Only 22% of autistic adults in the UK are in any kind of employment according to 2021 ONS data, the lowest rate for any disability classification. For employers including legal services firms that are facing talent challenges and committed to diversity inclusion, this should be both shocking – and an important opportunity.
Autistic job-seekers have a huge amount to offer employers, bringing their talents, passions and unique perspectives across the full range of legal and business support roles. But too often they face complex and persistent procedural, environmental and attitudinal barriers both to securing such roles, and to disclosing their diagnoses and performing at their best once inside our organisations.
How and where to begin
At Herbert Smith Freehills, we have an autism employment working group that has been working to remove these barriers for several years. We certainly don't claim to have all the answers or to have reached all of our goals but we are proud of the progress we are making.
Our work has spanned three main areas: increasing understanding and acceptance of autism and neurodiversity among our people; revisiting our policies and practices to be more inclusive; and tapping into the autistic talent pipeline to encourage applications when vacancies arise.
Building awareness has involved a range of activities including sessions with subject matter experts, events and stories featuring our people with close personal connections to autism. Magnifying autistic voices is especially important in this process. In 2021 our London offices selected Autistica to be our fundraising charity of the year.
Our recruitment team is closely involved in ensuring that our hiring and assessment processes are inclusive. We have disseminated training and a reference guide on autism-friendly interview practices. We fully relaunched our global adjustments commitment in 2021, encouraging colleagues with any form of disability to help us make their working environment more conducive. (The Law Society issued updated best practice guidance on this topic last year as well). We also have a neurodiversity-inclusive toolkit for firm-developed training materials. Our agile working policy is now fully operational and the opportunities to accommodate what are typically very straightforward changes to physical set-ups and working patterns are manifold.
Accessing autistic talent
When it comes to attracting autistic talent into and providing crucial work experience at HSF, we have found leveraging partnerships to be crucial. These include short-term placements like Barclays Legal and Aspiring Solicitors' 'Think Talent' programme, fixed-term consultancies such as those offered in the IT area by Auticon or longer-term internships supported by specialists like Autism Forward and AS Mentoring. Such organisations furnish a pool of candidates, support for those candidates throughout their engagements, and – critically – expert and tailored training for the managers and colleagues who supervise them. While we believe the candidates we have supported through such programmes have benefited from their time in HSF, we know with absolute certainty that the teams hosting them have done so.
Most recently, we partnered with Ambitious About Autism as a host for autistic interns under their excellent Employ Autism initiative. The relationship has so far yielded two successful placements, one in our business services team (and which has evolved into a full-time position due to the candidate's very own efforts) and the other in our corporate practice. We look forward to building on these successes by expanding the programme in the months and years ahead, and potentially into other jurisdictions.
Lessons learnt… and still learning
A few key lessons we have learnt include, crucially, that large numbers of roles in legal organisations are highly suitable for autistic people. Recognising that each autistic person is unique; stereotypes and assumptions can be unhelpful and tailoring these roles and support in them to each individual's strengths and preferences is critical to maximising their chance to flourish.
Open communication and basic kindness take care of the vast majority of adjustments and make asking for specific alterations that much easier. Indeed, being a supportive manager to an autistic intern or employee is simply being a good manager full-stop – clarity of instructions, straightforward and reasonable deadlines, help in prioritising workload, clear feedback and so on. As such, the learnings and development benefits from these interactions go both ways, a real 'win-win', and are immensely rewarding and enjoyable as well.
The business case for teams that represent society's diversity from a gender, race and sexuality perspective is now mainstream for most law firms – and increasingly (and rightly) demanded by our clients. It is beyond time to incorporate neurological diversity into this equation and see the value autistic colleagues and their different perspectives can bring.
Alison Matthews (chair) and James Smither (member) of the Herbert Smith Freehills Autism Working Group