Page published on 14th November 2022
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In the final part of her three-part article, IP Ability committee member Sophia Karim of D Young & Co talks about her experiences working in an IP firm following her ADHD diagnosis. She reflects on the strengths of the ADHD brain and their potential value to the legal profession, as well as on ways that the working environment can be made more inclusive for people with ADHD.
My mentor in my first role told me that we are paid for our brains. I watched in awe as my mentor would effortlessly, every day, tackle complex, multi-jurisdictional IP issues for so many high profile companies and household brands, whilst under constant imminent deadlines and going beyond clients’ expectations.
Meanwhile, I was figuring out the intricacies and ecosytem of an IP law firm, from time sheets and hourly rates to the nuances within the aural, visual and conceptual elements identified in a trade mark. I was fascinated by the sheer multitude of approaches one can take to dissect a simple word or design: whether in the context of a contentious or non-contentious matter, or in arguing similarity or dissimilarity, the possibilities were endless. No day was ever the same. I was constantly intellectually stimulated by new, complex matters for high profile clients across a range of industries. I immediately fell in love with my job.
At the same time, I was also learning about my own “prefrontal cortex” brain. In layman’s terms, I was learning about ADHD so as to identify strengths and weaknesses within the scope of my new diagnosis, and trialling different doses and brands of medication. Balancing my first legal job alongside this has been a challenge to say the least. Whilst some aspects of the role I excel at, and other aspects proved more challenging, it seemed like I was far from succeeding in my chosen field the way that people with normal, “neurotypical” brains would.
The invisible phenomenon of “JDHD”
Having acquired these new “labels” that I never thought would apply to me, I thought at least I’m not alone in this. Surely, given the propensity of highly successful/high IQ individuals that are publicly known for belonging on the “spectrum” of neurodivergence, there are millions of women or lawyers out there who are also bearing the same labels I am?
As wide-eyed, Gen Z, 20-somethings, we are equipped with the power of knowledge via the internet in the palm of our hand, and the propensity to utilise technology as a platform to openly share and exchange resources. In fact, one of the very rare positives of social media is that it does enable us to form certain parasocial relationships with individuals and communities and seek help and guidance from those shared experiences. And so finally, through months of countless research and medical appointments, I found the most valuable tools to my personal and professional development: the “JDHD” communities.
“JDHD” is a term coined in the US, conceived in light of a recent study showing the staggering number of neurodivergent American lawyers. The resources provided by JDHD communities highlight and showcase that, contrary to popular belief, the condition arms us with unique strengths, or “superpowers”, to excel in the legal profession.
The following pages have been incredibly valuable tools to utilise as I navigate the legal profession as a neurodivergent, by concisely setting out how ADHD presents in a workplace environment:
- For lawyers with ADHD – https://thejdhd.com/shawn-healy-009/#ftoc-heading-11
- ADHD 101 | JDHD | For Lawyers with ADHD (thejdhd.com)
- ADHD in Women Lawyers | JDHD | For Lawyers with ADHD (thejdhd.com)
- Tracy Otsuka ADHD For Smart Ass Women Podcast
- How neurodiverse lawyers can thrive in the profession–and change it for the better – Legal Talk Network
- Living With ADHD As A Lawyer With Annie Little (formerlawyer.com)
- ADHD: A Legislative Lawyer’s Superpower – Issuu
Whilst many would find multi-tasking difficult, it is often those on the “spectrum” that thrive being stimulated in this manner and more so, produce better work when under continuous pressure. This might sound like a nightmare to a lot of people but it is in fact a preferred method of working to our brains’ minimum efficiency. Often, our strengths are referred to as “icebergs” due to the unique functions of our brains which are not immediately evident, yet incredibly useful, such as:
- Hyper focus – the ability to identify niche information efficiently and persevere with the same drive/motivation from the start. Typically harnessed for drafting lengthy documents and undertaking due diligence tasks, it can identify important things that others might have left unaddressed.
- Unconventional perception – the ability to make connections between concepts and summarise the main point of a conversation, to tackle problems that stump others and to see the big picture before others.
- Ambition – the ability to persevere by maintaining the same drive/motivation; a seemingly endless desire to try new ideas, tasks and projects; a continual source of new ideas, methods and strategies.
- Crisis adaptivity – the ability to perform under pressure or when dealing with emergencies. A recent study revealed that the ADHD brain tends to produce more Theta waves than average brains. Theta waves indicate a state of deep relaxation, and ADHD brains have an over-abundance of theta waves which can make us well equipped for a crisis. We often see higher rates of ADHD among ER doctors and nurses, police officers, fire and rescue personnel, journalists, stock traders, professional athletes and entertainers. When others are in crisis, those with ADHD can be calm and under control.
- Impulsiveness – while impulsivity is an ADHD symptom, that often means that people with ADHD are quick starters, ie they possess the ability to make quick, informed judgements under time pressure and deadlines, and to work well in a fast-paced environment.
- Creativity – the ability to strategise ideas that others would not, and to derive patterns where others see chaos. This is helpful for wider brand strategy and developing the creative arguments necessary for refusals and oppositions.
- Deductive reasoning – the ability to deduce with very little or tangential information; also refers to the ability to notice even minute details and take in all “interesting” or stimulating information even though to others it may seem like irrelevant information. Recent scientific studies estimate that the average brain filters 11 million bits of information per second whereas the ADHD brain has 5 senses looking into 40-50 bits of information per second that we are consciously aware of.
The non-exhaustive list of strengths above was briefly mentioned in an online “neurodivergent girls in law” group chat I am a part of – a wonderful community – who also shared the below image depicting the previously mentioned “iceberg” analogy:
Medicating the masses
If this was all ADHD was, no doubt the most successful and wealthiest people in the world would be neurodivergent. But no case is the same. The contradictory nature of the “disorder” means that different methods work for different people. Society dictates that those who are different must be pathologised – ie if you are medically different, you must be medically prescribed. As such, medication is not for everyone – others find certain types of therapy useful whilst many are most efficient at a standing desk.
For me, requesting a change in my working hours meant there was no need to internalise self-blame and ruminate for the rest of the day on how I was 9 minutes late to the office. For many of us, it makes us realise that we are incredibly resilient. A fellow neurodivergent lawyer told me, “I faced a lot of challenges (some ADHD related, others not) and found ways to overcome them. I think having ADHD means I find myself in overwhelming situations often, but because of that my ability to cope with high stress and recover from ‘setbacks’ is one of my greatest strengths. Yes, having ADHD comes with its problems but it also means I’m equipped with strategies to overcome them and thrive despite them.”
We should not be punished for disclosing our neurological quirks because the Ds in ADHD connote employee weaknesses and potential for fiscal loss. We should not be warning younger girls to stay away from a particular profession for being an unsafe environment to unmask themselves – hiding who you are or how you work most efficiently can be exhausting, especially in an already pressurised environment.
Instead, we should be paving the way for these young, bright minds to show them that practically, beyond words and declarations, they are valued as much as their peers – for the unique strengths ADHD can bring to the legal profession.
Bring your neurodiversity to work – a movement
I am lucky enough to say I enjoy what I do and can identify (some, not all !) of my own strengths to capitalise on and equally, those weaknesses to seek support with in order to truly thrive within my role – so that one day I will be able to be at least half the lawyer that my mentor is. In fact, when I eventually sought support, and disclosed my condition to others in the field, some actually revealed being a fellow neurodivergent. I could finally exhale – so it really was possible to have the brain I have, and to achieve the highest possible position in the field. And just like that, any crippling fears of being ostracised from the profession or being inhibited from career progression purely due to my new label had suddenly disappeared.
And so, reader, whether you are a partner or a paralegal, a law student or a neurodivergent-in-hiding, I implore you to open up the dialogue for discussion.
I’m not saying spend all your billable hours on the DSM V [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] trivia. Simply put, just like my mentor you never know that those with the highest IQ and billing figures might just be those with an internal fan whizzing in their brain non-stop. You might not know it, but this is why it’s so important to open up the conversation.
We must lift the rug up that our professional ancestors have, respectfully, but so diligently, swept these issues under. We must show the bright, young, colourful minds that their quirks are what make them desirable to our profession – we want their creativity, hyper focus and drive. Beyond mere words, we must unequivocally support any turbulence they might face: because we are aware of it and respect it, not because they are a “diversity hire”.
I may only just be 22 and may only have a fraction of experience of living and working as a minority – be it any or every kind – within the workplace. But I do know that from my experience as a minority in multiple areas, ensuring that an environment where one feels safe and comfortable to discuss any core aspect of who they are that arises from being different to the status quo – will drive tremendous positive change in a world that is still so entrenched in archaic views. It will help us accept that differences are what make us thrive.
- Boot, Nathalie; Nevicka, Barbara and Baas, Matthijs: “Subclinical symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are associated with specific creative processes”, Personality and Individual Differences, vol 114, no 1, pp 73-81.
- White, Holly and Shah, Priti: “Creative style and achievement in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder”, Personality and Individual Differences, vol 5, no 11, 2011, pp 673-677.