Neurodiversity in the legal profession
Psychologist Clare Reynolds examines the importance of awareness about neurodivergent conditions within firms and supporting employees
In the last decade, the word ‘neurodiversity’ has gone from a niche term to a buzz word.
Companies are now realising that a diverse workforce can provide a competitive advantage, and that a neurodivergent workforce can have a whole host of benefits. However, a recent study found that although 87 per cent of companies are prioritising neurodiversity this year, a shocking 59 per cent of neurodivergent employees feel unsupported in the workplace.
Legal firms are no different. Recent research found that although 96 per cent of firms have a Diversity and Inclusion policy, only 20 per cent have a disability inclusion action plan. This means the legal profession’s neurodiverse population is simply not being supported as it should be.
The Impact of a Lack of Support
As a neurodiversity coach, one of my first ever coaching sessions showed me the impact a lack of support can have. I worked with a highly intelligent man at the top of his organisation, who was autistic and had Auditory Processing Disorder (APD). He had only been diagnosed very late in his career. The APD meant that he could only process the first few words of every sentence.
However, at the beginning of our coaching session, he tried to storm out, telling me I wouldn’t be able to understand his situation and that he was tired of working with people who didn’t understand him.
He'd had so many years of not being supported that he didn’t believe he could be helped. It had left him feeling angry and frustrated. Eventually, we did manage to find a way forward, and after just five sessions he was in a totally different place.
He is just one example of how years of a lack of understanding and support can take a cumulative toll on employees. But how can we better support all our neurodivergent employees? The first step is to understand the strengths and challenges associated with each condition.
Understanding the strengths and challenges
Autistic strengths will include attention to detail and precision, which can prove invaluable in reading legal documents. People with autism are known for their analytical thinking and out-of-the-box problem-solving skills, which can lead to innovative solutions for clients. They are also likely to develop expertise in niche areas and are often highly tech-savvy.
However, employees with autism will have a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli – meaning open-plan offices can overwhelm them. They may struggle with uncertainty, change, and find social interactions stressful and draining. All of these can contribute to stressful working environment if they are not properly supported.
Someone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may be highly creative, designing out-of-the-box solutions for clients. They may also be high in energy and quick to embrace change, which can be useful in fast-moving environments.
However, they will likely have difficulty maintaining focus on tasks for extended periods, reducing productivity. They may also struggle with time management, experience hyperactivity and restlessness, and find it hard to recall important information.
An employee with dyslexia is likely to excel in verbal communication and have an exceptional long-term memory. Their verbal comprehension skills mean they can simplify complex concepts, which can be invaluable when working with clients.
However, dyslexia can affect reading fluency and comprehension, making it more time-consuming to review lengthy legal documents and case materials. They may struggle with spelling and grammar, leading to potential errors in written communication, client correspondence, and court documents. Dyslexia can also affect time management, making it challenging to allocate sufficient time for tasks and meet tight deadlines in a fast-paced legal environment.
For employees with dyspraxia, they will have many of the same strengths and challenges as someone with dyslexia but will also struggle with their gross motor skills.
Three Steps to Better Support Neurodivergent Employees
Due to a severe lack of understanding into how these conditions show up in the workplace, employees are often left to struggle alone in the legal profession. This can impact their mental health, physical well-being and seriously harm their feeling of belonging at work. It can also lead to lower retention rates, with many neurodivergent employees feeling forced to leave employment, or being managed out.
So, how can we change this? How can we support our neurodivergent employees better? Here are three things employers can do…
The level of understanding among partners, managers, and employees remains very low.
Therefore, it’s crucial to educate all employees about neurodiversity, including the strengths and challenges of different neurodivergent conditions. This will promote understanding and reduce stigma within the workplace. Managers, in particular, need to know how different conditions might show up in the workplace, and how they can best support their neurodivergent population.
Foster Psychological Safety
Psychological safety is defined as ‘a shared belief that it is safe to put oneself at risk.’
If the working environment is not psychologically safe, neurodivergent employees are unlikely to feel they can disclose their conditions, and ultimately receive the support they need. Research shows that disability is currently underreported in the profession. Only five per cent of lawyers and five per cent of other staff declared they had a disability in 2021, compared to 14 per cent of the rest of the workforce in the UK.
Creating a psychologically safe working environment where people feel safe to disclose is paramount. This can be done by overtly celebrating neurodiversity, by training the workforce to understand their biases, and by responding appropriately when employees do express their needs.
Finally, it’s important to offer support. But crucially, to offer it in the right way.
The term ‘neurodiversity’ is an extremely broad term, covering a huge range of differences. Therefore, making assumptions about what an employee may need is unlikely to be successful. Instead, create an environment where individuals feel they can express their authentic self, and feel comfortable advocating for the support they need.
However, there are some common adjustments which may help many neurodivergent people in the legal profession.
For example, allowing neurodivergent employees a quiet area to work will mean they are able to concentrate for longer without reaching overstimulation. Similarly, being careful not to overburden neurodivergent employees with verbal information will likely be a great help.
Neurodivergent people often struggle with their working memory, meaning they can have real difficulty when briefed on a task verbally. With that in mind, managers should look for other ways to deliver instructions.
Ordinarily, these adjustments don’t require a drastic change in the way things are done. Simply writing the main points down or sending a short summary email can make a real difference.
Clare Reynolds is a Principal Psychologist at Business Psychology Consultancy Pearn Kandola. Pearn Kandola work with clients across the globe, making their workplaces fairer, more diverse, and more inclusive. pearnkandola.com