From an early age, girls are conditioned by society to act differently to boys. We are taught to be demure, patient, observant. Conversely, boys are encouraged to be assertive, boisterous, expressive. We have been trained to conceal our true feelings and emotions and replace them with docile sweetness.

It is no wonder, then, that neurodivergent conditions manifest differently in women and girls. Dampening our expressions has led to an enormous diagnostic gap between male and female neurodivergence, particularly because, for some reason or another, those responsible for diagnosing neurodivergence are still using markers that emphasise male traits rather than female ones.

I vividly recall my parents being told at multiple parents’ evenings that I ‘came to school to daydream’, that I was ‘lazy’, or that I was ‘clearly capable but not trying hard enough’. Externally I was composed and calm, I was well spoken and loved reading for pleasure, and I never had an issue with spelling or grammar. My internal experience was quite different. I successfully and subconsciously hid the fact that my brain seemed to whir uncontrollably, and subsequently, how chaotic my mind truly felt. I never admitted how torturous learning silently was for me. This is called ‘masking’.

Unsurprisingly, the societal pressure placed upon girls from a young age to appear calm and patient means that they are more likely to mask than boys. Despite how much I may have wanted to express myself, I didn’t speak out of turn, bounce off the walls with hyperactivity, or visibly show that I was struggling at school. Because I resisted these urges by masking, it was never even considered that I might simply think and learn differently.

The upshot of this was that, like many other women with neurodivergence, I was diagnosed extremely late with ADHD and dyslexia, after I had finished my mainstream education unsupported and with dwindling self-esteem which impacted upon every other aspect of my life. Long-term masking can severely affect mental health. I know this both personally and colloquially.

Diagnosis for me felt liberating. For the first time in my life I was permitted to admit I think differently to others. I was no longer pretending to be someone I was not.

Neurodiversity at the Bar

My story is not unique. Through appearing on panel events, interviewing barristers, lobbying pupillage committees, and working with other diversity organisations, I have heard my own experiences repeated back to me by many other late-diagnosed women at the Bar, and in law more widely.

However, my campaign work for Neurodiversity in Law has not encouraged me to view neurodivergent people as a different group, or to compartmentalise them in their own diversity box. Quite the opposite.

I have discovered that each person has a different way of thinking and working. Each person is different, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, man or woman or non-binary, and so there are things that work for some people that do not work for others. Each person, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, has different behaviours, personality traits and attributes.

Recently I interviewed an eminent female QC who told me a compelling story. A male barrister she came across regularly was well known for closing his eyes when speaking, including to the judge. This was accepted by those who worked with him as being an unusual quirk. It did not affect the quality of his advocacy or his ability to best represent his clients.

Why, then, are barristers’ chambers shoehorning all applicants for pupillage into the same mould?

Why do all applicants have to present themselves in a certain way, or write in a certain way, to score points?

Why does the pupillage process repeatedly focus on the ability to learn information by rote, rather than analysis or comprehension?

Why would a profession which survives by creating unusual lines of argument to reinterpret decades-old principles want to continue recruiting for the next generation of barristers without considering diversity of thought?

Pupillage recruitment – what can be done?

In order to implement recruitment practices which assist all neurodivergent pupillage applicants, chambers need to understand each of the issues above.

The worst excuse I have heard from a pupillage committee is that making the pupillage process more accessible for neurodivergent applicants was unrealistic because it would involve pupillage panels ‘giving up more of their own time’. The irony of being told this while I gave up yet another lunch hour to persuade a set of chambers to support Neurodiversity in Law, for free, was not lost on me.

Stated baldly, if you care about something enough, you will dedicate as much time to it as possible in order to make change.

A lot can and should be done, both at the paper application and interview stage.

At the paper sift, chambers should consider making more points available for mitigating circumstances to equalise neurodivergent and neurotypical candidates, particularly those late diagnosed who at each stage of their education have been affected by a lack of support for their condition. If more points means more interviews, pupillage committees should ask themselves the following question: are they willing to give up an hour more of their day to interview several clearly intelligent and capable candidates who will arguably make better barristers than dozens of cookie-cutter Oxbridge scholars with the same experience?

At interview, consider allowing applicants to refer to or write notes, as they would do in any courtroom. This gives equal opportunities to those who do not have perfect memory recall and cannot regurgitate information on command. Chambers should also make allowances for different types of presentation, for example, fidgeting, using filler words, or a lack of eye contact with the panel. Forcing applicants with neurodivergence, particularly ADHD and autism, to adhere to unrealistic societal constructs of ‘good presentation’ consumes all their focus and prevents them from paying full attention to questions. The eminent female QC’s story applies again – why is it acceptable to show your differences at a higher level, but not when applying for pupillage?

Finally, a strong caution against chambers’ efforts to diversify their candidates which involve:

1. Contextual recruitment questionnaires: These rarely (if at all) contextualise an applicant’s achievements when they have experienced neurodivergence, diagnosed or undiagnosed, which has affected their exam results.

2. Watson-Glaser type reasoning tests: Neurodivergent applicants are susceptible to over-analysis due to years of anticipating what a neurotypical person might view as the correct answer, rather than choosing an answer they truly think is correct. Another prime example of masking, to which women are more prone.

My own experience of the pupillage process was that it encouraged me to mask, rather than to show my true personality, which was not conducive to my success or representative of how I would act as a barrister. Instead, it just perpetuated the negative self-image I carried through my adolescent education.

Learning from other equality movements

Self-perception can have a palpable effect on the success of a neurodivergent person. Studies indicate that those who simply view their neurodivergence as a different way of thinking, rather than a long-term disability, are more successful.

Not only is terminology surrounding neurodivergence crucial to breaking down stereotypes, as Oliver May said in his article on the same topic for this magazine (Neurodiversity and the Bar, Counsel, March 2022), it is also critical to our own self-growth.

Much of this positive thought processing is paralleled by the feminist movement. Women who perceive themselves as having equal value to a heterosexual white man with privilege might be more likely to take risks by applying for jobs with higher pay or better perks, and be more assertive in the workplace about their needs.

There is merit in applying this feminist mindset to the neurodiversity movement. Neurodivergent barristers and solicitors bring so much value to their chambers or firms, to their clients, and to the development of the law. We need to believe it in order to advocate for it. 

Roxy Lackschewitz-Martin is a trainee in litigation at offshore law firm Mourant and co-founder of Neurodiversity in Law. She is a former Cassel Scholar, Residential Scholar, and EFTA Court Scholar at the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn.

What I would have liked to have known as an aspirant barrister but didn’t dare ask
As a neurodiverse practitioner I am often asked to give advice to applicants and practitioners on pupillage recruitment. Looking back, I wish I had had the confidence to inform chambers I was neurodiverse and ask for adjustments myself. That being said, here are my three tips for future applicants and the barristers assessing them at both the paper and interview stages.
1 Declaring neurodiversity: applicants should feel able to share with chambers their access needs and proposed reasonable adjustments. I would recommend chambers make it clear on their website and/or forms that they will make such adjustments and for applicants to let them know. In return, I would suggest applicants state what it is that they think would help them to fairly access the process eg, extra time, coloured paper, so that chambers can factor this in without having to guess.
2 Clear selection criteria: chambers should have clear selection criteria provided on the form/portal or their website to ensure candidates can demonstrate they meet this. I would recommend applicants- neurodiverse or otherwise- spend time considering the criteria to ensure their answers score well so that they utilize their skills to score highly.
3 Interviews: Interviews can be nerve-wracking for all applicants. For some neurodiverse candidates this anxiety can be very high and negatively impact their interview performance eg poor eye contact, body language. Clear planning and preparation can help alleviate some nerves. Some neurodiverse people over-plan, and others may struggle to plan effectively. Chambers should provide as much information and notice as possible to candidates so arrangements can be made in good time. I would recommend that applicants arrive in the locale early and check they know where they are going to prevent last minute hiccups.

Overall, I would remind colleagues and future colleagues alike that being neurodiverse can be an asset, not a hindrance.

Chloe Branton is a barrister at Parklane Plowden Chambers @ChloeLBranton
Never apologise for being you; own your success thus far
Students agonise now as they have always done as to whether to raise a neurodiverse condition in three ways, in the application form, in the interview, in chambers. Why? They worry it will mean rejection, failure.
What will cause failure is seeing yourself as ‘less than’ because you have a ‘condition’. The words we use to describe differences are archaic and all have negative implications, disability, disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia. ‘Dis’ means not, or the opposite of. Distain, disrespect, dismiss are great examples of why this word may create an unconscious bias against a group of people. No wonder that in slang ‘dis’ means to show disrespect.
The application process is your ability to demonstrate that you have all the capacities to succeed as a barrister. Your abilities. A neurodiversity is a benefit not a curse. Never apologise for being you and own your success thus far. Aside from your resilience, perseverance, time management and adaptation skills which you can demonstrate simply by excelling in a world which fails to make sufficient amendments for your needs, you will bring a refreshing and different approach to cases and ensure that the Bar represents the community it serves.
Those with a physical disability have to ask for arrangements to be made for interview. I hope the day comes when there is no need to ask. Arrangements for non-visible disabilities are yours as of right. You want to be a voice for others. How can you do that if you cannot be a voice for yourself? Own and be proud of the mix of things that makes you unique.
No decent set of chambers will reject you because of neurodiversity. Any set that does, believe me, you do not want to be there. You cannot spend your professional life exhausted by living a lie and masking.
Mary Prior QC is a criminal practitioner at The 36 Group