IP Ability committee member Rebecca Campbell (Mewburn Ellis) wrote the following article for publication in World IP Review (WIPR) during Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2022. In it she outlined the challenges faced by many neurodivergent IP lawyers, and how she has learned to deal with them.
We are extremely grateful to Becky for sharing her experiences with such candour and insight, and to WIPR for allowing us to re-publish her words on the IP Inclusive website. You can read the original article here.
I wasn’t diagnosed as neurodivergent until my early 30s. Neurodivergence is the term for when someone’s brain processes, learns, and/or behaves differently from what is considered “typical”.
I did well at school and university and didn’t seem to display any of the traditional symptoms. However, I never felt as if I was fulfilling my potential and I always felt exhausted and overstimulated.
The pandemic disrupted my normal routines and gave me time for some introspection. One day, I came across some articles which described the experiences of late-diagnosed neurodivergent women. It was like reading about myself. I did some online tests and scored highly for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and dyscalculia.
I realised that I’d been subconsciously “masking” my traits and adopting coping mechanisms throughout my life. I’ve now learned that it’s actually really common for neurodivergent women and men with non-typical presentations to be diagnosed later in life.
The current DSM-5 diagnostic criteria are mainly based on studies of boys and men from some time ago. Girls are also socialised from a young age to fit in and not cause disruption. As a result, many women unintentionally hide their neurodivergence, becoming experts at camouflaging their traits in social situations or becoming perfectionists with a constant feeling that they are somehow an imposter.
It’s common for neurodivergent women to be diagnosed after a major life event disrupts their coping mechanisms, such as going to university, the birth of their first child or the menopause.
One of the biggest challenges has been confidence and learning to trust my instincts. Before I knew I was neurodivergent, I blamed myself for a lot of my differences and it’s taking time to unlearn the habit.
Something I didn’t realise until recently was how much I rely on lipreading and body language. I have good hearing, but like a lot of neurodivergent people, I sometimes struggle with audio processing. This explains why I find it difficult to understand people in crowded, noisy places and why I find speaking on the telephone much more stressful than in person or on video calls.
The environment I work in is also really important. I can’t concentrate if it is noisy or where there is a lot of fluorescent lighting unless I’m engaged in a really challenging or novel task.
On the other hand, I also benefit from the routine and stimulation of the office and I would go mad if I had to work from home all the time. These days, I carry a range of aids with me wherever I go to enable me to be more productive and comfortable. This includes things like noise-cancelling headphones, fidget toys, a Pomodoro timer, my bullet journal and medication.
There have been times when people have made mistaken assumptions about my intentions or the intentions of neurodivergent peers based on the way we do or say something.
For example, assuming that someone is unmotivated or rude because they do not make eye contact. I’ve also come across a few people who have been unable to look past the medical labels and associated stereotypes. One of my friends, who is neurodivergent but not “out” at work, once heard a partner say that certain types of neurodivergent people could not be lawyers.
I have found, however, that the majority of people have been understanding and simply interested to learn more. I feel really lucky to work for a firm that is supportive of my neurodivergence and equity, diversity and inclusion generally. I’m a member of our internal Inclusivity & Diversity Group, which enables people in the firm to take an active role in building and delivering the firm’s equity, diversity and inclusivity initiatives.
I’m also proud of the work that IP Inclusive and organisations like Neurodiversity in Law are doing to combat stereotypes and stigma. Since an event I was involved in last year on late-diagnosed neurodiversity, several people have reached out to me to share their experiences or ask for advice on the diagnostic process.
There are a lot more of us in the legal profession than we realise. Organisations are increasingly aware of the importance of diversity of thought and the valuable contribution neurodivergent brains make.
There are still a lot of stereotypes about neurodiversity and who it affects. At least 15% of the population is neurodivergent in some way, and it’s unlikely the legal profession is any different. I’ve met other neurodivergent lawyers at all stages of practice, from paralegals to partners and solicitors to barristers.
Often, neurodivergent lawyers choose not to be “out” in their professional lives due to a fear that they will be treated differently or that it will hinder their careers. This is not good for our mental health or productivity. We are also constantly adapting to a world that is not designed for us, whether this is our work environment or in the way we communicate.
We need to continue to listen to neurodivergent lawyers and build a legal profession where they feel able to bring their whole self to work. Organisations like IP Inclusive and Neurodiversity in Law are doing great work in this area.
As we come out of the pandemic, we also have the opportunity to design workplaces and practices that are inclusive of all neurotypes. For example, many neurodivergent lawyers have found that they are more productive working from home and wish to continue to be able to do so at least some of the time. In other cases, neurodivergent lawyers might request specific accommodations such as dictation software or a desk in a quiet part of the office.
It’s important to remember that there is a lot of variation among individuals, and ideally the emphasis should be on helping the person to reach their potential rather than forcing people to be something that they are not.
Rebecca Campbell is an associate and Chartered Trade Mark Attorney at Mewburn Ellis. She sits on the committee of IP Ability – our community for disabled and neurodivergent people, carers and their allies – and is also a member of the IP Inclusive Advisory Board. She can be contacted at [email protected].