Autism and the legal profession: are the two compatible?

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By Jodie Chennell on


Jodie Chennell, part-time law student and full-time NHS employee, explores how the legal industry can become more inclusive of neurodiversity

I’m Jodie, a 27-year-old third year, part-time law student with autism. I am completing my degree alongside my full-time job working in management in the NHS and overall, I feel optimistic about a career change to the legal industry. However, more and more frequently, I find myself asking: is being autistic a benefit to my legal career, or a hindrance? I think the answer is multifaceted.

Firstly, I was drawn to law because of my ability to think in a black and white manner — I am very clear in my mind as to what is right and what is wrong. This allows me to apply the law to a given situation relatively easily and follow a structured approach to resolving problematic situations, without being hampered by minor inconsistencies. Further, my objectivity allows me to see past the emotive elements of a case to focus on solving the legal issue at hand, something that not everyone would find an easy feat! These autistic traits, alongside hyper-focus, paying very close attention to detail and reliability, all look to be very well-suited to a career in the legal profession.

However, one trait which is common amongst those with autism is the deep-rooted need for a structured routine and one which I struggle without. So how is this compatible with the legal profession’s infamous late finishes? Long hours in the office? Having cases sprung on you with little notice? The uncertainty that accompanies a training contract, without the guarantee of a job at the end of it? Well, the obvious answer is that it’s not.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) recently reported that there are just 6% of lawyers with disabilities, compared to 16% of the UK workforce. As an autistic law student, I have found that the method for applying to vacation schemes and training contracts is not (always) overly supportive of the differences in the way autistic students work.

Last year, I applied for a vacation scheme and was given just 48-72 hours (I can’t quite remember which) to complete an aptitude assessment. I personally didn’t declare my autism at the point of application, which in hindsight, is perhaps the downfall there. However, the website for the law firm did not mention that the email for the aptitude assessment would follow so closely after the application submission and that the strict deadline would apply.

A concern that comes to my mind when deciding whether or not to disclose my autism on an application form is whether I will be thought of differently because I am autistic. Do law firms have time to dedicate to understanding more about neurodivergent diagnoses in order to adequately support their applicants, trainees and lawyers?

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I suppose the point is, if autistic applicants feel put off by the lack of information provided on firm websites, deadlines being sprung on them with no prior warning or discussion, the continued reference to lack of routine in the legal sector with long hours etc, then how can they be expected to succeed in entry to the legal sector to add to that 6%? A good starting point would be for consistent and uniform information to be provided across all law firm websites and clear, detailed information provided about the ways in which they can support neurodivergent applicants. This would provide confidence to such applicants that firms have the time, resources and knowledge to ensure that they receive the appropriate support to succeed.

Whilst aptitude assessments can be incredibly valuable to assess an applicant’s capabilities, are there alternative methods of assessment that may be more inclusive? By way of example, most law firm applicants are expected to undertake either a verbal reasoning test or the Watson-Glaser test, in order to reduce the number of applicants to a more manageable figure. Going forward, perhaps firms can instead, consider more creative methods of assessing a candidate’s suitability, without a blanket approach. After all, autism is just one neurodiverse diagnosis, and the key feature of neurodivergence is how our brains work differently to others. Therefore, if faced with barriers so early on in the process that require our brains to mirror that of neurotypicals, without any opportunity to demonstrate our skills in another way before being declined an interview, how can we be expected to succeed?

Further, as a law student, we’re frequently reminded of the importance of networking, particularly in the degree stages as an opportunity to meet other legal professionals. However, as far as I can tell, these networking events aren’t often set up with the neurodivergent in mind. For example, they are often held in central cities, such as London or Manchester, meaning a considerable commute for some. If held in person, consideration could be given to a quiet area or space, away from the crowd to decompress if the event is found to be stressful or overwhelming. Perhaps even detailing what food and drinks will be on offer at the event in advance would help neurodivergent attendees to feel more prepared for what to expect on the day.

If the legal profession does indeed want to become more inclusive of disabled lawyers, perhaps it is time for a cultural shift to more stability in working hours, introducing calming spaces in offices to decompress and normalising needing to take regular breaks, to demonstrate that new ways of doing things can be just as productive as the age-old methods to which we have become so accustomed. In addition to the positive traits of autism I mentioned at the outset, people with autism are known for their unique perspective, their reliability, their honesty, their exceptional organisational skills, and so arguably, have an excellent breadth of skills to offer to the legal profession.

People with autism are renowned for their specialist interests, and being masters in their field when they find their passion and the topic that excites them. Imagine the possibilities for a firm that encourages an autistic person to find special interests at work, whilst supporting them to work in a way that it suitable for their needs. For example, agreeing to clear, written communication methods over verbal instruction where feasible, allowing them a desk slightly further from the hustle and bustle of the busy office space, considering flexible working arrangements to support home working, agreeing work hours in advance as far as possible and catering to their sensory needs when being expected to work in the office.

If we are to increase the statistic of disabled lawyers beyond 6%, it’s time to recognise that the existing way of working requires rethinking.

Jodie Chennell is a third-year part-time law student. Alongside her studies, she works full-time in Management in the NHS. She is keen to raise awareness of her experiences as an autistic woman and posts about this regularly on her socials @autisticjodes.

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