By Jonathan Harris
- Neurodiversity is a collective term for neurological conditions such as Autism, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Tourette’s, and mental health disorders.
- Only 3% of lawyers declared that they had a disability, compared to 13% of the general workforce of the UK.
- Research undertaken by the Law Society published in 2020 found that significant improvements need to be made by law firms in order to support disabled legal professionals.
- If unsupported, neurodiverse individuals are more likely to suffer from poor mental health in the workplace as a lack of understanding can cause anxiety, lack of self-confidence and the feeling of stigmatism.
As a result of recent watershed moments, law firms have had to examine their Equality, Diversity & Inclusion policies, putting them at the forefront of their people agenda. We have seen a great deal of progress, but have some groups been forgotten?
In a recent survey by the Law Society, only 3% of lawyers declared that they had a disability, compared to 13% of the general workforce of the UK. As the 10% difference in the statistic shows, either many neurodiverse people are slipping through the net at entry level or those with neurodiversity are hiding their disability.
Clients now take a law firm’s E,D&I policies into consideration when deciding whether to do business with them. Even professional indemnity insurers now look closely at the culture and E,D&I practices of firms. It is their view that if the firms are providing a positive and safe environment to diverse staff, this will have a positive effect on the solicitor’s output.
With that in mind, how do we account for such a large discrepancy? As a solicitor (turned PR professional) with dyslexia, I can appreciate why.
Training contracts are like gold-dust and to get one you must pass a process that puts a great deal of weight on academic achievement. It is understandable why some of those who persevere may then want to hide their disability. In a profession that puts emphasis on spelling and attention to detail, it is natural to worry about the unconscious bias of others and how it will affect their opinion of you.
However, dyslexia can come with beneficial traits for being a solicitor. Whilst it is important to remember that not all dyslexia is the same and its severity can vary, positive traits can include learning to adapt in difficult situations, being creative, thinking out of the box, developing great people skills, converting clients with ease and being incredibly focused.
So why hide it? It should be celebrated. This perceived taboo that a neurodiverse person would be unable to enter the profession is outdated. Firms need to actively promote neurodiversity in their workplaces. They also need to be aware of the reputational risks attached to failing to support neurodiversity and what knock-on effects this can have on their business.
Being open about inclusion is key to sustaining a talented workforce
It is important to recognise that equality and inclusion policies will affect a firm’s ability to recruit talent. A survey by Glassdoor showed that 76% of candidates will research a firm’s E,D&I policies when deciding whether to apply – even if those policies would not directly affect them.
With that in mind, firms should look carefully at what policies they have in place, and whether these policies are being properly communicated.
Internal communications should be in place in order to retain neurodiverse talent. Failure to do so can make the talent feel isolated and thereby likely to seek new opportunities. If neurodiverse talent is seen to be leaving the firm, it can cause reputational issues.
And when it comes to recruiting neurodiverse talent, firms should be conscious of their external communications. Demonstrating an openness and inclusive culture towards neurodiverse talent will make the firm more attractive to a wide range of candidates.
How should firms communicate their neurodiversity policies?
Unless carefully implemented, staff may feel that diversity policies are being imposed by senior staff, rather than being championed by them. It is essential to maintain a constant open conversation, so to create a safe-space for anyone within the workforce to voice ideas and concerns.
Initiatives should be partner-led so it is clear management is actively attempting to provide staff with the support they need. One way this can be achieved is by partners utilising internal “influencers” (key, popular, leaders at all levels within the firm) to promote E,D&I initiatives.
When communicating externally, firms need to be aware of the delicate balance between promoting neurodiversity and being perceived to be using it as a marketing tool. Whilst the latter may not be the case, unless the walk matches the talk there is a danger of being accused of insincerity and tokenism.
Legal and regulatory ramifications
The SRA has made it clear that it will take a dim view of firms failing to encourage equality of opportunity and respect for diversity. This does not mean purely following the letter of the law. The SRA says “we expect you to be inclusive in your approach to everything you do.”
Moreover, as neurodiverse conditions are protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, which requires firms, by law, to provide disabled staff with reasonable adjustments, firms should be aware of the dangers of not taking this seriously as they will open themselves up to litigation. A number of law firms have already found themselves in the Employment Tribunal over these issues and press interest in such proceedings is continuing to grow. Even if the firm wins at the Tribunal, the reputational damage can be severe.
A holistic view of diversity
Supporting diversity in all forms is essential to having a reputation as a modern, forward thinking law firm. By taking real and proactive steps to support neurodiverse staff, alongside a clear and honest communication strategy, firms will reap the awards – both reputationally and financially.