Impact story: focus on autism at Herbert Smith Freehills

Herbert Smith Freehills set out to be more inclusive of neurodiversity in the workplace. Learn how its autism initiative has started to generate positive change.
This artwork was produced especially for Herbert Smith Freehills’ neurodiversity initiative by Noah Buyukertas, the autistic child of Mandy Buyukertas, a practice executive in the firm's TMT team.
This artwork was produced especially for Herbert Smith Freehills’ neurodiversity initiative by Noah Buyukertas, the autistic child of Mandy Buyukertas, a practice executive in the firm's TMT team. In Noah’s words: “My painting expresses the diversity of the autistic experience and the way our thoughts bring a colourfulness to a society that often seems grey with similarity.” Photograph: Noah Buyukertas

The challenge

We chose to prioritise neurodivergent inclusive recruitment, with a focus on autism.

Disability is the most neglected area of diversity and inclusion, with woefully low employment rates. Autistic people are the most underemployed out of any protected characteristic group – with a significant pay gap when hired.

Our initiative was spearheaded by staff members who are autistic or have autistic family members. Working with the firm's Ability Network, they formed the Autism Working Group to discuss issues, with aims to:

  • create opportunities for work experience and employment
  • diversify our employee pipeline as a reflection of the wider population
  • build confidence in and awareness of the process for disclosing disabilities and neurodiversity conditions and asking for adjustments
  • create a more inclusive working environment for everyone

With this in mind, early steps have included:

  • running awareness sessions
  • asking external organisations to give talks
  • highlighting the different channels employees can use to disclose neurodiversity – including making it clear that employees don't have to disclose to their manager

The action taken

The action we're taking can be broken down into three areas:

  • recruitment
  • policies and processes around working environment – including reasonable adjustments
  • offering meaningful work experience

Making recruitment more inclusive

We've offered a number of internships to autistic candidates to increase autistic representation. The placements are fixed term and range in length, with placements in the general counsel and risk, corporate, and pricing teams.

We explicitly welcome neurodivergent candidates and offer adjustments at every stage of the process. This includes making job descriptions clearer, with information on what a typical day will look like and less reliance on buzzwords. At interview, adjustments made include providing questions in advance.

When a candidate discloses autism at hiring stage or after starting work for the firm, our external partner will carry out an assessment and, where appropriate, provide coaching and support.

To support staff who are recruiting, we provide inclusivity training and guidance on appropriate accommodations in interview and panel settings.

We're also working with recruitment agencies to change assumptions about how 'good' candidates present – as these can contribute to exclusion of neurodivergent candidates.

Changing policies and processes

Neurodivergent candidates and colleagues may not know if they need reasonable adjustments or which may be most helpful, so our adjustments policy now offers an example list of possible adjustments for all disabilities.

We make sure managers supervising interns are offered training, both internally and with external organisations, including Ambitious About Autism. 

We also have internal guidance for ensuring all training and communications materials are neurodiversity- and disability-inclusive.

Self-ID can play an important role in crisis prevention. Our adjustments framework caters to individuals who self-identify as neurodivergent, in addition to offering diagnosis pathways to existing employees who find themselves struggling in certain aspects of their roles.

Creating a hiring pipeline

Getting new neurodivergent candidates can be challenging due to low confidence levels related to competition for places at City law firms, but we will continue to encourage applications.

We're working to make more internship positions available and funded in different teams across the organisation.

We've built partnerships with specialist charities and providers who carry out sustained outreach with established networks of autistic job-seekers.

We have also worked with a specialist recruitment agency who provide fixed-term and consultancy placements from their pool of exclusively autistic IT specialists.

We support Barclays Legal with their annual Think Talent programme, which offers work experience to neurodiverse aspiring lawyers.

We are in our third year of running a mentoring scheme with Aspiring Solicitors for neurodiverse candidates, candidates with disabilities and/or those with long-term health conditions.

We also partner with MyPlus Consulting to host an annual open day for the same demographic group.

The result

Our London staff chose an autism charity as the charity of the year – a good indication that staff think it's an important issue.

One intern from the programme is now a full-time employee and is doing well. We're also pleased that an autistic person has recently joined our office operations team.

Feedback from internships has been positive, with interns reporting an increase in confidence and opportunities to develop their skills.

Many colleagues have reported they are learning how to change their practices to be more inclusive. This includes, for example, sharing ahead of meetings who will be attending, what will be discussed and what the expectations are of those attending, as well as providing introductory visual guides to team members to new starters.

At first, some teams were apprehensive about taking on autistic interns. Working together helped to overwrite assumptions, with teams going on to offer full-time jobs and express interest in taking on more interns.

Measuring the impact

We are looking at options for gathering data in the next 12 months to support the formalised neurodiversity strategy. KPIs may include:

  • headhunters demonstrating they are shortlisting diverse candidates
  • an increase in the number of neurodivergent hires
  • tracking career progression, as well as attrition/retention rates
  • an increase in disclosure rates

We are also keen to take part in an external certification scheme and will look at available options, with a view to enhancing our reputation as a neuro-inclusive law firm.

Next steps

We're still at the beginning of our work in this area and have a long way to go.

We're grateful for the tremendous support we have received from all levels within the firm, including from a number of our senior partners.

We are in the process of developing a firm-wide neurodiversity strategy to secure formal backing with year-on-year targets and budgets.

Our UK network is connecting with international colleagues to share best practice, with interest from colleagues in the US and Australia, as well as partnerships and open days already organised in our Hong Kong office.

We don't want to work in isolation. We plan to partner with other law firms to share good practice and explore areas where collaboration will move the dial more quickly in our sector.

For instance, as we don't currently have any partners who identify as autistic, we intend to learn from other law firm partners who do.

In September 2022, we co-hosted an event discussing how to improve autistic inclusion in the legal profession with the Law Society to begin this conversation.

Watch a recording of the session

Our tips

Build and leverage internal networks

People with a personal connection to neurodiversity will be your most fervent advocates and organisers.

Everyone benefits when these people are brought together: sharing lived experience and the insight it confers is more powerful than abstract talk.

Use partnerships and external expertise

A huge amount of freely available insight and guidance on neurodiversity is out there, as well as organisations keen to help you to become more inclusive.

We wouldn’t have progressed as far without the likes of AS Mentoring, Autism Forward, Ambitious About Autism, Aspiring Solicitors and Lexxic.

Having senior-level sponsorship helps

We've benefited from having the vocal and tangible support of influential individuals like senior partners and our chief legal operations officer. Their support has enabled us to drive internal and external progress along more quickly.

There's no substitute for trying things

Tweaking recruitment processes and re-drafting adjustments commitments is important, but the most impactful thing you can do is give neurodivergent jobseekers paid and meaningful work experience.

In addition to building their CV, network and self-confidence, the learning and stereotype-busting benefits for the teams hosting them are incalculable.

Ensure a permanent feedback loop

All neurodivergent individuals and all managers and teams are different. Not everything will go perfectly when they encounter each other, and there will be bumps in the road.

Ask everyone how things are going more than feels natural. Capture and implement all lessons learned (sharing widely) so you can keep improving and understanding.


All views expressed in this article belong to the authors, not the Law Society.

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