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An Energetic Advocate For Disabled Law Students

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2010
The National Law Journal
Karen Sloan

The Social Security Disability Pro Bono Project at Stanford Law School helps local homeless people secure disability benefits, and it happens to be one of Elizabeth Kolbe's favorite law school activities.

Kolbe, a 2L, knows firsthand that being disabled presents unique challenges — a car accident left her with a spinal cord injury at age 14, and she uses a manual wheelchair and has limited hand function. Most of the homeless clients she assists suffer from mental illness or cognitive disabilities, but they can still relate to her experience. "They appreciate that there is someone who is helping them who understands what it's like to be disabled," she said. "I think anytime anyone has had an interesting life experience or has had to overcome obstacles in the past, they have a different take on things. It's made me more interested in the client perspective."

Kolbe, from Tiffin, Ohio, traces her interest in the law back to her injury and the weeks and months she spent in intensive care and physical therapy afterward. She credits a supportive family and good health insurance with her recovery, but she has spent a lot of time with people who weren't as lucky. That experience got her interested in health care policy and how to extend insurance coverage to more people.

Kolbe designed her own major in health care policy as an undergraduate at Harvard University, during which time she took several health care classes at the law school. She toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, but a health care policy-focused internship on Capitol Hill solidified her desire to go to law school. "I really fell in love with the policy side of things," she said.

She took a year off after finishing her undergraduate degree to compete in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing (she was the first disabled varsity swimmer at Harvard), then headed off to Stanford Law School last year. Stanford's compact law campus has turned out to be a real blessing for her after maneuvering Harvard's sprawling grounds. In fact, Kolbe hasn't run into many mobility issues at Stanford. The only accommodation she requires is extra time for exams, since typing takes longer due to her limited hand function.

Stanford's disability office has been very helpful, but Kolbe knows that not every law student with disabilities in the United States has found as much support. "I've heard stories about other students who go into their disability services offices asking for the same accommodations I have and hitting a wall," she said. "They can't move forward."

Kolbe hopes that will change with improved advocacy for disabled law students. She's the vice president of the National Association of Law Students With Disabilities, a relatively new group with about 200 members. The association is a resource for disabled law students seeking tips on academic accommodations and careers, and it also counsels law schools on the types of accommodations disabled students may require.

Kolbe recognizes that progress is being made. In August, she attended the sixth annual IMPACT Career Fair in Washington — a legal job fair specifically for disabled law students that is sponsored by Georgetown University Law Center and the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. About 40 law firms and government agencies met with potential hires. "That was encouraging to me, that they were specifically reaching out to law students with disabilities," Kolbe said.

She spent the past summer in Washington doing disability legislative work and is hoping to land a law firm summer job this year, focusing on either litigation or health care. At the same time, Kolbe is tempted to try to split her summer schedule to allow her to do disability work at a nonprofit organization.

"I'm hoping to work at a firm after graduating, doing litigation or policy work," she said. "Maybe I'll work for the government at some point. I'm still deciding."