Jonathan Andrews discusses neurodiversity in the legal profession and draws on his personal experience to provide tips for firms on how to recruit, retain and manage those who think differently
Neurodiversity is an area of diversity of which awareness is rapidly increasing. The term refers to naturally occurring conditions in the human brain, such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD, which lead to differences in the way individuals process information. These differences can lead to some challenges – but also unique strengths – for neurodivergent individuals. These strengths include things such as spotting patterns others might miss, or in-depth focus on particular areas.
As someone who was open about being on the autistic spectrum when I began applying for training contracts back in 2013, I found few others who felt able to be open about being autistic (whether fellow applicants or those already working in law). Although this initially made me consider if a career in law was for me, it also helped me ultimately resolve to push ahead to prove it could be done – whilst simultaneously championing activities to boost awareness of autism and visibility for individuals with autism.
Eight years later, I regularly speak to autistic applicants at almost every open day I attend, know several others in the profession who have disclosed, and have supported several autism and neurodiversity-specific internship programs – supervising those now in the position I was in back in 2013.
This increase in focus on neurodiversity – both in terms of existing employees discovering and sharing their differences, and new candidates – is, of course, something firms and companies increasingly need to consider from the perspective of recruitment and management.
As someone who has both experienced this journey myself, and managed neurodivergent people, I have five ‘top tips’ for hiring and supporting neurodivergent talent.
Remember to provide adjustments
Just like with other disabilities, neurodivergent people may request reasonable adjustments – and these will differ depending not just on conditions, but on individuals themselves. Neurodiversity-related adjustments often won’t be large physical changes and won’t cost much (if anything) – they might, for example, be a request for a document to be provided in easy read, or a request to visit your offices before their interview to acclimatise to the new surroundings (as I was provided by Reed Smith when I applied for my training contract) – as well as being a legal requirement, they also allow you to see and assess a candidate at their best.
If someone doesn’t want an adjustment, however, don’t insist. I had a few experiences of being given an adjustment I didn’t ask for (extra time) – and, indeed, tried to turn down – and while this is of course done with good intentions, it’s important to remember that neurodivergent people know ourselves best. If we say we don’t need something, we probably don’t!
Reconsider potentially exclusionary recruitment practices
Psychometric testing, for example, is a common part of application processes for many large law firms, but it’s also been proven that neurodivergent people are likely to score lower on psychometric testing – and thus often ruled out of processes early on – despite potentially being the best applicant when it comes to on-the-job performance and skills. While mechanisms to manage large numbers of applications are understandable, if these come at the price of sifting out great candidates, they’re hindering, not helping, the process.
Publicise what you’re doing
Walking the walk is the most important thing, of course, but you also need to make people aware of the changes you’ve made to your recruitment processes. I certainly wasn’t alone among neurodivergent people in rating firms according to their openness and inclusion efforts, and in focusing on applying to those which demonstrated a sustained commitment in this area.
If you’re not sharing stories of your success externally, potential applicants won’t be aware. In addition, failing to share news of such efforts internally may mean neurodivergent people you already employ feel less able to be open or request support.
It’s not just about recruitment
With neurodiversity, the focus is often on recruitment processes. While these are very important, so is what comes after. Adjustments don’t stop being needed (or beneficial) once someone is hired – ensuring people are properly supported throughout their employment isn’t just the right thing to do, but means you’ll get the best out of them.
In addition, studies have shown that neurodivergent people, along with people with a range of disabilities, are more likely to remain with the same employer for longer – so it’s vital to consider how inclusive your existing promotion opportunities are for neurodivergent people, and what can be done to make these more inclusive still. It’s been made clear to me, for example, that all avenues for advancement are potentially open to me at Reed Smith, and that I’ll be assessed on merit for these – and the same should be true across the profession.