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February 13, 2024 GP Mentor

Finding Support to Thrive as Neurodivergent Lawyers

Haley Moss
It isn’t easy out there when it feels like your brain is working against you, but relying on a good support system helps.

It isn’t easy out there when it feels like your brain is working against you, but relying on a good support system helps.

thianchai sitthikongsak via Getty Images

When I began practicing law, one of the things I was most excited about was learning from others who had started their own firms. How did they manage all the different demands that fell on them? I had always been a business-type person. I sold concert tickets in college and bought and sold clothing as a side hustle in law school. Still, managing multiple things at once feels like a circus for me—I am able to hyper-focus on the details and minutiae, and yet, time management and prioritizing tasks prove to be an issue for me due to the executive functioning difficulties posed by the fact that I am autistic. That’s just how my brain works.

Even after leaving practice for a nontraditional path—starting my own business largely doing educational programming, training, and consulting around disability and neurodiversity inclusion—I struggle to find and create a support system of people who nurture how my brain works. I feel so guilty every time I miscalculate how long a project will take or my own scheduling. “Am I horribly unprofessional? Does everyone secretly hate me right now?” are thoughts I wrestle with regularly.

If this feels an awful lot like you—battling an unhealthy dose of imposter syndrome, being easily distracted, or having something going on with your mental health or a neurological variation such as autism or perhaps attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—it’s so easy to get caught up in that self-doom spiral. If you’re a mentor, it’s also easy to fall into thinking that a lawyer you work with is morally inferior somehow, that lateness is a constant choice and laziness is par for the course for this person.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Honest with Yourself—and Others

After getting caught up in the daily grind, sometimes it’s hard to take a step back. But it’s key to take that moment to check in with yourself to see if you’re overwhelmed, what is going well and what isn’t going well, and how and why that might be related to mental health, distraction, or how your brain works. I am historically very bad at recognizing when I overcommitted myself until I feel as if I am drowning in responsibilities, but I am getting better at saying no and also admitting when I have too much on my plate.

Make a Friend or Some Kind of Accountability Buddy

Usually, when we say to find and make mentoring relationships, we expect it to be limited to how to run a practice or even the art of practicing in a specific area. My best work friends are accountability buddies—people I can “work” alongside who keep me from getting distracted or who regularly check in with me to make sure a meeting or time on my calendar is still good before I realize I have 5,000 other things on my plate. Having an accountability partner who also can do things that my brain can’t allows me to function better. It’s a level of care that most professional relationships deserve to have.

Give Yourself (and Those Around You) Grace

I’ve learned people are a lot more understanding when I tell them what’s going on—that I genuinely underestimated how long a project would take, I didn’t know if it was urgent, or I was simply burned out. Giving myself permission to cancel meetings when feeling burned out allowed me to recuperate, and the people who thanked me for taking care of myself and said they felt validated by that unflinching honesty went a long way. Also, bear in mind that the lawyer who is late might not be trying to cause you a headache—the traffic probably was worse than anticipated, and they feel absolutely terrible about it. That’s where the grace comes in.

It isn’t easy out there when it feels like your brain is working against you, when you don’t have a huge number of people supporting you but still plenty who depend on you. However, a little vulnerability and honesty go a long way toward developing a good support system to help you thrive.

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Haley Moss

Author and Neurodiversity Expert

Haley Moss is a non-practicing lawyer, neurodiversity expert, and author of four books that guide neurodivergent people through personal and professional challenges. While she is known as Florida’s first openly autistic attorney, today she is a sought-after speaker and commentator on disability rights as well as a consultant to businesses and organizations looking to create a more accessible workplace.