Expert on Discrimination and Disability Law to Head Chicago-Kent’s Institute for Law and the Workplace



By Tad Vezner
Headshot of Nicole Porter

Nicole Buonocore Porter, Chicago-Kent College of Law’s new director of the renowned Martin H. Malin Institute for Law and the Workplace, jokes that some might think her scholarship’s radical.

Yes, she believes that the era of COVID-19 has transformed the workplace in dramatic ways by disproving rigid office management adages and reawakening a debate about work-life balance. Her research explores the idea that “accommodations” shouldn’t just be for those with disabilities; workforce bureaucracies would be greatly eased if such benefits were explored for each and every employee, Porter posits. She has an upcoming book talking about exactly this.

But she also points out that for years, she worked for a large law firm and then in-house, representing employers. 

“I represented employers before I went into academia,” Porter says. “One of the benefits of that is I feel that I have a really good sense of seeing issues from both sides.”

Then she quickly launches into the institute, and how it makes so many conversations like these possible.

“Marty Malin made the institute this incredible place,” Porter says. “Now that I know more about it, I’m even more impressed. A lot of schools have [labor and employment law] centers and certifications. None of them are as robust as Chicago-Kent’s. Chicago-Kent, for me, is the main labor and employment hub, the main name in town.”

And she feels she can bring some major strengths to bear: a profound, decades-long love of labor and employment law, and a “somewhat unique administrative skill set,” Porter says.

For years Porter held multiple associate dean roles at the University of Toledo College of Law, managing academic affairs and faculty research, working closely with alumni, and planning conferences and speakers.

“It’s so ingrained in me to be responsive. I’m always responding to emails,” Porter says.

Still, what she enjoyed most was working closely with students. Porter says that the best thing about teaching is “developing relationships with students and seeing where their careers take them—even better if those careers are in the labor and employment field.”

“Nicole is one of the country's leading authorities on disability law and a coauthor of one of the leading employment discrimination casebooks,” says ILW founder and Chicago-Kent Professor Emeritus Martin H. Malin. “She is a proven academic leader, and I am thrilled that she will be the new leader of the institute.”

“Ms. Porter represents exactly the type of leader we had sought to head the Martin H. Malin Institute for Law and the Workplace,” says Chicago-Kent Dean Anita K. Krug. “She’s been dedicated to labor and employment law for decades, both in practice and academia, and her research is on the cutting edge of the field.”

Porter began her academic career in 2004 at Saint Louis University School of Law, teaching employment discrimination and disability law. She landed at Toledo in 2007 and took on ever-increasing responsibilities, starting as an assistant professor and working up to become the associate dean for academic affairs and later the associate dean for faculty research and development. Most recently, in 2021, she was honored as a Distinguished University Professor.

In addition to teaching employment and disability law, Porter also taught contracts, criminal law, feminist legal theory, and education law.

“I had many hats at Toledo, and (now) I’m very excited to focus on just labor and employment law. I enjoy teaching in my area so much more,” Porter says.

Her upcoming book, The Workplace Reimagined: Accommodating Our Bodies and Our Lives, due to be published this year by Cambridge University Press, amalgamates two of her seminal pieces of research: “Accommodating Everyone,” published in the Seton Hall Law Review in 2016, and “Mutual Marginalization: Individuals with Disabilities and Workers with Caregiving Responsibilities,” published in the Florida Law Review in 2014.

“Mutual Marginalization” explored the commonality between people with disabilities and caregivers, specifically how both often need workplace accommodations. Both groups also similarly suffer from “special treatment” stigma, i.e., resentment from coworkers and supervisors who would pass them over for promotions. Caregivers, of course, do not have as many legal protections as people with disabilities.

“Accommodating Everyone” looked at solutions, arguing that one way to solve the accommodation stigma is to “accommodate” everyone.

“The idea would be that everyone has the right to ask for an accommodation, (for instance) about hours or how a job is done, instead of just those with disabilities,” Porter says. “It takes a lot of [human resources] time and a lot of effort to figure out ‘who belongs’ to the various protected classes. It seems to me to be a very strange position to have someone in HR deciding whether someone is entitled to time off to care for or mourn a particular family member, for example. Who are we to define who matters? Family is different for everyone.”

“A lot of these things are not hard,” Porter adds. “Work from home is one example: COVID has taught us this is doable. The more employees that ask, the more employers will realize, ‘Oh, this is not hard to do.’ We just need to think about it and imagine it happening in a different way.”

When asked about her plans for the institute, Porter says that she hopes to continue its excellence in labor law and strengthen its emphasis on employment discrimination law. For example, she wants to establish an academic symposium, which would result in papers that would be published in the ILW’s Employee Rights and Employment Policy Journal—the only faculty-edited, peer-reviewed employment law journal in the country that is focused on legal issues related to the workplace.

The ILW is a national center for research, training, dialogue, and reflection on the law that governs the workplace. Founded in 1996, the institute serves as an intellectual home for the labor and employment law community, both in the Chicago area and nationwide. The institute pools the resources of leading academic scholars and the practicing professional community to train students and professionals, monitor policies and trends, and reflect upon issues confronting the labor and employment law community in a neutral setting.