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ADHD in Law and Medicine

During my 15 years of practicing Law, the thought of being ‘disabled’ never once crossed my mind.

Why would it?

To me, a ‘disability’ meant physical or otherwise ‘visible’ disability – perhaps being in a wheelchair or having Downs’s syndrome - something tangible. I had no visible disabilities to speak of and I didn't know that such a thing as an 'invisible' disability existed.

At the time, I knew nothing about ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ (ADHD). Even if I was aware of ADHD, I wouldn't have suspected that I had it given what I had achieved. After all, how could anyone with an attention deficit disorder sail through high school, graduate in not one but two degrees (Finance/Law) and get into the top law firms in Australia and the UK? Surely, being a successful lawyer working in a Magic Circle law firm like Allen & Overy precluded me from having ADHD. Besides, ADHD wasn’t a “real disability”. Neurodiverse conditions couldn’t possibly fall under the same umbrella as visible, physical, disabilities.

So I thought…. and unfortunately so many still think.

I was 15 years into my professional career when I received my ADHD diagnosis. It came as a surprise. In practical terms, apart from getting chastised on occasion for being late into the office, having the messiest desk, not submitting my timesheets, writing sprawling emails and advices, and getting distracted a little too easily, my ADHD wasn’t too much of a problem. At least not to me. If you had have asked the IT department, they may have had a different view. Notwithstanding my IT challenges, my obsession with pleasing the client and getting the deal done, coupled with my ability to work all night, every night – my ADHD superpowers – made up for my shortcomings. As did my 24/7 availability. There is nothing quite like a blackberry to assuage the fear of losing interest. Its not something you really have to worry about when you are in the Law (which is probably why there are so many lawyers with ADHD).

Unlike many of the employees diagnosed early in their careers, when I disclosed my ADHD I had the advantage of having built up enough evidence to prove that, ADHD or not, I was a good lawyer, more than good, having been recognised and awarded for my efforts. This effectively shielded me from the prejudice I would have most certainly experienced had I been diagnosed with ADHD early on in my career with no track record. It is more than likely I wouldn't have got a foot in the door, or rather, the circle, given the scarcity of graduate positions available and the misconceptions that surrounded ADHD.

Although neurodiversity is now on employers' agendas, the stigma around ADHD unfortunately still remains, particularly in industries such as the Law and Medicine today.

I coach many professionals with ADHD, including a significant number of doctors and lawyers which seems to be on the rise. It is a good sign in that ADHD awareness is growing and as a result, more employees with ADHD are receiving a diagnosis, entitling them to workplace support. However, in practice, these employees are not receiving the support that they need – either because they haven’t disclosed their ADHD to their employers (for fear of discrimination) or their employers have attempted to make adjustments with little knowledge of their employees' neurodiverse needs.

The doctors that I coach tend to disclose their ADHD only when they have hit rock bottom and feel that the only choice left to them is to exit the medical profession. From my experience, disclosure has hindered rather than helped, putting a spotlight on their ADHD challenges triggering rejection sensitive dysphoria which only serves to further impair their performance. The problem is the lack of ADHD awareness which is surprising given it is a neurobiological condition diagnosed and treated by doctors. The problem is that training in neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD is practically non-existent and certainly not at a sufficient level to truly understand and accommodate this unique brain wiring. As a result, “reasonable” adjustments are put into place to “support” these doctors that seem to have the opposite effect - putting them under more scrutiny and pressure, drowning them in administrative tasks, taking away the very things that they are good at and essentially disempowering and truly disabling them. The same applies to lawyers, particularly those working in the Magic Circle firms. These dedicated and often high performing individuals are reluctant to mention their ADHD for fear of putting a spotlight on the challenges that they have been working so hard to hide. So they stay quiet, working harder and longer than their neurotypical counterparts just to stay "on top of things" all the while burning the candle at both ends. Without an understanding of their unique brain wiring and the reasonable adjustments that they need to work sustainably, burn out often ensues.

Thankfully there are glimmers of hope for the future, with the legal industry leading the way courtesy of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division of the Law Society (DRILL) pushing the ‘ableism’ agenda with respect to all disabilities (see their report “Legally Disabled? The career experiences of disabled people working in the legal profession”). I was also delighted to be approached by the Vocational Rehabilitation Association (VRA)to deliver a webinar to their members to help them better understand and support employees with ADHD in September last year. If you are a member of the VRA you can watch the recording here: "ADHD in the Workplace - Reasonable Adjustments that actually work". As a society, we are slowly becoming better informed about ADHD. In addition to the many celebrities that have 'come out', we are now seeing CEOs, bankers, lawyers, doctors and successful entrepreneurs speaking out about the competitive advantages that can come with having ADHD, with many serving as mentors for those just embarking on their careers.

There is still a long way to go before employees with ADHD can disclose their ADHD comfortably, safe in the knowledge that disclosure will help them, rather than hinder them, allowing them to receive the understanding and support that they need to thrive. Employers, if you want to know how you can help your employees with ADHD succeed in your organisations, get in touch.

Employees, particularly doctors and lawyers with ADHD (who are uniquely positioned to provide support and advocate for ADHD), don’t suffer in silence. I can help. Reach out to arrange a call.

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