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May 11, 2020

Lawyer Spotlight: Haley Moss

Attorney Haley Moss

Attorney Haley Moss

Haley Moss is an attorney in Florida. 

What is your disability? How does it affect you?

I’m autistic. I was diagnosed when I was three years old, and it has affected me in different ways throughout my life so far. When I was diagnosed, I was nonverbal, unable to color inside the lines, drink from a cup, or socialize with peers. Now, some of the ways autism affects my daily life and lawyering is with executive functioning (starting, stopping, prioritizing tasks), social situations, sensory differences, and everyday independent living skills such as driving, cleaning, and laundry (the less fun stuff)!

What accommodations do you use in the workplace? Have you encountered any obstacles or challenges from your employers, colleagues, or schools in obtaining accommodations?

I’m very fortunate to work with a great team. I have accepting, inclusive lawyers surrounding me. Each person on the spectrum is different in terms of what accommodations they may need. I wear my earbuds a lot when I am working to minimize noise and distractions, so I am less overwhelmed. I ask to break assignments into smaller, more manageable pieces if I can, so I know how best to prioritize. I take a walk outside if I think something is too much and need to get out for a few minutes and have a little mental reset. 

I never utilized academic accommodations, but requested housing accommodations in both college and law school. In college, I was able to select an older student as a roommate. When that didn’t work out after my first semester, I was able to transfer to a single room on campus. My law school did not offer graduate housing, and the process to receive an accommodation to live on campus would have involved updated medical and psychological records that were burdensome because of their cost and the time involved for that process. I ended up getting an apartment extremely close to campus instead – so self-accommodation happens a lot.

Do you disclose your disability to employers or colleagues?  Why or why not?

Yes. As you may know, I am described as “openly autistic.” Being openly autistic gives me the freedom to be myself. Also, because I have been involved in autism and disability advocacy since my early teens, it’s hard to hide my autism. A Google search immediately discloses I am autistic. I am happy to help educate others and share within the boundaries I set. I think disclosure opens the door if accommodations are needed, and allows for open and meaningful communication when there is a need for clarification, further understanding of the expectations in the workplace, and being included.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer? Did your disability have an impact on your decision?

Once upon a time I thought that being an autistic psychiatrist would be the coolest job in the world. Unfortunately, I took chemistry during my freshman year of college and dropped it within six weeks after realizing I simply was not passionate about the sciences. When I reevaluated afterwards, I thought about the things I enjoy and am most passionate about. I knew that no matter what I did, I had to be helping others, and I loved writing and speaking to groups of people. Lawyers do written and oral advocacy, and also have the potential to make a difference daily. It was a natural fit. For me, public speaking is far easier than the socializing aspect of small talk, so perhaps my autism did play into my decision to go to law school and become a lawyer in that regard.

What type of legal work do you do, and how did you decide on a field?

After I left my last law firm, I began my own business in 2020! I largely work in consulting on workplace policy surrounding neurodiversity and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as continuing to do public speaking. I talk a lot about autism, neurodiversity, workplace inclusion, and other disability-related topics, and sometimes get opportunities to write about them as well.  I also write about disability law from time to time; although it’s not technically my practice area, it still feels incredibly cool to publish a law review article or contribute to a book. I think practicing disability law would hit a little too close to home for me, but from an academic and life experience perspective, it’s fascinating. I remain enthusiastic about education-based advocacy. Having realized the demand and need for greater disability education in our society and culture, it felt like a natural progression to follow this passion.

In my last job, I practiced international law and dabbled in healthcare litigation as well, focusing particularly on anti-terrorism cases. It’s a very interesting and niche field, and entering it was beyond my wildest dreams. That said, honestly, I chose that path because of the people. I worked with a supportive team that accepted me for who I am. When accepting a position after graduation, finding a professional and accepting culture was a top priority for me.

What advice would you give to fellow lawyers or law students with disabilities?

This profession is really, really broad. There are positions and roles for all kinds of minds and bodies. You don’t have to be a trial lawyer, and not every kind of lawyer needs to be super sociable. Seek out other disabled lawyers and law students. I wish I had the mentorship, knowledge, and experience that are out there now when I was in law school because I simply didn’t know anyone else like me. I went through law school dreaming of meeting autistic lawyers who weren’t ashamed of their identities and were comfortable in their own skin. At this point in my career I know several who are now friends and mentors.

Also, have big dreams for yourself. You don’t have to be passionate about disability law or disability rights if it isn’t your thing. No need to pigeonhole yourself. As much as I love geeking out about inclusion and autism advocacy and the like, it’s totally okay that it isn’t my sole practice interest and every aspect of my life. I know many passionate disabled disability attorneys and respect them all greatly. Keep in mind each of us has a different path, and you are the one to define your limits and goals, not society.

How do you think the legal profession is doing in creating a diverse and inclusive environment for persons with disabilities? What could be improved?

What we’re doing right: we’re talking about disability as diversity within the profession and acknowledging where we fall short, and are uplifting the voices of disabled legal professionals. It was empowering to be at the ABA Commission on Disability Rights/American University Washington College of Law symposium in 2019 addressing inclusion on campus and at work for law students with disabilities. It showed how many of us are out there, and how necessary this conversation is. It was a great step forward – but only one of many we need to take.

I think there’s a lot of work to be done within the profession. NALP data shows how low the rates are of attorneys with disabilities (we comprise around 0.53% of all lawyers). When I first investigated available summer associate positions, not one of them mentioned disability in their diverse hiring initiatives – everything was focused almost exclusively on racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ identities. We need to make sure our law firms, organizations, and events are accessible, and that we respect the need for different types of minds within our profession. There is so much work to be done. I hope to play a part in making the legal profession more accessible and inclusive for law students, lawyers, and our staff professionals alike.

Since you have been “out” about being autistic for many years, have you encountered any stigma as a result? What would you recommend for other lawyers or law students who are unsure how to face that sigma themselves?

More than I’d like to admit. I’ve had people talk down to me as if I don’t understand things, or doubt my abilities at every turn in my journey from high school onward. I also think there is a gender bias as well. At my very first professional lawyer networking event, a federal judge presumed I was a law student (despite my name tag saying otherwise) and asked how my first year of school was going. I gently replied my first year of practice was going well. I think we also wrestle with internalized ableism and our own beliefs about our disabilities. As for recommendations, it’s up to us to be comfortable in our own skins, be effective self-advocates who know our worth, and know what the stigmas are and how to break them down. Living and existing in this profession and in law school is an act of breaking barriers since so much of society does not expect much of people with disabilities. You are facing the stigma every day you show up to law school or use your law degree. Please give yourself the credit you deserve.

You have done a great deal of advocacy around autism and other disabilities. What effects have you seen from your advocacy, and what do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I’ve seen a greater understanding of neurodiversity. I’ve seen young people who feel it is possible to go to law school, be open about their autism, or pursue whatever passions they may have. I have made friends. Our community has conversed more about being openly autistic. There’s so much I want to accomplish. Currently, I want to continue the conversations about neurodiversity and autism at work.  I also really want to bring that to the forefront within the legal profession since so much of our work in diversity and inclusion spaces is inaccessible or exclusionary towards people with disabilities. I’m lucky that is a huge part of my daily work.

In addition to your work as a lawyer, you are also an artist. Have you found autism to influence your artistic perspective in any ways?

This is a great question! I think I recognize and notice details and things others don’t, but I think creativity is fun. Autism influences my process because for so long, art has been my escape from stress and social situations and school and all sorts of things, so I guess in a way the harder realities of my disability fuel my artistic fire, so to speak.

Haley Moss

Haley Moss