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How can Law Firms adapt to unlock the power of a neurodiverse workforce?

14 March 2023

How can law firms adapt to unlock the power of a neurodiverse workforce?

If you’re reading this as someone who works in the legal sector, or as a senior professional in another, – you’ll know that the education to get you to where you are right now is rather rigid. A series of exams, essays, and often a very particular kind of work experience are all prerequisites to donning the robe or suit and succeeding in the professional world of law or business.

Luckily for me, I responded well to that style of learning. However, in the UK and indeed across the world, there are a sizeable minority of people living with a neurodivergent condition. For millions, both elementary education and ultimately career progress is being hindered by our narrow permittance into the professions.

This begs the question, if law firms and other professions adapted not only the barriers to entry but also their recruitment process and indeed their working practices, could we unlock the power of a workforce currently being marginalised and excluded?

Opening the neurodiversity conversation with MAPD Group

As the leader of the Spirant Group, the topic of neurodiversity inclusion is a business interest – but as the father of two neurodivergent children, it’s a personal concern too. It was both of those factors that sparked the topic of episode four of my podcast From the Courtroom to the Boardroom.

My two guests, Brian Cullen, and Joanna Kingston Davies are the leaders of the MAPD Group. ‘Make A Positive Difference’ Group is an alliance of law firms based throughout the UK, founded on the principles of making a valuable impact in the community and the lives of their workforce.

I wanted to know how they believe law firms and businesses can better adapt to include a more neurodiverse workforce, and whether that inclusivity can happen – even without the long overdue governmental changes to the education system.

But to get to that end conclusion we first covered a lot of context around the subject of neurodiversity – some of which was received positively, and other parts which were criticised for being short-sighted by listeners with lived experience of a neurodivergent condition. This feedback has helped me realign some of my thinking from the perspective of an ex-lawyer and my current position as CEO of Spirant Group – and so, I feel privileged to share some of that with you in the hope it might spark the same altered mindset and increment change…

Neurodiversity in children vs. adults: Avoiding the typical trope 

Since Brain, Joanna, and I are all parents of neurodivergent children, the conversation naturally first veered toward our experience of the education system. “Our education system is listen, action, deliver; listen, action, deliver,” explained Brian. “I can understand why it was built but it’s not fit for purpose for today, and there doesn’t seem a desire to change it. If you look at Finland, children are children until they are nine. It’s about learning through play and creativity, and then by the time they hit the curriculum they have already learned things like times tables and spelling, but through play.”

We navigated through themes of children’s education in some depth, and it was this part of our conversation that received some fair criticism from our neurodivergent listeners in the legal industry. Admittedly the parental experience that I, Joanna, and Brian have had doesn’t really scratch the surface of either the underpinning neuroscience or the lived experience of neurodivergent folks in the legal sector and that’s important to recognise.

Reading those responses post-production has helped shine a light on how as a society our natural position is to discuss neurodiversity in childhood, rather than in professional adults. It’s broadly accepted – as the first part of our conversation highlighted – that once a person reaches practice be it in the legal sector or beyond it, they are expected to learn and work in the same way as everyone else. But clearly, that’s a big part of where we’re going wrong…

How helpful is it to define people as neurotypical or neurodiverse in the legal sector? 

Understanding what we mean by the terms neurotypical and neurodiverse is first essential if we are to make progress towards making the legal sector more inclusive, but how much labelling is too much labelling?

Diagnosed conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyspraxia, and ADD, all constitute neurodivergent conditions – but by contrast, what would we qualify as someone who is neurotypical? In the absence of a condition, are we to ascertain that everyone else is by proxy, ‘neurotypical?’ 

“What’s neurotypical – what’s typical anything?” answered Brian when we approached the topic in our conversation. “Neurotypical is for me broadly offensive, because wouldn’t you hate to be like everyone else – and take personality out of it? In my opinion, society trying to label people neurotypical and neurodiverse is a symptom of a society that feels it needs labels so it can compartmentalise people into boxes.”

Joanna concurred, “Trying to pigeonhole people into a box that says X Y Z is dangerous. Everyone is unique in their own special way.” Indeed, I too agreed that perhaps it is more difficult to define anyone as ‘neurotypical’ in a world where each one of us is so distinctly different on a molecular level.

This is, in part, all true. However, the other part of the debate, helpfully raised by our listeners, makes several other valid statements against our discussion: 

  • There is a misunderstanding of the difference between neurodiversity and being neurodivergent too. Society is neurodiverse because neurotypical people are part of that neurodiversity. However, not everyone is neurodivergent.
  • The comment “everyone is a bit neurodivergent” could be suggested to trivialize the struggles of those who are neurodivergent. This was certainly not our intention in the discussion however I respect this perspective.
  • The idea that “neurotypical” as a label shouldn’t exist has been challenged. Arguing against “labelling” and against the neurotypical paradigm – is tended to be seen as diminishing neurodivergent experiences.
  • The “superpower” or “special” trope is heavily disliked in neurodivergent circles because it is seen to minimise the parts of being neurodivergent that are challenging.  

Prior to the recording, I was unaware of these views held by some neurodivergent folks. Brian, Joanna and I approached all parts of our discussion from a position of support and empathy however I have reached out to all audience members providing this feedback with thanks.

Clearly, an enormous factor here is raising awareness of where labels can be helpful and where the omission of terms can be damaging. And in the context of the legal sector, where should we be being more conscious of neurodiversity, neurodivergent conditions and the nuances in people’s cognitive behaviour? That surely begins at the routes to entry…

So, you want to be a lawyer: well, you better think like this then.

Looking back on my path to qualifying as a lawyer, I can see how the route to the profession just isn’t conducive to a lot of learners. That’s because a massive proportion of the training is founded on an individual’s ability to regurgitate information at the drop of a hat. But for those with conditions that create complications with long-term memory and absorbing information that just isn’t going to work. So, imagine how many people, therefore, are being prevented from entering law simply for failing to be able to learn in a particular way?

“As a sector, it is pretty archaic,” explains Joanna during our conversation. “So, it is a massive challenge because things just aren’t recognised, and there is that cookie-cutter approach in the way we approach legal work. So, everything is built in the same way, lawyers are expected to behave in the same way, and there is a lack of creativity and looking at things differently in terms of how we can really harness skills and use skills in a different way.”

Leanne Maskell is a lawyer turned ADHD coach, making her a leading authority on the kinds of changes needed to widen access to legal careers, as well as improve conditions for neurodivergent people already in practice. Across her channels, Leanne publishes helpful posts on topics such as ‘Why your exam results don’t define you,’ helping to begin the conversation and raise awareness for both employers and employees. And with recent statistics stating that 1 in 42 boys in the UK is diagnosed with a neurodivergent condition each year, that conversation is crucial.

Because on that basis, by the time one cohort reaches working age, there will be around 400,000 facing challenges unless something changes. And whilst we can’t change the legal qualification system overnight, what we can begin to do is make deliberate changes designed to include neurodivergent people who are already within our companies, or those who are at a professional age and looking to join a firm or business.

And in doing so, wouldn’t we unlock the potential of a workforce who are empowered to operate in the way best suited to their cognitive behaviour, rather than the way prescribed by industry?

Do all lawyers really need to be all things to all people?

“The legal sector has for too long expected a lawyer to be all things; to be a business developer, to be good with clients to manage a team,” explains Joanna as our conversation reaches the topic of unlocking potential. “You could end up with your best technical lawyer being promoted to partner and having to manage a team – whereas shouldn’t that person be strategizing at the best legal arguments? And are they the best person to go and harness new clients? Probably not.”

“It’s a continuation of the education system. Where we say let’s do all these subjects and do most of them badly – rather than doing some really well and focusing on where we can excel. If we applied that same principle on a macro level to the legal sector and focus on how we can use people’s strengths better, then they will be better – they will be their best selves at work and the business will get more out of them and that plays into everything – down to even the way offices are set up – it plays into the broad spectrum of the way the legal sector operates.”

Joanna’s points felt to me incredibly poignant, especially in the context of different lawyers having different strengths and yet being expected to turn their hand effectively to all aspects of leading a law firm. It’s certain that we need to foster both neurodiversity in firms and support those who are neurodivergent, so here are five top tips to help with that – as told by both Joanna and Brian.

Top five tips for unlocking the power of a neurodiverse workforce

  1. Realign the recruitment process. “We don’t want to rely on grades – they tell you a very small part of the bigger picture – so we’re looking more at what appeals to individuals,” says Joanna.
    • “So instead of asking people to send a CV, we’re asking people to tell us their why – what motivates them, what gets them out of bed in the morning, we try and get them to do that through whatever channel they want – i.e., video, Tik Tok, or a CV. People’s why gives you a real insight into their personality and how they prefer to work.”
  2. Raise awareness within your workforce. A lot of what we’ve discussed here will only truly begin to have an impact if more people are encouraged to read around the subject of neurodiversity and practice empathy and kindness to those who are neurodivergent. “For me, a lot comes from awareness, not just changing elementary education, but education of a different kind,” Joanna told us.
  3. Create space for a two-way conversation. Yes, you are the employer but given the employee will spend a significant proportion of their time within your business, you also need to ensure that you are enabling a two-way conversation. If something isn’t working for an individual, create a culture that fosters open dialogue.
  4. Adapt, adjust, and amend. The client wants a solution. And that’s about using the tools at your disposal to get the client from a to b. The client isn’t concerned with the means to getting there – i.e., remembering all the intricate legislation – the client is about the experience and the end result.
    • By keeping this focus at the centre of a firm’s ethos, we should be able to adapt, adjust and amend to best serve our clients with the best people for the job. And that mantra applies across the broad spectrum of law firm practices. From allowing lawyers to become more honed and focused on their particular skillset, to adjusting physical spaces so that they are more inclusive for neurodivergent people.
  5. Recognise and support. By way of creating balance however, yes, we want to help unlock the potential of a powerful workforce but it’s also essential at the same time there is a great deal of understanding and empathy, alongside the right tools and support for challenges and difficulties neurodivergent people will inevitably face in the working environment.

Listening to Joanna and Brian share their insightful tips around supporting a neurodiverse workforce brought into focus another conversation that we’re hearing a lot of at the moment: the issue of skills shortages. We read all the time about our aging population and our skills shortage and yet here, we are talking about millions of people across the world who aren’t reaching their potential because of the way society is set up. Imagine the magnificent and multifaceted benefits of unlocking the potential of this sizeable minority.

And whilst there is no quick magic wand to wave significant change, this is a starting point.

Watch the full podcast episode here