updated on 05 November 2020
I have no doubt that the legal profession is benefitting from the influx of lawyers from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. And I am optimistic and excited that the profession will continue down this route to get to a point where everyone’s individual differences are accepted and celebrated.
That said, it can still be difficult to be and feel different from others, especially in a profession where it can sometimes be hard to find a network that resonates with you.
A personal example
Further to my previous article for LawCareers.Net, I am an ‘out’ autistic aspiring lawyer, and proud to be so.
On my CV I have a note about my autism, the strengths that come with it, and a link to the value I am bringing to the profession. It’s an innocent note, which has previously been used as a talking point for recruiters to learn about and better understand autism. In fact, I've been blessed to see my network grow as people are interested in working with me because I've been so open.
However, a conversation I recently had with a recruiter made me feel ashamed of speaking openly about the fact that I am autistic. They advised me to remove the note from my CV because employers will see it as a reason to not employ me. So, I was essentially told to hide my authentic self from my future employer.
I was not amused by this comment. It has only been very recently that I have started to feel confident enough to be honest about who I am because since I can’t not be autistic, why shouldn’t I be proud of something that makes me unique and interesting?
It’s not just me, though
While I was upset and angry to hear this comment, I am aware that I’m not the only one who will have experienced prejudice or been made to feel that they must hide their authentic self in order to “get ahead” in the profession.
There have been a number of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) junior lawyers who have been told to change their names because they “don’t sound British enough”.
Dyslexic solicitors and barristers might have been told things like “you can’t be a lawyer if you can’t read”.
And people with autism often have their social skills unfairly called into question - I’ve even had someone tell me that autism just means “you can’t behave yourself”.
Even though we have moved away from the archaic notion that a lawyer is a white, heterosexual privately educated male, some of the old prejudices remain.
As humans we have an innate desire to be accepted and valued by others. So, when we are made to feel like we must change something about ourselves just to fit in, we feel ostracised and isolated.
With the second national lockdown now in effect, it is worth using this time to take stock of who we are and what we want out of work and life. This is the best time to be proud of and become secure in our own identity.
Why law firms should encourage future lawyers to showcase their authentic selves
It is hugely important for firms to be representative of their client base and the people they serve. As more and more diverse people enter the business world as business owners, those potential clients must feel represented by the firms they are looking to instruct. If a client can’t see their own values in that firm, then they won’t instruct that firm.
In addition, if junior and aspiring lawyers cannot find a network that resonates with them at a firm then they are much less likely to want to apply to work there.
“You can’t be what you can’t see!”
Then there’s business performance. In general, a management team with a high degree of knowledge-based diversity tends to achieve a greater team performance. And that knowledge comes from the employees.
For instance, if a neurodiverse employee teaches their supervisor what it is, how it affects them, what their strengths are and what support they need, then:
Why it makes sense for diverse lawyers to embrace who they truly are
First, if you are applying for a job and are not open about who you are or what your needs are, alongside your strengths and expertise, you will only make things harder for yourself in the long run. While this is an entirely personal choice, I’ve found that by fully disclosing yourself and your needs, you are inviting your employer to explore how it can support you, and what unique strengths you can bring to them.
Second, the energy spent on concealing who you are to conform or avoid abuse, harassment or prejudice can be put towards work if employers accept and encourage you to be your authentic self. Your employer benefits from you bringing your whole self to work and you will have much more energy to invest, which is a win-win for both employer and employee.
Third, knowing that there’s no need to hide who you are is extremely liberating and beneficial for one’s mental health. It is likely to result in a huge confidence boost, which will then lead to a much higher quality of work and life.
We can’t be someone we’re not, so why not be proud of the unique and interesting individuals that we are!
Phil Steventon is an autistic aspiring solicitor, blogger, content creator and future charity trustee.