Waco attorney Will Conrad has raised dots on a device plugged into his laptop, and his computer and cellphone speak to him.
If not for those items and a few other subtle signs, anyone meeting Conrad for the first time at his downtown Waco office might not easily discern that he is blind.
People who know the 34-year-old Dallas native and view the relative ease with which he makes his way from his office to the courthouse and around the courtroom say they tend to forget Conrad is blind.
That’s a testament to Conrad’s intellect, his ability to adapt, his sense of humor, and, in no small part, to the loving partnership he has forged with his wife, Laura.
“I’ve been very impressed with his preparation,” County Court-at-Law Judge Brad Cates said of Conrad. “He has made a real effort to come by and actually sit in court and listen to proceedings and learn how we handle things here, which is fairly unusual for young lawyers. I think it is refreshing. He demonstrates a lot of confidence and he has never expected to be treated any differently than any other lawyer. I appreciate that, as well. And he is knowledgeable of the law.”
Conrad, who could not see properly from birth, can tell if it is day or night and sees shapes of objects in front of him. But he can’t read or focus clearly, and his sight has worsened since birth but has been fairly stable since high school.
“I call it functionally blind,” Conrad said. “I don’t think that is a medical term. That is just what I call it. I have a little bit of vision. I can see contrasts and light.”
Conrad and his wife, Laura, have lived in the Waco area for almost a year. Before that, they lived in Corsicana, where Laura still works as a curriculum and professional development specialist in the Corsicana school system.
Their day starts early. Transportation is Conrad’s biggest drawback, so Laura drops him off at his Austin Avenue law office about 6:30 a.m. before she starts on her hour commute to Corsicana.
If Conrad needs to go to the courthouse or the County Records Building, he walks with the use of a cane. If he needs to visit a client at the county jail on State Highway 6, he hitches a ride with another attorney who is also going to visit clients.
Waco attorney Rod Goble, who Conrad said was the first lawyer from Waco to introduce himself and ask him to lunch, is amazed at how Conrad can get around and do his job with such apparent ease.
“He is just an excellent, outstanding attorney, and quite frankly, I almost forget that he is sightless,” Goble said. “He has a great sense of humor and he is just very impressive. You never have to introduce yourself more than once because he remembers voices.
“We were going to work together on a trial, but the case got resolved. But it was such a pleasure to work with him because he has such a good mind. I have 100 percent confidence in trying any case with him and working with him again.”
Improvements in technology also have helped Conrad adapt to the often-complex legal world.
He has a Braille display on his computer, along with optical character recognition software that can read aloud most of his emails and scanned documents.
Most of Conrad’s growing practice involves criminal work. He has received a few mildly stunned reactions from clients when they meet him and realize he is blind, but no one has asked for another attorney.
“I find it is helpful at times because a lot of my clients either have disabilities or have had to overcome obstacles. Most people don’t need a defense attorney unless they have had something come up,” Conrad said. “Not that they haven’t made their own choices, but a lot of times they are made out of dire circumstances.
“So I hope many of them see it that I can be a role model in the sense that he has overcome obstacles and is doing this.”
Doctors didn’t really know what to call the condition Conrad was born with. Some called it non-age macular degeneration. Others called it retinitis pigmentosa. Others diagnosed it as Leber’s congenital amaurosis. They all agreed that Conrad’s retinas were weak and likely to get worse.
“They really don’t have a good grasp on the cause,” he said.
Conrad’s parents first noticed that he couldn’t see where he was playing games as a young child. Conrad wouldn’t grasp a ball rolled to him until it bumped against his leg.
Conrad had his first pair of glasses when he was 3 and initially could read very large letters. But his sight worsened in his teenage years.
“I feel blessed. My parents were wonderful. I have to give them a lot of credit,” he said. “It was never if I was going to college. It was always where was I going to college? They had the same expectations for me that they had for my brother, who can see fine.”
The Conrads moved to Austin when Conrad was 5, and he graduated from Westlake High School.
After high school, Conrad went to Rice University in Houston and majored in political science. A huge baseball fan, Conrad was a regular at Rice baseball games, where he was a major hit with his classic umpire heckle: “Hey, ump. I’m blind but even I know that was a strike.”
“I loved it at Rice,” Conrad said. “They had a great baseball team, and the campus was small enough that it was easy for me to get around but it also had a lot of opportunities. It was a good environment for me.”
Conrad loved being outside and taking in the aura of Owl baseball games. He could listen to the radio broadcast to follow the game, but he said he also loved the thrill of hearing the “ping” when the aluminum bats crushed the ball.
It’s also where he and Laura met and spent a lot of time together. They became friends, like a brother and sister, and Conrad set aside his radio at times as Laura got pretty good at her own play-by-play announcing. Conrad went to law school at the University of Houston while Laura, a year older, was getting her master’s in education there.
After they graduated, Laura taught high school in Houston and Conrad tried to establish a law practice in his two-bedroom apartment Laura affectionately called “the dump.”
Times were tough at first for the inexperienced attorney. Conrad jokes that he bought the domain name “LegallyBlind.com” and had it printed on beer mugs at a local bar where he used to hang out. He thought those who had too much to drink and got stopped on the way home would remember the name and give him a call.
“That was a poor investment,” he said with a laugh. “I only got one DWI client out of that venture, but I still have a few cool mugs left as souvenirs.”
As they went to more ball games together, Laura and Will grew closer. The brother-sister act turned to something more romantic, and they married in 2011.
Deciding it was time to leave Houston, they applied for jobs, and Laura landed the job in Corsicana. They found out she got the job during a weekend trip to Waco in 2012 to attend the Cotton Palace Festival.
“We were tourists in Waco before tourism in Waco was cool,” Conrad said.
Conrad practiced law in Corsicana a few years before the couple decided they wanted to move to a larger town with more transportation options, such as cabs or Uber, when Laura wasn’t around to give him a ride.
Laura said she and Conrad became friends because of his sense of humor and wit and the number of things they had in common. They were friends for 10 years before they started dating.
“I never thought we have had relationship issues because he is blind,” she said. “The funny thing is you forget he is blind because he gets around so well. He would say that is the greatest compliment you can pay him, to forget he is blind, because he functions at such a high level. I was always impressed that it was just never much of a barrier to him, and he always had a sense of humor about it. He has a way of putting people at ease about it.”