When we graduated from high school, colleges and universities promised the next logical step to careers ripe for fulfillment and success. Sure, some kids didn’t make the grades or shine on standardized tests, and that just made them different, not bad kids, just not focusing or behaving the same, and so not able to perform the same. They were passengers on an incongruent career trajectory. From a culturally American perspective, things would certainly have been better for them by graduation if they’d earned it by buckling down and working harder. Right?
Innumerable studies performed and re-run during the intervening decades suggest “no,” and that’s unequivocal. We’ve learned, albeit slowly, that learning and career skills are fundamentally different. Fast forward a few years, and a new generation entered the workforce righteously intent on similar career fulfillment and success—complete with labels that read “DISABILITY,” and some that well-nigh connote disease. Labels like dyslexia, the autism spectrum, social anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been systematically hypothesized, proven, and fastidiously applied. And time marches on.
Some of these labeled souls, however, have refused to be defined by the “dis” of their abilities. Like true superheroes, these purposeful people instead named and overcame their innate challenges to uncover their “caped-abilities.” Such employees have been ripped from obscure workforce margins and given real responsibilities in multi-billion-dollar global corporations.
The legal industry has a well-earned and longstanding reputation as a slow adopter of change. And yet, awareness of the bright, available possibilities should lead law practices to not only identify potential roles and responsibilities for these caped-able individuals but also force the development of processes to support these lawyers.
No matter how profound our implicit or explicit biases of these labels may be, law practices of all shapes and sizes must either stand in front of a speeding bullet, get out of the way, or—most logically—harness the competitive advantages these remarkable present and future professionals portend.
Perhaps inevitably, as unemployment rates scratch record lows, a new brand of inclusion—neurodiversity—has emerged in workplaces bent on offering clients comprehensive talent and points of view. Household names like Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Ernst & Young (EY), UBS, JP Morgan Chase, Microsoft, SAP, and Willis Towers Watson have stormed the talent pools of invisible disabilities, unwilling to merely dip a toe in the water. And why not? Estimates of under- and unemployment of persons with invisible disabilities reach 80%: they may actually be more available.
The learnings from these companies point to attractive characteristics still widely untapped in the labor market. While loyalty among younger workers may feel like ghost-chasing, neurodiverse employees are credited with lower turnover as well as consistent performance levels. According to Dr. Di Ann Sanchez, they often show greater commitment and conscientiousness to their jobs, as well as demonstrate reliability, adherence to rules, and trustworthiness. In fact, Australia’s Department of Human Services reports that neurodiverse teams are 30% more productive than other teams. As dramatized in the television series The Good Doctor, caped-able professionals present novel insights, through candor and directness, and enhanced creativity with issue-spotting precision that HPE and the Israeli Defense Forces have found uniquely valuable.
Caped-Able Innovation in Law
Within the legal industry, a variety of opportunities exist for the employment of those with neurodiverse profiles. In particular, applying savant syndrome abilities to litigation could be a game-changer for law practices. Faced with deep-into-the-weeds fact-finding, many of these individuals flourish when focused on research. Others thrive on rote tasks such as document production, memorization for oral arguments, and consistent processes like case management and litigation budgets.
Given their known strengths relative to mathematics, opportunities exist in law firms for data analytics and financial analysis, as well as business intelligence and client relationship management tools.
Whether insourced or outsourced, firms often have copy/office service centers that provide copy, scan, and mail processing services. Neurodiverse people will provide highly productive resources for word processing-oriented tasks.
Practically speaking, neurodiverse lawyers might not immediately offer client- or court-facing opportunities, however, their extraordinary and unique abilities will now permit more exceptional representation of clients, as well as provide productive and reliable non-lawyer services.
New Recruitment Paradigm
Despite the inherent challenges and discomfort associated with hiring and retaining these talents, law firms and their clients would benefit from it. A large chasm exists within our traditional human resource hiring, training, and career development processes. The time has arrived to modify and embrace the capabilities and qualities of those with neurodiverse profiles to close the gap.
Might any of your open positions lend themselves to the caped-able innovations as described above? Law practices also can start by encouraging disability disclosure in the recruiting process: beyond the equal employment vow, hiring managers could advertise positions to explicitly encourage neurodiverse applicants.
The largest area to break archaic practice may be interview practices. The simplest way to level the playing field for this potential talent pool is to send sequenced interview questions ahead of time so applicants can practice in-person interview conversation. Zoom or Skype meetings for first screenings offer a familiar, controlled environment for caped-able applicants. Further, recruiters should develop role-based assessments—think typing tests of yore—including actual work to be performed as part of the initial screening.
On the more ambitious side of the scale, companies like EY and others have integrated virtual reality and visual robots for interviewing purposes. EY’s Center for Excellence hosts a “super week” for neurodiverse interviewees that simulates the workplace, including role-playing, teaming, feedback, and coaching.
Integration and Retention
Superman was capable of unearthly feats until deprived of his powers by the alien mineral kryptonite. After you have managed to alter your hiring practices and maybe even stretch your partners, your newly appointed caped-able attorneys come with attributes that might foil your plans if an integration plan isn’t airtight.
Foremost, be explicit about expectations and social rules with your new employee. Remember that neurodiverse individuals fare better with direct and consistent messaging. Don’t forget that body language and social queues may go unnoticed.
Secondarily, your work environment might represent kryptonite to these professionals. Loud noises, office banter, bright lighting, and music wafting from PCs may comfort some workers, but constant distraction will deeply affect the productivity of the neurodiverse. Instead, make environmental accommodations that play to the strengths of caped-able professionals whenever possible and appropriate. You might be able to allow headphones or earbuds, designate office space versus cubicles, and alter lighting without starting an internal land war.
To empower caped-able professionals for the long term, ensure that those who manage these specialized assets of human capital get training to develop practical experience with invisible disabilities. Dr. Sanchez recommends that employers should provide sensitivity training for all supervisors, managers, and co-workers. Offer neurodiverse workers specialized job coaching consultants and create a well-communicated architecture to collaboratively plan your employee’s predictable career path.
Which Comes First, the Lawyer or the Client?
You’d be hard-pressed to point to the legal industry as leading innovation—in just about anything—compared to other industries. That the financial, business consulting, and technology industries have invested millions of dollars in thousands of caped-able employees might demonstrate that the risk has been quantified and found worthy. Is the dreary status quo reason enough to resist owning change? If lawyers as a profession would decide to turn now against the tide of straight-jacketed postponements, how may we then “suit up” to identify viable employment opportunities that not only provide the pathway for inclusion but also maximize the strengths and capabilities of these neurodiverse talents?
How do you stand in the way of individuals who choose to tap into their superior ability? Beyond “doing the right thing” for marginalized people, you stand to supplement service excellence with these hidden talents.
Woe to you, oh law practice, that fails to move beyond mere consideration of how neurodiversity can improve the holistic perspective of your service to clients. As we have seen in the wider diversity conversation, our clients have progressed from simple inquiry of demographic representation to financial tracking of who, among their outside counsel, is actually doing the work. Savvy clients continue to steer work to those law practices willing to grow, retain, and promote wide talent pools and universal perspectives.
About the Authors
Suzanne Hartness (SHartness@gsrm.com) is the chief operating officer at Gullett Sanford Robinson & Martin PLLC in Nashville, Tennessee. John D. Bowers (JDB@iplawgroup.com) is the chief operating officer at Patterson Intellectual Property Law, PC in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a former editor-in-chief of Law Practice, where he continues to serve on the Editorial Board. The authors deeply thank Timothy J. Vogus, Ph.D., the Brownlee O. Curry, Jr. Professor of Management at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, for providing indispensable facts and advice for this article.