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Neurodivergence at the Bar

 

 

The Bar is becoming increasingly aware of its need to mirror society’s views of social inclusivity, bringing it into the modern age. One area that we have witnessed gaining traction is neurodiversity.

However, for the Bar to progress, as with all areas of diversity, we must first appreciate the current problems faced by neurodiverse barristers and those aspiring to the profession.

Neurodiversity

Taking us back one step, a person who is neurodivergent is someone who simply has a different way of processing information. Dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism all fall under this umbrella. It is estimated that one in seven people in the UK is neurodivergent. [1]

In contrast, a neurotypical individual’s brain behaves in the same way as the majority population.

Over the last few decades, there has been a tentative step away from previous thinking that those who suffer these conditions need to be cured.[2] Instead, they should be accepted and recognised alongside other areas of diversity such as sexuality, gender, or ethnicity.[3] Fundamentally the way a person thinks forms their personality; therefore, taking away or trying to cure one of these conditions is trying to take away or fix their individuality. Nor does someone’s intellectual ability have any connection to being neurodiverse.

This awareness brings with it an effort to move away from simply focusing on the supposed negatives of such conditions but rather highlighting to society that, in general, those that are neurodivergent may have many positive attributes that a neurotypical individual may lack. For example, those with dyslexia have often been categorised as individuals who simply cannot spell or need extra time reading. Still, little is known about the positives of this divergence. There is growing research showing that individuals with dyslexia often have strengths in critical thinking, problem-solving skills, narrative memory and abstract thinking.[4]

Of perhaps the greatest interest is that these strengths are all relevant skills needed for a career at the Bar, and it could be argued that there is a pool of talent being wasted due to an outdated misunderstanding focusing on the perceived negatives of the individual’s divergence, which support and  Chambers’s resources can easily overcome.

Current Position

The Bar is making progress in the area of neurodivergence but there is still some way to go.  Neurodivergence has been more recently recognised than its counterparts, such as gender, sexuality, and race and the Neurodivergence movement itself is new. As a result there is still substantial progress to be made in this area in order to achieve the same recognition level.

The very nature of the profession, steeped in the interpretation, presentation and defence of our language and its use and perception in our laws, provides further challenge to the understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity and to tackling the traditional views of neurodiversity which remain throughout large parts of the legal profession.[5] Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear legal professionals indicate that their clients lack intelligence because they are neurodivergent. Additionally, some of the aspiring and practising neurodivergent barristers who have been open about their neurodivergence still face questions about whether they can do the job due to their ‘disorder’.

It is also clear that tackling this issue will need to start much earlier than at the recruitment stage. The writer was shocked when speaking to several neurodivergent individuals about their journey to the Bar, that they highlighted that even at school, the advice given on taking up the profession had been one of discouragement, simply due to their neurodivergence rather than their aptitude. It is, therefore, not surprising that some of these candidates chose not to disclose their divergence in the disability box on their pupillage applications, and subsequently, if successful, often still feel like imposters as they continue to encounter in their daily professional lives the discouragement that they have faced both inside and outside of the profession.

Whilst it might seem to some of the individuals affected that the Bar is somewhat lagging behind in tackling this area, there is hope as the emergence and growth of the Neurodivergence movement in the profession has begun to show.

One of the most significant improvements in the area is the ever-increasing number of events held by both Circuit and Inns, who advocate a sea-change in the views, practices and policies of Chambers. One such event was in 2021, the ‘Equality Diversity and Inclusivity forum on ‘Neurodiversity in the Law: Great Minds think Differently.’[6] Such events do much to help tackle the root cause of discrimination against neurodiverse individuals, highlighting the misinformation and misunderstanding due to lack of understanding and engagement in the area. 

Additionally, more barristers are coming forward and discussing their own experiences, both publicly and privately, and joining organisations such as Neurodiversity in the Law which actively promotes the conversation and aims to eliminate the stigma.

Moreover, change occurs at root level in individual chambers. One such example is Crown Chambers, which actively supports Barristers with neurodiversity, creating an environment that promotes inclusivity. It takes seriously its obligation to provide reasonable adjustments both in pupillage and tenancy, allowing neurodiverse barristers to reach their full potential and creating a setting where individuals that are neurodiverse can openly discuss the barriers they face whilst practising.

Ways Forward

Strides have been made in this area, but there is undoubtedly a long road ahead before the Bar will have eliminated the stigma of neurodiversity in the profession. Every neurodivergent barrister will have their view on how to achieve improvement, but there are common steps:

  1. Chambers should not simply tolerate neurodiversity but actively promote inclusivity within the profession; this has to be more than just saying candidates will not be discriminated against at the point of the interview but actively encouraging candidates that are neurodiverse to apply and highlighting those adjustments which can be made for them.
  2. The profession should focus on erasing the perceived barrier of future applicants at an early stage by attending schools and highlighting to both pupils and career advisors that neurodiversity is not an impediment to the profession and that it could actually be a positive tool. Additionally, we should promote the success stories of those with neurodiversity and emphasise and publicise their accomplishments and achievements.
  3. Chambers should educate, promote, and engage in the conversation around neurodiversity and the movement to the same level as any area of equality, both internally and externally.
  4. The Inns, Circuits and Chambers should actively promote other events and forums to highlight the positive aspects of having neurodiverse barristers in the profession and engage with those barristers and professional colleagues that are not familiar with it.
  5. Chambers should regularly review their available adjustments for neurodiverse barristers and their policies which provide the framework for these, always looking to see whether they can be improved to provide greater assistance to their pupils and tenants.
  6. One area that could be improved is the welfare support for those neurodiverse individuals who have come to the Bar, both dealing with the issues presented whilst practising and potential imposter syndrome stemming from years of being told that such a career is unattainable.

Sam Sharp – Barrister

[1] ACAS. ‘Neurodiversity in the workplace.’ https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ukgwa/20210104113255/https://archive.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=6676

[2] John Elder Robin  ‘What is Neurodiversity ‘ Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity

[3] Sue Carr and Kerry Jack ‘Neurodiversity- The Secret Weapon for Recruiting talent and Winning Clients.’  The Neurodiverse Lawyers Blog https://neurodiverselawyer.co.uk/f/the-secret-weapon-for-recruiting-talent-winning-clients

[4]  EY ‘The Value of Dyslexia’ (Dyslexic Strength and the changing world of work)

[5] Oliver May ‘ Neurodiversity and the Bar’ – Counsel Magazine https://www.counselmagazine.co.uk/articles/neurodiversity-the-bar

 

[6] EDI Forum of 2021 ‘Neurodiversity in the Law: Great Minds think Differently’

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