Embracing Neurodiversity in the Legal Profession | Practical Law The Journal

Haley Moss is an attorney, artist, thought leader, author, speaker, consultant, and passionate advocate for disability inclusion, autism, and neurodiversity in the workplace. She was diagnosed with autism when she was three years old and began her autism advocacy at thirteen years old. When Haley was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2019, she made international headlines as Florida’s first documented openly autistic attorney.

In law school, Haley was named a Miami Public Interest Scholar committed to promoting access to justice for all. She was also the student commencement speaker at her law school graduation. Haley began her legal career practicing at a law firm, and subsequently became an adjunct professor of psychology at Taylor University. Haley has authored several articles about neurodiversity that have appeared in major publications. She has also contributed original essays and articles to various published anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, and is the published author of several books relating to neurodiversity.

Haley regularly travels around the country speaking, sharing, and advocating for organizations within and outside of the legal profession to embrace neurodiversity and create the change needed for the world to accept and empower all kinds of bodies and minds. Majorie Winters of Practical Law asked Haley to share her experiences and perspective on how legal organizations, attorneys, and others can create a culture in which neurodivergent people can thrive in the workplace.

Although I was recently a practicing attorney, I am currently focused on advocating for the understanding and acceptance of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences, such as autism or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), reflect normal variations in brain developments. There is no “right” way of thinking, learning, or behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits. Neurodiversity also includes learning disabilities, mental health conditions, and acquired cognitive disabilities.

Now, I consult, speak, and write about neurodiversity. By sharing my personal experiences, I feel that I can have a bigger impact and reach more people than I can practicing law. I do retain my law license (I worked too hard to achieve that to let it lapse) so that I have the option of returning to legal practice. The office accommodations were certainly nicer at the firm. I run my business from my kitchen table!

My consulting engagements are wide-ranging and include lecturing on neurodiversity in schools, delivering keynote addresses at conferences, and raising awareness of neurodiversity within organizations of all types and sizes. I share my personal journey from my initial autism diagnosis to becoming an attorney and provide education and guidance designed to make places more inclusive of people with disabilities. My goal is to dismantle disability bias and help people better understand neurodiversity.

As a lecturer, I have discovered that people of all ages and across multiple disciplines enjoy learning about autism, disability, neurodiversity, social justice, bias, and public policy. These topics allow others to make changes in their lives that can potentially benefit everybody. I have spoken at school assemblies to students of all ages, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, and I have been the keynote speaker at graduations and commencements for high schools and universities. Regardless of the audience’s age or level of education, my goal is to inspire and empower them to make a difference for others.

My goal is to dismantle disability bias and help people better understand neurodiversity. Different is not bad. It is just different, and that can be extraordinary.

I also do corporate training to help organizations transform their workplaces to be more inclusive and accessible places for people with disabilities. My personal and professional experiences allow me to bring my legal knowledge and individual perspective to bear in a wide array of different professions and settings.

All of the work that I do is centered around one principle: Different is not bad. It is just different, and that can be extraordinary. Neurodiversity might be a relatively new concept for some, but everyone interacts daily with people who think differently than they do.

I was diagnosed with autism when I was three years old. I feel incredibly blessed that my parents always supported me beginning at that young age. Their great relationship with each other also created a very nurturing environment for me. I was lucky that my mother was able to stay home with me, and my parents worked hard to figure out how to best support me and make sure that I had every available opportunity in life.

We moved when I was five years old so that I could attend school in another district that was known for having better special education services, though ultimately, I was enrolled in a private school. Fortunately, I was always academically inclined. I therefore had the opportunity to attend private schools that had greater flexibility and were better able to accommodate my needs, allowing me to thrive and stay curious. Although the environment was high-pressure, my parents made sure that I did not experience burnout. They wanted me to be happy and well-adjusted. After some time, I joined mainstream education in the public school system. There, I also achieved high grades and was able to pursue challenging courses.

My parents were always extremely proactive. When they first received my autism diagnosis, they were scared and nervous because they did not know anything about autism. After the shock subsided, they hit the ground running, doing research, and eventually connecting with the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. They sought out available resources, and they always got second opinions. My parents were told I would never be able to hold a job, but they were determined to prove this prediction wrong. I am not a parent so I cannot fully appreciate all the sacrifices they made, but I have nothing but respect, admiration, and gratitude for them and the countless ways that they supported and advocated for me.

When I was accepted into law school, my requests for accommodations were denied. I requested housing accommodations to live close to campus because I do not drive. Driving in the city and parking, in particular, scare me. The denial of these types of accommodation requests is frustrating and embarrassing. The school required even more diagnostic history than I had, which was ironic because it was part of the same institution that had played a key role in my autism diagnosis and journey throughout my life. This could have happened at any law school, and I share it only to present a full picture of the challenges that neurodiverse people encounter.

Many people perceive accommodations as an unfair advantage. However, the opposite is usually true. The person with the disability is often not receiving all of the support they truly need, and accommodations merely level the playing field.

Neurodivergent and other disabled people are typically at the mercy of whomever is working in accessibility services at the time of the request. Unfortunately, I have heard that this sort of experience is a common occurrence for students with disabilities. Therefore, neurodiverse people end up self-accommodating and finding ways to adapt because if they do not, school or work can become unnecessarily difficult. Many people perceive a person with a disability who receives accommodations as having an unfair advantage. However, the opposite is usually true. The person with the disability is often not receiving all of the support they truly need, and accommodations merely level the playing field.

One advantage of being neurodivergent is that I approach problems and process information differently than my neurotypical counterparts. Because of this, I may find a different or more creative solution to a problem. In one instance when I was working at a law firm, taking a non-conforming path helped the firm win a motion. I was assisting with research, and I brought an issue to my supervisor’s attention that was an offshoot to the original research request. The supervising attorney asked me not to research that particular issue because they believed it might take me down a non-productive rabbit hole. However, I felt that it was relevant and researched it anyway. It turned out to be the winning argument for the motion.

Autism has also enabled me to connect and form friendships with others who have family or friends on the autism spectrum. People who have autistic family members make especially great allies. They naturally want the world to be a better place for their children. In turn, making a better world for their children helps other neurodivergent people. Some of my biggest champions have been people whose children have a disability.

The commonality of the autism experience has also opened doors and provided job opportunities for me. In fact, the managing partner of the law firm I joined had an autistic son. Because of his experience with disabilities, the firm was much more accommodating and understanding than my previous employers. In law school, I interned for a judge who had an adult son with Down Syndrome. One of the past Florida Bar presidents has a daughter my age who is autistic and is now a good friend of mine. I have formed many close relationships with people because of our shared experience.

Autism has also allowed me to spend time with other autistic adults and find community. There is a lot of focus on autistic children, but it is equally important to remember that autistic adults can be a window into the future.

It depends on the organization. In general, I do not think law firms are doing as much as they can or living up to their potential. Law firms are often ignorant of the fact that they are neurodiverse. Many people, including lawyers, are neurodivergent.

Many firms assume that everyone with a disability disclosed it at some point during the hiring process, which is not always the case. Not all disabilities are visible, and each person has a unique experience with their own disability status and identity. Firms often expect us to ask for accommodations. However, lawyers are not always comfortable talking about mental health and disability due to the stigma that continues to exist within the legal industry. Whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, many neurodivergent people in the legal profession are not even aware that they can get support. They rely on self-accommodation, doing the best they can.

Similarly, law students are often told to keep quiet about any disability because it could affect their admission to the bar, and young lawyers fear that disclosing a disability could damage their career.

Some cutting-edge companies, primarily in the technology sector, create purposeful pipelines to bring in autistic and neurodiverse talent. What many organizations fail to recognize is that they already have neurodiverse talent within their workforce and there are a host of steps they can take to support these individuals and empower them to live up to their full potential.

(For a collection of career Q&As featuring attorneys with diverse skills, backgrounds, and perspectives, see Legal Operations, Professional Development & Well-Being Toolkit on Practical Law.)

Organizations should:

  • Get educated on the power of neurodiversity and the ways in which it can be a competitive advantage. In doing so, they will begin to realize that neurodivergent people have unique problem-solving skill sets, which can boost creativity. Companies are frequently asking their employees for creative solutions. This is exactly what neurodiversity brings to organizations.
  • Address stereotyping and stigmatization. Often, preconceived notions about disability guide the way neurotypical people view neurodivergent individuals. Because of my autism, I have been in situations where people have assumed that I am not a “people person” and that I will be uncomfortable in client-facing roles. Other times, organizational leaders have assumed that I am good with computers. These are stereotypes that do not apply to me. Overcoming bias is not easy because it can occur subconsciously. Employers and school administrators should keep an open mind about the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences of a neurodivergent person – just like anybody else.
  • Implement processes and physical space that cater to neurodiverse employees. For example, distributing an agenda, even if it is a few bullet points, before meetings or conference calls or adding the agenda to a meeting invitation can ease anxiety for neurodivergent people and improve preparation for neurotypical people. I recall one event at the law firm where I worked when, over the weekend, the firm called a meeting for first thing Monday morning. We were not told why or what the meeting was going to be about. I assumed that it was an emergency, and something had gone very wrong over the weekend, and we were all in trouble. When we arrived on Monday morning, we discovered the reason for the meeting was to discuss the previous night’s Game of Thrones episode. I spent the weekend worrying over nothing.
  • Be open to alternative paths that can lead to the same result and accomplish the same goal. For example, an attorney assigning a project should consider alternative project deadline schedules. Breaking up a larger assignment into chunks of smaller tasks with due dates a few days apart can make the project easier to manage for neurodiverse individuals. Whenever I was asked to prepare a motion, I requested that the assignment be divided into smaller pieces. This schedule helped me stay on track and organized, and made it easier for me to budget my time across all of my other responsibilities. This management style helped me feel less overwhelmed and afraid.
Companies and law firms should approach neurodiversity from the mindset of “What can we do to make it so that nobody needs to ask for an accommodation? It is just there, already in place.”

Other steps that organizations can take to support neurodiversity and disability inclusion are to:

  • Add closed captions to all videos and virtual meetings.
  • Allow hybrid or remote working arrangements.
  • Offer workspaces in the office that are quiet and available to everyone.

Organizations should assume that autistic and other neurodivergent people are already present in their organization but may be too hesitant to tell anyone or to ask for accommodations. Companies and law firms should approach neurodiversity from the mindset of “What can we do to make it so that nobody needs to ask for an accommodation? It is just there, already in place.” It would take a lot of organizational change, but these types of offerings would benefit neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike.

Individuals should:

  • Spend time with and get to know neurodivergent colleagues. Although many people are innately curious about neurodivergence, they do not know what to say or how to act around neurodivergent people. There is no perfect answer to what an individual should or should not say when learning about a colleague’s autism or other neurodiverse condition. Every individual is different. By spending time with your colleague, you will learn a lot if you genuinely try to understand them.
  • Understand that not all neurodivergent colleagues may want to discuss their neurodivergence. There are times I would rather not talk about my autism because I do not want to be treated differently or diminished to one aspect of my identity, and I am sure that I am not the only one who feels this way. It is safe to assume that there is someone in your law firm or company that is neurodivergent, whether they have disclosed it or not. My favorite reaction to my disclosure of autism or to a request for accommodation is, “No big deal. How can I support you?” My least favorite reaction is, “I’m so sorry.” I do not want or need pity. Sometimes, a natural curiosity prevails, and I get asked all sorts of different questions that feel invasive or rude. People have asked me if I can memorize dates on a calendar or have other savant skills like Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man. How do you politely remind people that you are just as human as everybody else?
  • Embrace a culture of belonging that includes giving everyone grace. You do not always know for certain if a particular colleague is neurotypical or neurodivergent. I try not to assume that a colleague is uncaring unless they give me reason to truly believe they do not care. For example, lateness and difficulty with time management in general is a common trait for someone with ADHD. It is not a personal or moral failure. There are many things, such as social norms, that come naturally to neurotypical colleagues, but neurodivergent individuals may not immediately understand or utilize them.

My advice to any neurodivergent person or really anyone who feels they are different is to:

  • Remember why you chose to practice law. Often, people are attracted to the legal profession because they are curious, smart, and have a strong sense of justice. They have a desire to solve puzzles and continue learning and growing. Unfortunately, the system of legal education, job interviewing, and practicing law can be biased and not designed with neurodiversity in mind. However, you can use your law degree and knowledge in many ways. There is something for everyone, from arguing in the courtroom or mediation to transactional work to making policy.
  • Celebrate what makes you who you are. Do not constantly try to conform to what is normal, whatever “normal” is supposed to mean. You may need more support than a neurotypical person, but generally, your wants and needs are not much different than anybody else’s. You deserve the respect and support to thrive.
  • Prioritize joy and the things that make you happy. Joy is especially important for autistic and neurodivergent people. Many neurodivergent people have been told that their passions and interests are too much and that they may not be able to achieve their goals. Much of the world focuses on everything that is hard and a struggle for us. However, we can create and experience a joyful life as well. Every person deserves to hold on to that.

If I had not gone to law school, I probably would have been an artist. Art has always been my escape from the real world. It enabled me to survive school. It allowed me to breathe and decompress, to enter my own world, and regulate my emotions and sensory needs. I still use art to have fun and make other people happy.

Majorie Winters joined Practical Law from private practice. Previously, she was a senior corporate attorney specializing in venture finance and counseling early stage companies at Foley & Lardner, DLA Piper, and Gunderson Dettmer. Majorie also served in house at Altisource and Trade Technologies, Inc.

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