Embracing Neurodiversity in IP Firms this Neurodiversity Celebration Week!
Neurodiversity is a concept that recognizes and values differences in the ways that people experience and interact with the world. While the term is typically applied to neurological conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia, everyone thinks and learns differently and brings individual talents to their work. This article focuses on ensuring the success of neurodiverse individuals[i] in IP firms, but many of the topics discussed will improve work experiences for all members of a firm.
Neurodiverse Individuals Can Help Build a Stronger Firm
Traditional firm models place a high value on conformity and consistency. However, IP firms can benefit in several ways by embracing neurodiversity and neurodiverse individuals.
Neurodiverse individuals often have skills that are invaluable in IP practice. Neurodiversity arises from natural variations in the brain that lead to differences in neurological, cognitive and behavioural patterns.[ii] While neurodiverse individuals may struggle with some skills and tasks, frequently this is balanced by strengths that allow them to produce excellent work product. For example, a person with ADHD may struggle with time management, but may also have an exceptionally creative mind with the ability to identify solutions and arguments that would not be apparent to others. Similarly, an autistic person may have difficulty with certain forms of communication or interaction, but may have strong attention to detail and memory.
Neurodiverse individuals can also bring unique perspectives and ways of analyzing information and problems. These unique approaches can lead to innovative solutions and more effective decisions that take a broader range of factors into account, improving outcomes for both the firm and its clients.
The talent pool for IP professionals likely includes a relatively high number of neurodiverse individuals. A 2016 study of American lawyers found that 12.5% of lawyers self-identified as having ADHD, which is far greater than the general prevalence of ADHD in 4-8% of American adults.[iii] Similarly, a NIH study found that autistic young adults who attend post-secondary education are most likely to pursue STEM majors compared to other majors, and in a significantly greater proportion than neurotypical individuals.[iv] A significant proportion of IP professionals in Canada have a legal or STEM education, or both. IP firms are increasingly incorporating diversity, equity and inclusion strategies into their hiring and staff retention programs. By including neurodiversity in these programs, firms will hire and promote professionals and staff who better reflect their candidate pools and many of their clients.
Hiring neurodiverse individuals can benefit both the firm and the individual. I’d like to think that is what happened in my case. I started at Bereskin & Parr as a summer student in 1996 and have had a great experience, with numerous mentors, interesting work and excellent colleagues. Nineteen years later, I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 46. The diagnosis helped me understand a lifetime of struggling to focus on some tasks for even a few minutes while being able to work on others for 48 hours straight, as well as a multitude of other behaviours that frequently made work either impossibly difficult or incredibly satisfying. I am fortunate to work at a firm with an exceptional culture and which values its members for their capabilities, hard work, and contributions to the firm, its work and its clients. At the time of my diagnosis, the firm’s managing partner was Micheline Gravelle, who had implemented programs to proactively encourage mental health, diversity and resilience amongst our lawyers, agents and staff. After speaking with her and other colleagues, I decided to be public about my diagnosis with the objective of normalizing ADHD and other neurodiversities within our firm.
Encouraging Neurodiverse Individuals
Firms can help ensure the success of their neurodiverse members by providing a workspace and arrangements that complement their skills. For example:
- Low-Distraction workspace. Individuals with ADHD or autism may find it difficult to focus in environments with many visual or audible distractions. By providing a less distracting workspace, such as an office with neutral coloured and uncluttered walls, firms can help their neurodiverse members focus on their work. A simple and cost-effective approach to reducing noise is to provide firm members with noise-cancelling headphones. Some neurodiverse individuals will benefit from reduced overhead lighting in their workspace. Providing individuals with controllable task lighting that illuminates their work surface can also help reduce the effect of visual distractions. If possible, firms should coordinate workspace layouts, paint colours, decorations and lighting with firm members using the space.
- Mentoring and counselling. Mentoring plays a key role in the success of IP professionals, and this can be even more important to neurodiverse individuals who struggle to communicate or form social connections. Mentoring is particularly important early in a person’s careers when the learning curve is steep. Firms should strive to pair lawyers, agents and staff with mentors who will help them navigate the profession and build a strong career. In many cases, a senior partner with great legal and agency experience may not be the ideal mentor. Instead, it may be a relatively junior associate who has recently navigated the demanding early years of a career, and who may also be a neurodiverse individual that understand the specific needs of the mentee. Some firm members may be reluctant to self-identify as having a neurodiversity, but may be able to identify a mentor who can help them. Consider appointing multiple mentors for individuals that will benefit from multiple viewpoints, and taking the mentee’s preferences for a mentor into account. Firms should also consider including access to a counsellors and therapists through their benefit plans.
- Limiting interruptions. A common cause of lost productivity at work are e-mails, text messages, MS Team notifications and other interruptions. While any interruption leads to some lost progress and momentum, for a neurodiverse individual it can take a long time to return to a task after an interruption, amplifying the effect. Neurodiverse individuals can benefit from turning off notifications, and firms should encourage them to do so. One productive approach is to set a reminder to check e-mails and other notifications every hour or two, but silence them in between.
- Assistive technology. Some neurodiverse individuals may be benefit from the use of assistive technologies. For example, a dyslexic individual may benefit from text-to-speech software that reads documents aloud. An individual with ADHD may benefit from a web browser add-in that limits access to social media, news and other distracting websites.
- Flexible working arrangements. Some neurodiverse individuals find it difficult to work during standard business hours. Firms can accommodate them by offering flexible work arrangements, including work-from-home arrangements and the ability to work outside of typical business hours. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that business can be done in a hybrid work environment, with flexible arrangements that allow firm members to save commuting time, reduce stress and anxiety and improve their work-life balance, all of which can help neurodiverse individuals (and everyone else) succeed.
- Education. Firms should educate all members about neurodiversity. Recognizing neurodiverse people for their abilities, rather than as ill or disabled, increases their sense of belonging and encourages them to fulfill their potential within a firm. Promoting understanding and awareness amongst firm members and recognizing the value that neurodiverse members bring to the firm’s culture and business will not only help them achieve their own goals but will also improve the firm’s bottom line.
A key aspect to encouraging neurodiverse individuals within a firm is to ensure open and judgment-free communication. At Bereskin & Parr, we have an open-door environment. As a junior lawyer, I felt free to drop in on the firm’s senior partners to talk about work and other issues. My openness about my ADHD diagnosis has allowed me to repay the favour for others. I’ve had numerous opportunities to discuss with colleagues how they are working through their own neurodiversities, anxieties and the typical stresses of a demanding career, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic when we were physically isolated from one another for months at a time. These conversations are invariably mutually beneficial. I can tell my colleagues about my approaches to dealing with workload management, productivity and coping mechanisms. In almost every case, I learn just as much from them as they do from me. I encourage senior members of IP firms, particularly those who have worked through their own neurodiversity and other challenges, to make sure their doors are open (physically or virtually) to juniors who may be struggling to achieve their full potential and to be proactive about advocating for them.
Beyond their internal staff, firms should be mindful of neurodiverse clients. Neurodiverse company founders and leaders see the world differently, and often in ways that unlock business opportunities others would not discern. I have experienced this with several neurodiverse tech founders and engineers who have imagined and built technology that initially seemed ahead of its time and far-fetched, but eventually revolutionized their industries.
When working with a neurodiverse client, it is necessary to be patient and allow the client to fully express their thoughts. Communications should be clear and concise, without unnecessary legal jargon. It can be easier to explain timelines, legal standards, filing options and budgets using flowcharts and diagrams. For clients with environmental sensitivities, it can be helpful to meet them virtually or in their own office, where the environment is already adapted to their needs. This can reduce anxiety and allows the client to express themselves. Finally, it can be very helpful for a neurodiverse client to have materials in advance of a meeting. They can review the materials on their own time without the pressure to understand everything in real time. They will often arrive fully prepared with insightful questions and ready to maximize the value of the meeting.
Embracing neurodiversity in a firm’s DEI strategy ensures that the firm reflects its pool of candidate employees and clients. Neurodiverse individuals frequently have exceptional skills that improve the firm’s work product and its bottom line. Firms can proactively help neurodiverse members succeed through strong mentoring, open communications, and by providing a suitable workspace and other arrangements that maximize their potential.
I’ll close with a couple of tech trademarks. IBM’s slogan, for more than a century, has called on employees to THINK. In our era of growing inclusivity, Apple’s THINK DIFFERENTLY slogan is perhaps more apropos.
There are many excellent resources for neurodiverse individuals and employers, including:
- Moss, Haley. Great Minds Think Differently: Neurodiversity for Lawyers and Other Professionals. American Bar Association, 2021.
- Armstrong, Thomas. Neurodiversity: Discovering the Extraordinary Gifts of Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia and other Brain Differences. Hachette Books, 2010.
- Mahto, Monika and Hogan, Susan K. A rising tide lifts all boats: Creating a better work environment for all by embracing neurodiversity. Deloitte. www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/topics/talent/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace.html, 2022 .
- Shapiro, Scott S. Accommodations for ADHD in the Workplace. Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-best-strategies-for-managing-adult-adhd/202204/accommodations-for-adhd-in-the-workplace, 2022.
- Cooks-Campbell, Allaya. Unlock creativity by making space for neurodiversity in the workplace. BetterUp, www.betterup.com/blog/neurodiversity-in-the-workplace, 2022.
- Baumer, Nicole and Frueh, Julia. What is neurodiversity?. Harvard Health Publishing, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity-202111232645, 2021.
[i] This article primarily uses identity-first language to avoid the implication that neurodiversities are disabilities. See: Callahan, Molly. Unpacking the debate over person-first vs. identity-first language in the autism community. Northeastern Global News, https://news.northeastern.edu/2018/07/12/unpacking-the-debate-over-person-first-vs-identity-first-language-in-the-autism-community/; Collier R. Person-first language: Noble intent but to what effect? CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal, 184(18), 1977–1978, https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.109-4319; and Gernsbacher, Morton. The use of person-first language in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 58. 859-861. doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.12706.
[ii] Neurodivergent, Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/23154-neurodivergent, retrieved 2023 March 5. What is neurodiversity?, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/features/what-is-neurodiversity, retrieved 2023 March 5.
[iii] Krill, Patrick R. The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys. Journal of Addiction Medicine (10)1:p 46-52, January/February 2016, doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000182.
[iv] Wei, Xin; Yu, Jennifer W; Shattuck, Paul; McCracken, Mary; and Blackorby, Jose. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Participation Among College Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. J Autism Dev Disord. 2013 Jul; 43(7): 1539–1546 doi: 10.1007/s10803-012-1700-z.
Bhupinder Randhawa is a partner at Bereskin & Parr LLP. He co-chairs the patent practice group and is a member of the firm’s executive committee.