opening Brown & Goldstein in the early 1980s. (They became Brown, Goldstein & Levy [BGL] in 1990 when commercial litigator Andy Levy joined the practice.)

Fast-forward nearly 40 years and, largely by happenstance, as Goldstein describes it, the Baltimore-based firm has become known for their expertise in disability rights. How did this happen—and why? In this story, we speak with Goldstein, who retired in 2017, about the firm’s legacy and impact on securing greater accessibility for those with disabilities. We then speak with Eve Hill, a disability rights expert who came to BGL in anticipation of Goldstein’s retirement with wide-ranging experience in academia, public policy, and law, to understand how the firm is expanding its scope in disability advocacy work. Through these stories, we get a sense of how a litigation-focused law firm with about 20 lawyers has taken on some of the highest-impact cases in this space, and how a law firm can work alongside the disability cause lawyering movement.

Starting off

In 1986 NFB came to Goldstein about suing the State of Maryland. Goldstein notes that he was not NFB’s first choice. They first approached Stephen Sachs, a partner at WilmerHale, but Sachs had a conflict of interest: he had been attorney general of the state that NFB wanted to sue during the time that NFB says the state had perpetuated a problem. Maryland had failed to enact regulations in light of amendments to the Randolph-Sheppard Act, an obscure 1930s act that gave blind people the opportunity to run cafeterias and snack bars in federal and state buildings. At the time, Goldstein notes, he did not have “anything close to an appropriate understanding of disability,” but he had litigation experience from his time at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Sachs recommended him.

Despite an inauspicious first meeting, the National Federation of the Blind retained Goldstein as their counsel for more than 30 years.

When NFB approached him, the first thing they did was assign him a comprehensive syllabus on disability law. It was only after days of intensive reading that he was granted a meeting. Upon entering the room, his first comments, Goldstein recollects, showed that he was new to this work. “I’m very excited that you all want me to do this work,” Goldstein recalls saying. “It is rare that a lawyer gets work that is either both worthwhile as a matter of public interest and interesting or interesting and paid. I mean, sometimes, you get two out of three. You never get three out of three. And, as my contribution, I would like to discount my normal hourly rate.”

His offer fell flat. He continues:

I said all of this not understanding that there’s a long history of the blind and other people with disabilities getting second rate cast-off services. [NFB president] Kenneth Jernigan looked at me and said, “Mr. Goldstein, we’ve been dealing with lawyers for nearly 50 years now. We long ago concluded that lawyers pay the most attention to that on their desk that pays the best. If you are to represent us, you are to give us your undivided attention. Am I clear? We will pay the full rate.” Gulp. “Yes, sir.”

Despite this inauspicious first meeting, NFB retained Goldstein as their counsel for more than 30 years, until his retirement. Famously, Goldstein was the first lawyer to successfully argue that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applied to the virtual realm, suing AOL in 2000 for its failure to comply with standard screen readers for visually impaired individuals. “That really began what was a major campaign covering everything from ATMs and voting machines to government actions, everything from accessible absentee ballots to accessible student loan forms,” Goldstein says.

Goldstein quickly came to ‘recognize the language of civil rights’ in his work with the National Federation of the Blind.

Over the course of Goldstein’s representation, they brought suit against dozens of large companies for their failures to provide accessible technology and other digital services, including Target and H&R Block. In 2014 he argued “what is certainly the most important case of [his] career” in a suit between the Authors Guild and HathiTrust. Using copyright claims, the Authors Guild had challenged a consortium of universities that had allowed Google to scan millions of titles into a digital database, which had proven a boon both for research and for accessibility. Goldstein and NFB successfully won the case under the fair use doctrine, establishing a new precedent and opening the door for scholarship and those with print disabilities.

Goldstein says that he never intended to make disability rights a central focus of the firm or his own work. He wanted to be a civil rights lawyer at a civil rights firm. But Goldstein quickly came to “recognize the language of civil rights” in his work with NFB—and loved the challenge and the mission. He also recognized that he was representing a group of which he was not a member.

“I was always very clear that I was the chauffeur,” Goldstein recalls. “The NFB would say, ‘We need you to drive from point A to point B,’ and they might leave it to me what route I would take to get to point B. That was my role.”

In the beginning of their relationship, much of their work was reactive—an individual would come with a complaint and they would sue. But as the relationship grew, Goldstein and NFB started to tackle accessibility systemically, including through establishing a disability rights fellowship at BGL for early-career lawyers who themselves identify as having a disability.

The law firm landscape

Today, BGL has more than 20 lawyers. Their work ranges from class actions to employment cases to election law cases and commercial disputes. While much of this work does not involve disability rights, much does. Most firms that specialize in disability rights are small—solo practitioners or a couple of lawyers—which makes BGL an outlier. The disability rights space generally is also often occupied by nonprofits. Goldstein says that the large corporate firms that do engage in disability rights work often do so through their pro bono arms. Kirkland & Ellis, for instance, offers a fellowship to young lawyers who wish to work at the Disability Rights Legal Center for a couple of years before returning into the corporate fold. Larger law firms may struggle, according to Goldstein, to understand the interaction between client needs and movement goals. And, of course, he remembers that original conversation with the NFB on his rates.

Goldstein and Brown envisioned a firm that would cultivate an intentional culture of well-being, allowing themselves and their lawyers to go home at night.

“It really does make a difference when the National Association of the Deaf or the National Federation of the Blind or the Autism Self Advocacy Network is the client. There is a better chance that what you are trying to achieve matches with what your clients’ needs and wants actually are,” Goldstein says. Expertise in this area of law really matters, he says, and when large corporate law firms engage in disability rights work, they often draw their lawyers from the wider berth of employment. It’s not enough to “simply understand Title 1 of the ADA, and not II or III,” he says.

In starting the firm, Goldstein and Brown first envisioned a practice that would combine public interest work and commercial litigation. “Chris referred to it as doing good and doing well,” Goldstein recollects. They also envisioned a firm that would cultivate an intentional culture of well-being, allowing themselves and their lawyers to go home at night. For his part, Goldstein has been amazed at the talent they have been able to recruit, even as they cannot compete with the salaries in Big Law. When lawyers do leave BGL, it is often not for higher-paying roles but more often than not for nonprofit work.

Inclusion in the profession

In 2021 Reed Smith was named a champion for disability inclusion by the ABA Commission on Disability Rights. The firm was selected, the press release said, “because of its commitment to, and leadership in, supporting and enhancing the professional, personal, and career development of people with all types of disabilities both at the firm and within the legal profession.” Reed Smith has previously been recognized for its inclusion work, such as in 2020 when it was awarded an NOD Leading Disability Employer Seal, which is “awarded based on data provided by companies in response to the NOD Disability Employment Tracker, a free and confidential assessment that benchmarks companies’ disability inclusion programs.” Reed Smith is also one of many signatories to the ABA Pledge for Change: Disability Diversity in the Legal Profession, which was created in 2009 in response to a lack of disability diversity in the profession.

But what does Reed Smith do to actively encourage and support its employees? “The firm’s disability affinity group LEADRS has implemented a global five-year plan that includes supporting, mentoring, and helping with the career development of disabled attorneys; enlisting ambassadors, allies, and champions; … creating partnerships with clients; ensuring accessibility of physical spaces and technology; collecting and measuring disability data;” and more, says the ABA. The firm also provides training to all of its employees on disability issues.

The future of BGL

When Goldstein retired in 2017, he was confident that the firm and NFB were in good hands. In the lead-up to his retirement, he recruited and then passed the reins to Eve Hill, who came to BGL with years of experience in different arenas of disability rights. Like Goldstein, Hill graduated law school knowing she wanted to do civil rights but not really knowing what kind. What she did know was that she had loans, so she went to a firm specializing in natural gas contract litigation, where she got her feet wet in “litigation in very complicated cases,” as she puts it. That was the early 1990s and Congress had only recently passed the ADA. At the firm, Hill was given the opportunity to take on a number of pro bono projects, supplementing the litigation-focused workload. She became a trained mediator in the Washington D.C. Superior Court and then later joined one of the first trainings on ADA enforcement, so, when the Justice Department was looking to hire someone to create an ADA mediation program four years later, she was a natural fit.

“I got really, really, really lucky,” she says. “And what I tell new lawyers is, do what you need to, to pay the bills, and do what you love in your spare time. And eventually you’ll be qualified to have someone pay you to do what you love.” Hill has indeed been lucky enough to not only do what she loves but in a variety of different environments and with a variety of different tactics. She has run a clinic and taught disability rights and alternative dispute resolution at a law school; led an academic think tank focused on how laws outside of the ADA, like Medicaid, affect people with disabilities; and previously been “of counsel” for BGL.

“I’m lucky I have clients like the National Federation of the Blind, who are using the law to create a new language and framework for understanding disability—as a civil rights issue,” says Eve Hill.

Hill would have stayed at BGL that first time if Goldstein had had his way. “But President Obama was elected, and I couldn’t resist,” she says. Before she came back as a BGL partner, she went back to the DOJ in 2011 and worked in the civil rights division for six years. As deputy assistant attorney general, she supervised disability rights work and helped further its reach, for instance, into the education section, tackling disability through a truly intersectional lens. This wide range of experience and expertise across public policy, litigation, consulting, negotiation, and academia has been invaluable for the work she does now. “Each practice has been different,” she says. “And I didn’t move on because I was bored. I moved on because I wanted to gain this other piece of knowledge or skill.”

Throughout her government work, for instance, Hill cultivated her litigation skills. While it’s particularly hard to get precedent for disabilities rights because so many corporations settle, she sees litigation’s ability to set law as incredibly powerful for the movement. In a recent high-profile case, Hill won a “preliminary injunction in favor of 12 students with disabilities” in Virginia who challenged the “state’s legislation prohibit[ing] schools from requiring students to wear masks under any circumstances in … public schools,” BGL’s website states. COVID-19 has certainly changed the landscape, only raising the stakes for what has been the next frontier for disability rights (the campaign Goldstein was instrumental in): access to technology. When Hill reflects on how her career fits within broader movement goals, she says:

I’m lucky I have clients like the National Federation of the Blind, who are using the law to create a new language and framework for understanding disability—as a civil rights issue. I like to figure things out. I like to figure them out in the context of both real life and the law. And I like to create the theory that supports how things should work. I really require my law to make sense. Working with the NFB and other disability organizations, a lot of my work is not just researching what the courts say about X. It’s “Here’s this thing that courts haven’t said anything about? What should the court say about this? What’s the theory that this should be covered or shouldn’t be covered, or should have this standard or shouldn’t have this standard?” Those are the kinds of things I really enjoy figuring out. What would be fair here? And what is the legal principle that supports that fairness?

In trying to create this more just world, Hill has complemented her high-impact litigation work with consulting. Leaving the DOJ in 2017, she had noticed that the government had stopped giving guidance on accessibility regulations. Hill realized she had built up a wealth of knowledge from criminal justice to ADA compliance that would allow her to aid groups across the public and private spheres; thus, Inclusivity Strategic Consulting, an arm of BGL, began. “I think covered entities should know what will be expected of them and how to implement it,” she says. The work has involved everything from helping the organizations build a plan for making their website accessible to “how you portray yourself to the disability world and how you incorporate people with disabilities in your workforce.”

As a firm partner, Hill knows that she is responsible for the future of the firm. She knows she needs to “make enough money to survive,” but she also gets to decide her priorities. “I get to do both litigation and consulting, and that’s a real privilege,” she says. “I get to help people who want to do the right thing. And I get to litigate against people who don’t want to do the right thing. Who gets to do that?”

Beyond litigation

In February 2021 Goldstein and Michael Stein penned an essay celebrating the ADA’s 30th anniversary. “From Compliance to Initiative: The Next Stage in Disability Inclusion” noted that “strategic litigation has been the tool of first resort of cause lawyers on behalf of marginalized groups in the U.S. including, at times, people with disabilities.” But, the coauthors said, “Litigation is an important tool, but one that is expensive, time-consuming, and non-systemic.” Goldstein and Stein argued that to move from compliance to inclusion, corporate entities and people with disabilities need to work together to set “external and verifiable” standards for access to technology. A number of initiatives have popped up, including, they cite, some standards developed by disability rights consumer organizations and housed by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals, called Smart Business 4 All. The call for greater accountability and a commitment to serious benchmarking is part of a wider systemic attitude in disability rights toward universal design.

Universal design,” a term coined by Ronald Mace in the 1980s, refers to an approach toward designing services, products, and the environment such that everyone, no matter their age, race, gender, ability level, or any other factor, can enjoy them. As many have pointed out, countless innovations were first produced for those with disabilities but have improved the world for others. (A common example is curb cuts, which make it easier for those with mobility issues and blind people, but also anyone pushing a suitcase or a stroller.)

As companies seek to think about inclusion and contend with a labor shortage, Hill says, they should be looking to people with disabilities.

Both Hill and Goldstein have embraced this drive toward culture change. In 2021 Goldstein went on the Accessible Web podcast to talk about his career and next steps for disability rights in the digital realm. He said, “I’ve litigated these cases for 17 years and then at the end of that [period], WebAim told me I had maybe affected .025% or 1.25% of the most popular million websites. So obviously, litigation is not the answer. Part of it is effectively making the business case, understanding, having the company understand they are losing business when they are inaccessible.” Later in that same podcast, he would extrapolate, “You can’t just say WCAG 2.1 AA is the standard du jour. You have to help the company understand it needs to change.”

Hill is trying to bring this culture change about through her work with Inclusivity. As companies seek to think about inclusion and contend with a labor shortage, she says, they should be looking to people with disabilities. “People with disabilities solve more problems on their way to work than most of us do in a week. If you want people who can solve problems, resolve issues, deal with conflicts, hire them,” she says. Most of all, she says, companies that think they understand what to do for accessibility are often completely wrong. What should you do? Goldstein’s advice: “Listen. And then when you think you’ve listened enough, listen some more.”

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