Blog Viewer

Great Minds Don’t Always Think Alike: Neurodiversity in Legal Professions

By Stephanie Carty posted 04-26-2024 10:13


Please enjoy this blog post by Stephanie Carty, Senior Manager, Real Estate Practice Group.

"I finally figured it out", my sister sighed into the phone. "It's ADHD." 

As frustrations around focus, time management, overwhelm and disorganization mounted, my sister was running out of patience. She is a talented attorney who is well liked and respected, but she has one major adversary: Herself. The fast paced and demanding day of a big law associate is challenging enough, but enduring additional unexplained focus and attention struggles can make the workload feel insurmountable. At the end of her rope, my sister sat for neurological testing, and the results indicated a diagnosis of ADHD.  (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by difficulty sustaining attention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity1). The diagnosis explained many of the daily issues with focus and being in a frequent states of productivity paralysis. 

While many people are familiar with ADHD, what is lesser known is that the disorder is one of many conditions considered neurodivergent, or unique differences in the way the brain works2 resulting from normal, natural variation in the human genome3.  Other conditions under the neurodiversity umbrella include ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Dyslexia, Down Syndrome and Sensory Processing Disorders. These are not new conditions, but their recognition and widespread support is still a work in progress in many workplaces.

"How did you figure out what it was?" I asked my sister, eagerly. I was equal parts relieved for her to have answers and suspicious that neurodivergence may explain my OWN home and workplace struggles. Being a mother of two with a blossoming professional career and a side gig to boot, I always assumed my anxiety and organizational difficulties were simply because I had too much on my plate. "I couldn’t have ADHD; I've always been a high achiever". I'd rationalize to myself. "Everyone has a hard time getting motivated on big projects, don’t they? Who WOULDN'T feel overwhelmed by the thought of starting a new task? Doesn't everybody work on multiple projects at once so you can toggle back and forth instead of doing one at a time?" It turns out the answer to all of these questions is "not really". I decided to speak to a professional myself and, not surprisingly, ADHD was confirmed as the culprit.

In the months since my diagnosis, I have tried to embrace the label of ADHD and learn about how adults with ADHD succeed, specifically in the legal field. Now that I'd named it, I wanted to normalize ADHD for others and, honestly, for myself. With an estimated 8.7 million adults in the US with ADHD1 (4.4%) and an estimated 12.5% of US lawyers reported as having ADHD4, there HAD to be other people in my position successfully navigating these waters.  Those metrics speak for themselves; lawyers face ADHD-related challenges at nearly three times the rate of the general adult population.5 Furthermore, there is a higher prevalence of neurodiversity in current law school students (25%) than in practicing attorneys6. It's not that the younger generation has more cases of neurodivergence than the current generation of lawyers, it is much more likely that the acceptance, awareness and fading stigma around these diagnoses are what is changing with the next generation of legal professionals.  

In legal practice management (my field), ADHD presents itself in many forms and frequencies. Some days are a true effort to keep on task, with difficulties ranging from struggles concentrating, (or becoming hyper-focused on specific tasks) time blindness, feelings of inadequacy and the subsequent overwhelm culminating from all of the above. These challenges have a real effect on professional functioning, personal relationships, and emotional well-being,4 but they can also be hacked to become advantages, particularly for the legal professional. For example, the high stress and fast-paced nature of a legal environment often dictates for you what needs to be done and when, so the analysis paralysis of deciding where to start is alleviated. The legal world is also ever evolving and filled with complex problems requiring creative solutions and critical thinking under pressure. That task diversity and intellectual stimulation provides dopamine and adrenaline7, both of which are craved by the ADHD mind. The task diversity also allows for flexibility in focus. If it is seemingly impossible to make headway on project x, pivot to project y until you have the capacity to return to project x. As I write this post, it has taken me several days of warding off focus stealing distractions to get the words out of my head and onto the page, and that's okay.           

I've spent nearly a decade in support management and have been able to cultivate a fairly robust toolbox of coping strategies. Some of the greatest hits include: create shorter sub-deadlines for yourself on project to make each tollgate closer and more attainable; use visual reminders (post-its, Outlook reminders, white board, etc.) of what needs to be done and color code to indicate priority and use the buddy system. Telling another person what you're planning to get done not only keeps you accountable, but it also gives you another person to bounce ideas off of or to act as your cheering section.  My sister and I regularly swap success and failure stories and use each other as a sounding board. We've even traded gadgets and planners when we thought something was going to be *the thing* that unlocked productivity, only to start collecting dust a few days later. Each trusted colleague/friend/family member you open up to represents another rung on your support ladder and another future evangelist and ally for neurodiversity.

This self-made support system is so integral in coping because the industry is still catching up in terms of formal supports. They do exist, but finding firms with ADHD, ASD or broader neurodivergent affinity groups is a rare find. I believe this is partly because organizations simply don’t know how to support neurodiverse individuals and partly because, though fading, there is still a stigma around identifying as neurodiverse.  

It is difficult to shake the connotation that people with ADHD aren’t intelligent or capable, but there are some trailblazing employers who have seen the light. Companies such as Ford, HP, Capital One, Dell and even the Department of Defense actively recruit neurodiverse individuals and have formal programs to include neurodivergence in their definitions of DEI. Microsoft is another highly inclusive company when it comes to neurodiversity. In fact, the founder, Bill Gates, is diagnosed as dyslexic and ADHD and openly speaks about both.

Having a brain that works different from the majority is not a tragedy. There is no scarlet "A" for Autism or ADHD that diagnosed professionals must don next to their ID badges. The misconceptions around the neurodiverse are rampant, but YOU (yes you!) have the power to inform, educate and advocate. If you identify with a neurodiverse condition and are hoping for support and acceptance in the workplace, speak up! No one wants to hug a porcupine, so be open to talking about your struggles and strengths. Don't be afraid to say "I struggle with ADHD and benefit from frequent movement breaks. I'm sharing this with you, so you know that my walks around the office are actually increasing my productivity and not me dodging work." My sister owned her ADHD and told her team that she finds that she does her best work and is more focused later in the day. No one shamed her or scoffed at the admission. The team was receptive, wanting to know more about the symptoms and how to be supportive. They even coined the term "Nicole* hours" to describe working in the afternoon and evening (*name changed).  For me, I recently joined a new firm and was open with my struggles from the start. My openness even gave another teammate the push she didn’t know she needed to reach out to a professional for her own day to day obstacles. She has since also been diagnosed as ADHD and what was once an insecurity is now an empowerment.

For managers, HR and DEI professionals or simply a compassionate coworker wanting to provide a safe space, make it known that your door is open. Efforts like offering 'lunch and learns' with mental/behavioral professionals, creating a neurodiversity affinity group or soliciting ideas for accommodations and offerings that could benefit the neurodivergent workforce are all wonderful ways to become an ally. Much less formally, seeking out related articles, podcasts and interviews can be eye-opening. When ADHD and neurodiversity are embraced and seen as an asset rather than a hurdle to overcome, our workplaces, work products and work lives are all better for it.  You never know how much someone needs that extra nudge to reach out to a medical professional or even just to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to the workplace. Speaking as someone who both needed and provided that nudge, I am proud to be a part of the neurodiverse legal community and hope I've given someone else the courage to take that next step.