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updated on 15 March 2022
Reading time: four minutes
Roughly 3% of solicitors are disabled, compared with 19% of the working-age population, according to recent statistics from the Law Society (Legally Disabled and Cardiff University). This stat has started a discussion regarding disability inclusion in the legal profession.
However, one area that is frequently overlooked is neurodiversity. Neurodiversity refers to disparities in cognitive functioning in the general population; it refers to "brain differences as normal, rather than deficiencies". These distinctions include neurodivergent people (eg, dyspraxia, autism, ADHD).
For a long time, a lawyer was thought to be a certain type of person: high achiever, articulately spoken, detail oriented, quick, socially outgoing, well organised and industrious. The problem is that neurodivergent persons do not always fit into this mould, and law firms that have had continuous financial success because of this sort of individual begin to ask why they should hire someone who may not possess all of these attributes.
This “don't fix it if it ain't broke” mentality has become increasingly obsolete as research on the benefits of neurodiversity has begun to emerge. Numerous other factors including the great resignation due to lawyers seeking more flexible and balanced work lives; the pandemic demonstrating that there is no 'one way' of working that leads to success; and the role evolving due to the emergence of legal technology have also emerged.
As a result, many firms are beginning to incorporate neurodiversity into their diversity and inclusion reporting and policies (although this is still only about 20% of firms), recognising that workplace adjustments don't have to be costly and counterproductive and that if firms' cultures don't evolve, they can easily start to lose valuable staff.
When you talk to almost any neurodivergent individual in the industry or those seeking to get into it, you'll hear the same complaints about tokenism, discrimination, and a lack of representation. Possibly demonstrating that the mentality is still alive and thriving. In my own experience interviewing at 'disability confident' firms, I have seen them advocate the need for neurodiversity, but their recruitment processes are still geared towards finding the stereotypical lawyer outlined above, and the most basic reasonable adjustments are not implemented. This has gradually eroded my self-confidence, making me question whether law is even for me. When you tell the firm, you frequently get a “thank you for your input” and that’s all.
Where can firms start?
The point I'm trying to make is that law firms have a long way to go. I'm frequently asked what the solution is and, to be honest, I'm not 100% sure. What I do know is that firms may begin by engaging and listening to neurodivergent people and recognising that neurodiversity is an asset. On the latter point, I'd like to make a statement since, while I believe many businesses understand this, their actions do not reflect this understanding. While firms should hire diverse employees on moral grounds, it is, unfortunately, necessary to demonstrate your value to effect the changes needed. Nonetheless, recruiting neurodivergent people does not do us any favours; we have a lot to give, not just as individuals, but also to the workplace and the industry as a whole.
1) Many of us communicate in different ways. If employees can learn to interact with us, they will begin to grasp how everyone communicates, allowing them to improve their interpersonal skills with colleagues and clients, neurotypical or not.
2) If employees recognise divergence as a positive, they may begin to assess their own skills and shortcomings, analysing how they may best improve their own performance by adjusting certain things in work.
3) Encourages the firm to begin being more flexible and empathetic to all employees as they realise adjustments can be readily implemented and they have examples to draw from, hence increasing staff retention.
4) Existing employees are more open to sharing when they are suffering from illness, whether physical or mental, because they know they will not face animosity.
5) Many neurodivergent individuals are extremely creative, innovative, and problem solvers. This relates to both the methods of work and the work itself. This may have a knock-on impact on other employees, who may begin to do things differently – in a positive way.
6) We are typically quite resilient or have been forced to be so. We will frequently persevere long after others have given up, which motivates others to do the same.
7) Even if firms believe that none of their employees have biases, the only way to be certain is to bring in neurodivergent individuals and invite neurotypical employees to reflect on their behaviour. Do firms really want their team to treat a neurodivergent client representative differently or to be unable to communicate with neurodivergent colleagues?
8) Many neurodivergent people become enthused by their employment or a particular subject. This may instil passion in other members of staff.
Not every neurodivergent individual is the same, and we won't all provide every benefit listed above, but I can guarantee we will provide at least one.
Amelia Platton is a first-class law graduate and founder of the Neurodiverse Lawyer Podcast. You can find Amelia on Instagram.