During my first year of law school, I wanted to get involved in disability advocacy with other students and lawyers, primarily as it related to neurodiversity. Before law school, I was pretty entrenched in the autism advocacy scene: I spoke at my first conference when I was 13, wrote a book that was published while I was still in high school and had another book come out while I was in college.
My quest toward academic involvement began at the law school, but my law school had a student mental health organization that disbanded after my 1L fall, and anytime I talked about neurodiversity, I’d get a confused look at best. I’m autistic and often felt alone as an autistic law student. It wasn’t until my 3L year that I met another autistic student who was in my graduating class and others in the field through networking (disability rights is a fairly niche field, and disabled attorneys and students are often apt to connect with others who have similar life experience). I’ve since dedicated my career to inspiring acceptance and action for neurodivergent lawyers across the board.
But neurodiversity is hardly a new phenomenon: It is a biological fact that we all have different brains. Those of us who are neurodivergent include people who are autistic like me, people with ADHD, learning disabilities, acquired cognitive disabilities, mental health disabilities and intellectual disabilities. That’s hardly an exhaustive list, but neurodivergent lawyers and clients certainly are entering, thriving and/or struggling within the legal profession. And we deserve the same rights and opportunities as anybody else.
Regardless of whether you know it, you already have a neurodiverse legal practice. The legal profession is full of neurodiversity. Outside of our profession’s increasing awareness and focus on mental health related types of neurodivergence, according to CDC estimates that approximately 2.2% of U.S. adults are autistic, and at least 4.4% of adults have ADHD (though this study mentions that about 12.5% of lawyers meet the criteria for an ADHD identification). That’s all before we even get around to our clients, who may also be neurodivergent. Neurodiversity is also intersectional, affecting people of all races, genders, sexualities, cultures and other demographic factors. Chances are, you or someone you know or regularly work with is neurodivergent.
Choosing to include neurodivergent folks with accommodation solutions is not just a floor set by the Americans with Disabilities Act but a key ingredient to having an accessible legal profession for everyone. It’s also not the burdensome, scary process many consider it to be—the majority of solutions are free or low-cost.
As lawyers, we’re often advocates for others—but advocating for ourselves is harder than advocating for other people in our lives (such as family members, friends and clients). We neurodivergent and disabled folks are constantly expected to self-advocate to receive accommodations and have our needs met. But advocating for yourself becomes exhausting, often at the risk of internalized ableism—such as considering you’re perhaps “too demanding” or a “burden” to others (You are not! You are simply asking for what you need!).
Advocating for ourselves may require disclosure, which may not always be helpful, safe or relevant, though it is necessary to receive protection under the ADA. People don’t disclose for a variety of reasons—trust, safety, fear of harassment, questioning from the bar application process or stigma, to name a few.
Welcoming and accommodating neurodiverse lawyers
To help make it easier, our neurotypical allies can advocate alongside us. One way you can do this is to adapt with universal design in mind: designing our environments, products and services with everyone in mind, regardless of demographic factors. Some of these accessibility accommodations should be common courtesies that benefit all of us, such as making sure meetings have agendas (goodbye, pre-meeting stress) or providing closed captions on Zoom (hello to the visual learners, deaf folks and second-language learners). Other things that can be helpful really do depend on the individual, such as providing a general idea of how long a specific task should take or be billed for to mentally accommodate for distraction or thought rabbit holes; or something such as being able to wear headphones to block out noise that can be overwhelming for someone with sensory differences.
To that effect, it’s also important to note neurodivergence is not a monolith. For example, I am someone who struggles with sensory processing, often finding spaces to be loud and crowded and the fluorescent lights in my old firm office to have been both painful and distracting. While it was unreasonable to demand that they be replaced, I wore headphones instead. Some folks may need fidget gadgets, clear instructions, sensory breaks, hybrid or remote work options. The possibilities are endless. Keep in mind that accommodations are not “gaming the system” or “getting an unfair advantage” so much as leveling the playing field. For instance, a lot of people wear glasses or contacts to accommodate a visual impairment and we think nothing of it.
At the very least, larger firms with dedicated human resources teams should make it clear to everyone how to receive accommodations through HR or through the colleagues, and not just at onboarding. Disability and neurodivergence are dynamic—someone may be identified later in life, they might take time to trust you with disclosing or asking for help or not recognize what they need immediately. I surely didn’t know what I needed when I was in law school or when I was a new lawyer, and a few years removed from both of those experiences, I know now exactly what I would have needed back then or will need in the future to succeed.
Supporting and accommodating neurodivergent clients
Something that always is brought up to me when neurodivergent clients come up are ethical considerations—what to do with interpreters, diminished capacity concerns or competence. But a lot of those concerns are also our own biases showing with regard what we think neurodiversity is (or is not). Instead, as lawyers, it’s up to us to practice a little bit of empathy. People seek out lawyers for all sorts of reasons: Maybe they’re starting a business, or they were fired or getting divorced, or getting sued. There’s already a natural fear or surprise element to that initial interaction for clients, without our judgments based on a person’s cognitive abilities.
To lead with empathy, think about how to make those first interactions less terrifying in order to build trust. There’s a knowledge gap lawyers have about disability culture. Presume competence by treating us like any other client; it’s one of the easiest ways to show respect. It’s frustrating even to me when I get talked down to like a little kid because I’m autistic, and your adult neurodivergent clients probably have had similar experiences. To that effect, something we all can do better is clean up legal jargon and use plain language, explaining concepts in an easy-to-understand format.
I also like trying to meet folks where they are. If having fidget toys, offering breaks or meeting someone in a place that is private but more comfortable than an office is the thing that makes a difference, so be it. I try to be patient and learn how others communicate. Some people may use signs, behaviors, gestures, technology, spoken words or a combination, and a good way to build trust and allow for effective communication is to ask what the client prefers. Make sure to allow neurodivergent and disabled clients to communicate in the way that allows them to do their best.
As for those of us who are accommodating neurodivergent clients in courts, check in with your local ADA coordinators to make things happen. Maybe you’ll get more breaks in litigation or questioning, or other accommodations will be made to help your clients, witnesses and other key people be able to have a less stressful experience.
At the very least, if you truly don’t know how to accommodate someone, often the best thing you can do is be a good listener or simply offer a question of encouragement, such as, “How can I support you?” It’s a phrase that goes a lot further than you’d expect.