Legally Blind, with the Law on his Mind

Posted July 18, 2012

Dealing with the challenges of childhood blindness gave Ronnie Fernandez the resolve to become a lawyer.

Were it not for his perseverance and tenacity, Ronnie Fernandez says he probably wouldn’t be where he is today. He’s a top attorney and shareholder at Greenberg Traurig LLP, an internationally focused, Miami-based law firm that generates more than $1 billion in revenues annually. Never mind that Fernandez, who is 36 years old, also happens to be blind.

Fernandez began gradually losing his sight at age eight as a result of optic atrophy, which was caused by diabetes. In just one year, he went from reading regular books to reading large print books. Not long afterwards, he lost his sight completely. At school, he had to rely on people to convey information to him orally.

Ronnie Fernandez

Still, Fernandez refused to let blindness stand in the way of his learning years. It helped that he has a close-knit family. His mother, who is Cuban, put her two sons through private high school by working as a flight attendant for 38 years. His older brother, Anthony, drives him to work. It is his family, who routinely told him he’d make a great lawyer because of his determination to excel, that inspired him to go into law.

By the time Fernandez got to college, he was using readers – people hired to read books and papers to him out loud – and talking computers (text-to-speech), which were becoming more prevalent. The computer allowed him to type information, save it and have the computer read it back to him out loud, which is how he studied. These assistive technologies worked well for Fernandez, who graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA from the University of South Florida.

Technology improved significantly by the time Fernandez went to the University of Miami School of Law, where he graduated magna cum laude. He didn’t rely on readers as much, and could instead use his computer more to help him learn and study. Still, when he took his bar exam, he had a hard time convincing the instructors to let him use his own computer. An accommodations deal was struck: A criminal court reporter read the questions out loud to Fernandez, who typed the answers to the essay questions on a computer. He passed on the first try.

Greenberg Traurig, located in Miami, was Fernandez’s first job out of law school. As a real estate litigator, he does most of his work on the phone and on documents that are scanned and read back out loud through his computer. He also has the help of Adrian Wiley, who he calls his “right-hand man,” a clerk who assists Fernandez with whatever he needs. For example, Wiley lets Fernandez know the contents of boxes of documents that need to be reviewed, and will scan important documents into his computer. Wiley travels with him as well.

“We basically developed a way of practicing law in terms of him assisting me,” Fernandez says.

One of the clients Fernandez has serviced the longest is Regions Financial Corporation, a bank holding company based in Birmingham. For the last 10 years, he’s been dealing with the corporate real estate department and working on cases related to the properties that are owned by, leased by or leased to Regions.

In a 2008 article about Fernandez in The Florida Bar News, Regions’ in-house counsel Mary Autry, who worked with Fernandez by phone, said she was “flabbergasted” to find out he was blind. “No one had any idea. And that is testament to the way his firm has handled his disability, as well as his own ability and tenacity to the law. His disability has never kept him from giving us top-notch legal representation. We get better service from Ronnie than many of our sighted attorneys. The level of service he provides is outstanding,” Autry says.

As a litigator, Fernandez admits his experience in the courtroom is difficult but “has gotten better over time.” The more accomplished he’s become as a litigator, the simpler it is for him to navigate the physical aspects of a courtroom, he says. During courtroom breaks, Wiley provides Fernandez with valuable feedback about what’s taking place in the courtroom, such as the mood, reactions and expressions of the parties involved. This helps Fernandez put the pieces of the case together and make more informed decisions as a litigator.

“In terms of being blind at work, I’ve already dealt with most of the challenges, so there are significantly fewer ones at this point in my career,” he says. “The bigger challenges I face are more tied to business, and to the world and economy we’re now living in.”

Like many other people with disabilities, there are certain characteristics that Fernandez has expertly honed in order to help him succeed, such as a strong memory and preparation skills. In a recent eight-hour hearing with many attorneys in the room, Fernandez says he felt he was better prepared than most of them. “If you prepare yourself for a particular situation, and I have been fortunate enough to do that, you succeed as a result,” he says.

Greenberg Traurig’s president, Matthew Gorson, agrees. “Ronnie’s unwavering commitment to his clients, his enthusiasm for the practice of law, and his drive and positive demeanor inspire those around him, making him a true asset to the firm and the community,” he says.

As a well-regarded employee in a high-pressure job, Fernandez is qualified to advise people with disabilities who want to land a job in any field. He says: “I think individuals need to do whatever they can to show that they can do the work and make themselves attractive to an employer.” He also cautions that job seekers with disabilities shouldn’t be looking for someone to make the job hunt easier for them. “You need to do it: Show you’re a go-getter and how you can set yourself apart,” he says.

To that end, Fernandez speaks Spanish, was a National Hispanic Honor Society inductee and attended law school on a full scholarship. In a nod to his own disability, Fernandez says being blind may have actually helped him to succeed in his chosen field. While he says he always had the personality traits to become a good lawyer, Fernandez thinks his disability challenged him in countless ways – testing his resolve over and over – much like the practice of law. “In terms of addressing the challenges I had to face getting to this point in my career, my disability tremendously helped me.”