Angela Winfield began losing her sight around age 4 and was completely blind by her sophomore year at Barnard College. But she went on to graduate from there and completed her JD at Cornell Law School prior to passing the New York state bar exam. Today she’s an associate at Hiscock & Barclay, a 210-attorney firm, specializing in commercial litigation, torts and product-liability defense. Wall Street Journal reporter Sarah E. Needleman spoke with Ms. Winfield about her career path. Edited excerpts follow.
Full name: Angela Winfield
Hometown: Newburgh, N.Y.
Current position: Associate, Hiscock & Barclay
First job: Office assistant, summer youth employment program, Newburgh Free Academy
Favorite job: Current one
Education: B.A. in political science and human rights from Columbia University’s Barnard College; J.D. from Cornell Law School
Years in the industry: 2.5
How I got to here in 10 words or less: Hard work, determination and fearlessness.
What inspired you to go into law?
When I was growing up and could still see, I used to watch “The Cosby Show.” Claire Huxtable was one of the few African American women on TV. She was an attorney and I wanted to be like her.
You joined Hiscock & Barclay in Syracuse, N.Y., right out of law school. How did being blind impact your job search?
My approach was to not mention it and to demonstrate that I could do the job. I attended school-sponsored job fairs and interviewed with a number of firms.
I remember one interviewer who just couldn’t figure out how he would be able to do his job if he couldn’t see. Because he thought he wouldn’t be able to do it, he just didn’t see how I could. My response to him was that he knows himself better than I do and perhaps he would be helpless if he were blind. But knowing myself better than he did, I was certain that I could not only do what was necessary to practice law, but excel at it. The interviewer was a little flustered for a moment and then awkwardly asked me a few more questions and wrapped up the interview. I don’t remember if the firm extended an offer, but if they did, I certainly rejected it.
The only offer I accepted was Hiscock & Barclay’s and one of the many reasons why was because of the ease and comfort in which the interviewing attorneys interacted with me. I know I am not the traditional applicant and I wanted to affiliate myself with a firm that relishes those sorts of opportunities.
What does your job entail?
I do mostly trial-preparation work, which involves lots of research. I use commercial legal databases such as Lexis-Nexis and WestLaw, as well as public sources. I also prepare motions and depositions and work alongside partners on issues that come up with clients. Ideally, I’d like to spend as much time as possible in the courtroom, but the vast majority of cases settle before trial.
How do you do research and other tasks without being able to see?
I have a software program called JAWS, short for “job access with speech.” It reads everything on my computer screen to me. But because of security issues, you can’t use your own software to take standardized tests. When I took the LSAT and the bar, I had to have a live reader and was in a separate room so that I didn’t disturb the other test-takers. I would either type my answer using JAWS with security software or dictate my answer.
When I joined the firm, one of the things I did was work with a mobility instructor, who’s trained in helping blind people get around. We walked through the office to get familiar with where my desk would be and places I would need to go.
I also have a seeing-guide dog named Ogden. He’s a Labrador and Golden Retriever crossbreed. He’s a got a bed by my desk.
What’s your schedule like?
I’m usually in the office from around 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. But between bringing work home, serving on the boards of two not-for-profits, doing community work and starting my motivational speaking business, Blind Faith Enterprises LLC, I put in about 70 hours a week.
How You Can Get There, Too
Best advice: Go to the best law school you can and concentrate on developing your legal research and writing skills, says Ms. Winfield. Get as much practical experience as possible by taking clinics and seeking out internships or extra-curricular activities to hone your practical skills.
Skills you need: Research, writing and oral communication
Where you should start: Talk to your pre-law advisor at your undergraduate college, as well as attorneys who practice in areas that you think you may be interested in, says Ms. Winfield. Ask them what day-to-day practice is really like.
Professional organizations to contact: The American Bar Association and your state bar association
Salary range: Recent graduates at law firms with 150 or more attorneys earn $100,000 in median annual pay, according to a 2008 report from Incisive Media, a provider of specialized business news and information.
Are clients ever surprised to learn about your disability?
No, but there are times when the opposing counsel or judge will think I’m the client. Once I did pro-bono work for a client who was also blind. She said she felt very fortunate to have someone who understood her situation.
Have any advice for blind professionals looking to follow in your footsteps?
First and foremost, you need to learn to live and travel independently. You don’t need to be ambivalent and never take help, but you need to be absolutely confident that you can do things on your own. You also need to learn when and how to ask for help. After that, figure out what it is that you not only enjoy doing, but are good at. Then take every opportunity you can to develop the skills necessary to do what ever that is. And when I say every opportunity, I mean every opportunity, even ones that seem scary. Research, plan, prepare, practice and then face your fears and do it repeatedly until you’re not afraid.
What’s next for your career?
I have my eye on partnership. I probably won’t take the traditional route there or be your traditional partner, but I hope to carve out a suitable place for myself in the partnership ranks. I plan to practice law indefinitely even while I pursue motivational speaking. One of the keystones to that is talking about how I have — and continue — to overcome obstacles every day. In other words, I’m not just talking; I’m walking the walk, as well.
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at email@example.com