According to Dr Nancy Doyle, neurodiversity relates to the idea that we are all cognitively diverse – some of us are good at many things, and others are great at specialist things. We all exist along a cognitive ability spectrum with neurodivergence at one end and neurotypicals the other.

Neurodiversity is often used as a proxy term for a handful of cognitive conditions such as Specific Learning Differences (SpLD) like dyslexia, to extreme learning disabilities that leave some unable to even cope independently. Like other societal differences, how should the legal sector create opportunity to maximise the talents of those who think differently?

Prevalence of neurodiversity 

It’s estimated that roughly one in seven people in the UK are neurodivergent. The National Autistic Society reports at least 700,000 adults in UK have autism, only 22 percent of whom are in employment. According to the BDA, dyslexia affects 1:10 and there are a number of co-concurring differences that fall within neurodiversity.  

Neurodiversity and the Law  

Employment law recognises neurodiversity with the Equality Act 2010 protecting those with neurological conditions against disability discrimination. While the law provides a safety net to protect those with such ‘hidden disabilities’, isn’t it time we looked at neurodiversity through a different lens and give it as much importance as ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation?

Neurodiversity, a disability or an advantage? 

In the past, society has often treated neurodiversity as a disorder and labelled alternative thinking as a deficit. Subsequently we have been preoccupied with finding ways to help neurodivergent people ‘fit in’. This has left us slow to respond, despite high profile flagbearers such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson challenging the orthodoxy of neurodivergence.   

Neurodiversity inclusion first calls for an understanding of the benefits of neurodiverse thinking, followed by acceptance that a neurodiverse team can result in richer thinking, improved decision making, and better outcomes.   

Benefits of a neurodiverse workforce  

Neurodivergent individuals are often highly skilled in lateral and strategic thinking, trouble-shooting, and creative problem solving. All are qualities essential to the legal profession. 

Dyspraxia is closely linked to innovation, and those with dyspraxia are often very creative and exhibit high levels of emotional intelligence. Those with autism often show strong ability in high level, complex thinking and have high levels of concentration allowing them to be extremely thorough and detailed in their work. Individuals with ADHD can hyper focus enabling them to concentrate free from distraction for extended periods of time.   

Barriers to entry 

Encouraging those with neurodiverse skills into the legal profession is a major challenge, as the level of academic achievement required to be accepted onto a qualifying law degree (LLB) is high. For those whose neurodivergence may not have been recognised at an early enough stage to allow the right support to be put in place, the academic attainment required for entry to university degree may prove unobtainable. 

Added to this, the competitive nature of both entry into and profess through the legal profession may be the psychological barrier that causes many to step out. While likely well-equipped with coping strategies, neurodiverse employees may find few colleagues or role models from whom to find support. 

Neurodiversity in the Legal Profession 

A successful career in the legal sector is achievable, as leading dyslexic US trial lawyer David Boies and HHJ Dhir both demonstrate. Boies found that the tools he acquired to navigate his early years in education have given him greater freedom to ‘judge sentiment in the jury and improvise on the fly’. 

HHJ Dhir comments that: “Judges now come in all shapes and sizes. I would say in many ways, the Bar and the judiciary are ideal professions for dyslexics and individuals with other special needs, because as judges we have experience of difficulty.”

But despite groups such Bridging the Bar championing diversity and inclusion (D&I) within the legal sector and helping shine a light on the need for increased diversity at the Bar, there is much work still to do. Their research shows that only six percent of those working at the Bar are ‘disabled’, compared to 13.4 percent of the workforce.  

Professional support groups such as Neurodiversity in Law, created to eliminate the stigma associated with people who think differently and actively promote neurodiversity in the legal sector, are a welcome addition and the Disability Division within The Law Society is firmly committed to promoting inclusion within the legal profession. 

Legally Disabled recently highlighted how more flexibility with reasonable adjustments could make the legal profession more accessible. So perhaps now is the right time to capitalise on innovative working models to attract and retain those rich thinking skills to the legal profession.