The concepts of neurodiversity and neurodivergence are gradually taking hold in our society as ways to describe different types of mental functioning. Instead of referring to individuals as having mental or behavioral deficits or disorders, we can now think of them more holistically and compassionately.
But what does this mean for neurodivergence and neurodiversity among legal professionals?
The truth is there is still a stigma against neurodiverse legal professionals, but this stigma can be overcome.
In fact, these individuals can successfully find their place in the legal profession, often with the right accommodations.
What do we mean by neurodivergence and neurodiversity?
According to the neurodiversity paradigm, we must first distinguish between people who are either (1) neurodivergent or neurodiverse or (2) neurotypical.
Neurotypical is the term for individuals whose brains function like most of society.
A person who is neurodiverse or neurodivergent has mental functioning that differs from the majority. Examples include autism, Asperger syndrome, and ADHD — conditions that have formerly been referred to as disabilities, deficits, or disorders.
The neurodiversity movement is a broad push to no longer view these conditions as flaws that need to be “cured.” Instead, a neurodiverse condition should be seen as part of the person’s identity and respected accordingly.
The movement advocates for support systems that allow the neurodiverse to conduct their lives as they really are, instead of being forced to conform to typical concepts of normality.
How can neurodivergent legal professionals find their place?
The neurodiverse and neurodivergent are actually quite common in our society, so it makes sense the legal profession would have its fair share.
In fact, some forms of neurodiversity may be even more common in the legal industry than society at large. According to a 2016 study, 12.5% of attorney respondents to a mental health survey reported having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — a figure significantly higher than the estimated national average of 4-8%.
With the prevalence of neurodiversity, it is important to learn how neurodivergent legal professionals can find their place in the field.
Battling stereotypes and biases against the neurodiverse
There are several biases against neurodiverse workers that span many industries, not just legal.
Many employers falsely assume expensive accommodations will be required for the neurodiverse. Another bias is the tendency to hire according to “cultural fit,” when neurodiverse people will almost by definition tend to not fit within a neurotypical culture.
Firms should look beyond the cultural-fit model to seek out the strengths of neurodiverse applicants they would otherwise overlook.
As we cover below, neurodiverse-targeted accommodations can be very simple and inexpensive, if not free.
In addition, many firms will have an approach to employment interviews that disfavors neurodiverse interviewees. For example, many on the autism spectrum avoid making eye contact, leading to a negative perception for most neurotypical interviewers. But if the interviewer is aware of the applicant’s neurodiverse condition, they can adjust their expectations accordingly.
Recognizing the strengths of neurodiversity
The legal industry should recognize the strengths of neurodiverse professionals.
Neurodiverse workers can also advocate for themselves by pointing out their own demonstrated strengths and exceptional abilities.
For example, autistic employees tend to provide accurate no-nonsense feedback due to their lack of filters. They may be able to catch details in document reviews that others would miss and often excel at tasks that require prolonged focus, accuracy, and associative thinking.
Those with ADHD or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) often have the ability to hyper-focus on something that grabs their attention — a huge advantage if properly directed.
When those in the legal industry are aware that neurodiversity can actually strengthen law firms and other organizations, the common biases will be easier to overcome.
Accommodations law firms can provide for the neurodivergent
The neurodivergent/neurodiverse legal professional may require some work accommodations to perform effectively. But contrary to popular belief, these accommodations do not need to be cumbersome or expensive.
According to Haley Moss, the first openly autistic attorney admitted to the Florida Bar, many simple work accommodations helped her as a junior associate with her firm.
Wearing headphones helped her avoid the distractions of office chatter and humming fluorescent lights.
Having tasks explained as step-by-step processes allowed her to write motions more efficiently.
Moss believes that employers and employees need to partner on implementing accommodations, since neurodiverse profiles and employee needs will vary widely on a case-by-case basis. Each neurodiverse employee needs to be involved in the decision-making and able to advocate on their own behalf.
Some of the most common accommodations for autistic individuals make it easier for those people to interact with their peers and manage competing priorities.
- Use task management tools with clear steps to manage work
- Avoid seating in an open area or allow remote work
- Give advance notice for meetings
- Assign priority levels to each task
Legal professionals with ADD or ADHD can also employ simple tactics for dealing with common challenges.
- Use routines
- Reduce distractions
- Declutter your workspace
- Set good boundaries
Embracing neurodiversity in legal careers
What neurodiversity truly presents for the legal industry is an opportunity to be grasped.
Neurodiverse workers represent a previously untapped reservoir of talented resources for firms and other legal organizations.
For neurodiverse professionals, this new era may represent a chance for career advancement and shifting the industry for the better. And for the industry as a whole, it will move forward by keeping up with the societal advances of our time. It’s a win-win-win all around.