Most law firms have robust diversity initiatives and are making strides—however slowly—towards being more accepting and promoting of women, people of color, and openly gay legal professionals.
There is one type of diversity, though, that most firms tend to overlook when it comes to having official policies and recruitment efforts: neurodiversity.
Most law firms, and most workplaces in general, do not have official outreach or support policies for neurodivergent people due to the relative newness of the general public’s understanding of what neurodiversity is. Neurodiversity refers to people who have “spectrum” conditions, such as autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and other neurological conditions. They are different neurologically-based conditions that generally affect how people learn and process information. Employers are missing out on a potential source of talent by failing to consider neurodiversity in their recruitment efforts, as well as failing to offer support for those who might need to approach their jobs a bit differently.
Traditional recruitment processes may not allow neurodivergent candidates to shine, so potential employers need to keep that in mind when they come across candidates who, for instance, make very little eye contact during a face-to-face interview or give a “too-honest” answer about their faults instead of the expected “interview” answer. These behaviors would usually exclude a candidate who might be smarter than average, hard-working, and capable. Greater awareness can help—just as there are sections in staff handbooks that lay out policies regarding race and gender, there should be some official thought put into neurodiversity.
What It’s Like for Neurodivergent Lawyers
It is often the case that some spectrum disorders confer an advantage: For instance, people with Asperger’s are often highly intelligent, unusually detailed, and easily able to methodically focus on a task until it is done. These abilities translate to success in law school as well as success at work; what firm doesn’t need someone who fits that description? The social aspect of legal work, as well as the prevalence of sensory issues, is where challenges lie for most people on the autism spectrum.
Everyone is different, but difficulty picking up on social cues, reading facial expressions, and interpreting tone of voice are common among those with Asperger’s and some other conditions. People may not understand, for example, that a neurodivergent colleague’s flat affect is not a form of rudeness, but is just a different way of communicating. Some people on the spectrum enjoy only talking—in great detail and for a long time—about what they’re working on and don’t see the value in aimless small talk, while others prefer to stay quietly to themselves. Sensitivities to sound, light, smells, and other stimulus can cause neurodivergent people great discomfort, and lead to a need to work in more of a solitary manner, which might be interpreted as standoffishness by coworkers.
Many neurodivergent lawyers opt not to disclose their diagnosis at work, and for good reason. Ignorance and misconceptions about conditions like autism and dyslexia mean that some employers and coworkers will make incorrect assumptions about a neurodivergent person’s abilities, and not trust in their competence. An employee may tell one close colleague and still worry that their ability to do the job will eventually be questioned. It’s also common for well-meaning work friends to say things like “Oh, you’re not really autistic, because you can have a normal conversation,” or “You’re very high-functioning since you’re nothing like [fictional television character assumed to be on the spectrum].” Having more professionals who are open about their neurodivergence can only be helpful for everyone in the long run—but the reluctance to do so, especially in a cut-throat, conformist profession like the law—is understandable, as there is still stigma and the possibility of professional consequences.
Support for Neurodivergent Employees
So how can firms support the brave neurodivergent lawyers among them who would like to disclose their condition? There are many ways to help employees succeed, and just like an employee who uses a wheelchair might need a ramp, those with neurological conditions might need a few—usually simple—things to allow them to work at their optimal level.
Again, each person is an individual with their own issues, but here are a few accommodations that those who are not neurotypical may need at work:
- Consideration of sensory issues—noise-cancelling headphones, softer or lower lighting for those bothered by bright lights, or seating farther from the kitchen for those who are sensitive to strong scents
- For dyslexics—voice-output software that can highlight and read text from a computer screen, a boss who allows you to record her spoken instructions rather than giving them in writing, or providing materials necessary for upcoming meetings and presentations as far in advance as possible
- For ADHD—A timer to help you focus on tasks for 30-minute intervals, a time-management or organization app, or a more isolated workspace/taller cubicle barriers to help with distractions