Dyslexia and the law

by Ruth Fenton
8 June 2015

Ruth Fenton, a legal business strategist, mentors disabled law students and solicitors. Ruth explains how the legal profession can support dyslexic staff and what the benefits are of doing so.

Specific learning difficulties - for example, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and attention deficit disorder - affect the way the brain processes and learns information. It is a neurological issue which can be inherited. Dyslexia has strong links with speed of recalling information and memory. Dyslexia often impacts on writing, reading and spelling.  

Dyslexia is a 'protected characteristic' under the Equality Act 2010. This means dyslexic people should not be treated less favourably, and should have access to reasonable adjustments. This applies to not only legal professionals, but also the people who use their services.

Challenges for dyslexic legal professionals  

Each individual is affected differently. Below are some common challenges facing dyslexic legal professionals.

  • The number one challenge facing dyslexic legal professionals is the prejudices of others. Dyslexia affects everyone differently. It may be mild or severe, related to visual or auditory processing of information. One person might have outstanding organisational skills but poor reading skills, others, great speaking skills but poor writing skills.
  • Form-filling may take longer. Electronic forms which use a time-out function often fail to save work inputted. Many online forms do not have a spell-checking option, which puts dyslexic candidates at a disadvantage. Firms which use computers to sort CVs by, for example, exam marks, while failing to take into consideration mitigating circumstances, disadvantage disabled candidates.
  • There is evidence that psychometric testing puts certain classes of candidate at a disadvantage. For example, dyslexic candidates in general find multiple choice questions hard to process. They may also find verbal and numerical reasoning difficult, as they cannot use their normal day-to-day coping mechanisms in the test. HR professionals need to realise this, and put in place fairer assessment methods.
  • Dyslexic candidates may be put at a disadvantage at an interview when they are asked questions with more than one part, because their working memory is unable to process all the information at once. This also explains why they take longer to process long sentences (commonly found in law).
  • ime-keeping and understanding directions can be challenging, as can interpersonal and organisational skills. Unfortunately, a legal professional’s failure to meet the firm’s expectations in these areas can lead to disciplinary action. Sometimes, it is only then that the individual is diagnosed or admits to being dyslexic. Law firms should be aware of common dyslexic type errors, and recommend employees get tested so reasonable adjustments can be put in place before the situation goes as far as a disciplinary. For more details on testing for dyslexia, visit the British Dyslexia Association website.

The Lawyers with Disabilities Division receives many phone calls from dyslexic law students trying to obtain a training contract. Common questions include:

  • Should I declare my disability?
  • What support and reasonable adjustments are out there?
  • Which firms have a fair recruitment process to give me the best possible chance?

Here is one member’s experience.

A case study: Lucy

When Lucy was at school, she was told that she was sloppy and lazy in her work. She was laughed at in class when she tried to read out loud, and really struggled with English and expressing herself. She obtained nine GCSEs at A-C and three A-levels. In her second year at university, she really started to struggle, and went to learning support. They immediately tested her for dyslexia. She was found to have a reading and writing age of 12, but a very high IQ. This had a massive psychological impact. On one hand, she felt somewhat relieved, as it explained why she had struggled all these years, despite working extremely hard, but on the other hand, she felt embarrassed, scared and alone.

Lucy obtained a 2:1, and a Commendation on the Legal Practice Course, and undertook an additional post-graduate diploma. She applied for over 550 training contracts over five years, and had 22 interviews. She spent hours over each application, obtained paralegal work at Magic and Silver Circle law firms, networked her way to decision-makers, and eventually obtained a training contract. 

She declared her disability on about 50% of her applications. She only got interviews where she had not declared her disability. She quickly learnt that if you are dyslexic and working in the legal field, you will often come across discriminatory and hurtful comments. Lucy went on to qualify as a solicitor and worked for a US law firm in London. Lucy had a number of ignorant bosses who did not support her and, if anything, knocked her confidence. In the end, Lucy introduced the firm to a dyslexia specialist, who assessed her working environment, suggested changes, and spoke to the bosses, so they could better understand her challenges, how they could easily be overcome, and what her key strengths were.

What we can learn from this

People can be diagnosed at any stage in their life. Being diagnosed later in life shows the amazing coping strategies they have developed to cover it up. 

Dyslexic people often work very hard and do not get the credit they deserve, because their written work may not be up to the expectations of others. They are often perfectionists, as they realise they make mistakes and want to get things right to avoid the criticism of others. They may therefore take longer to do things.

Finding out you are dyslexic can be extremely emotional and stressful. One of our biggest fears is not being good enough; being told you are dyslexic impounds this fear. Being dyslexic can be very draining, as you tend to use more energy focusing on the task in hand.

Being given a ‘label’ such as dyslexic stops others seeing the amazing talents the dyslexic person does have, as they place the focus on the things the person is not so good at. Naive people fail to properly engage with the person or take time to understand how the person processes information. As a result, relationships break down.

Dyslexia is often termed as a hidden disability, as you would not, from looking and talking to a person, know they have it. Whether or not to declare it and at what stage of the recruiting process is a personal choice. On one hand, candidates have the protection of the Equality Act 2010; on the other, many candidates do not declare it, because of the stigma attached to it. 

Under stress, dyslexic legal professionals will see their coping strategies start to crumble. Even a small change to their working environment can have a massive impact: for example, if a lawyer who has their own office is moved to an open plan office, where it is noisy and they keep getting interrupted.

Reasonable adjustments

People often don’t understand the challenges dyslexia people face from day to day. This article has only mentioned a few common ones. There are many strategies legal professionals can use to help them with day-to-day activities. Below are some potential reasonable adjustments. 

  • having all instructions written down in a memo in large font on creamy or coloured paper
  • using Access to Work provisions - for example, having someone to help the individual with proof-reading or organisation tasks
  • using coloured paper or coloured overlays
  • making sure the lighting in the office is right
  • using a Livescribe Pen in meetings
  • using mind-mapping software, such as Inspiration software
  • using speech recognition software, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking Legal Edition
  • having background music or noise-cancelling headphones
  • coaching managers on how to work best with the dyslexic employees
  • having a quiet place to work with no interruptions
  • factoring in time extensions
  • using a folder holder for reading

How can firms help?

So how can firms improve the experience their dyslexic candidates and employees have? It comes down to careful, well thought-out talent management. 

It’s a well known fact that an efficient team needs a mix of talents, abilities and personalities. Often law firms recruit the same ‘model’ of person: for example, people from very similar backgrounds, with the same skill set. This does not make for a good team formula. 

Dyslexic legal professionals have a mix of talents highly relevant to the legal profession. Because they think differently, they are generally highly skilled in problem-solving, communications, strategy creation, trouble-shooting, improving processes, lateral and creative thinking. Assigning tasks relevant to their key strengths will help the law firm to grow and improve the service offered to clients. A dyslexic legal professional may also be better suited to a certain practice areas: for example, litigation, where strategy is key, rather than corporate, which is drafting-heavy. Firms should help lawyers to change practice area if they feel it would enhance what they can offer to the firm. Dyslexic legal professionals may also make excellent business advocates and strategists.

Firms need to look at what professionals are good at and enjoy doing, to make them as productive as possible. In some professions, dyslexic people are sought out by employers, because they are so creative and innovative. With law firms wanting to gain new instructions and increase profitability, there is definitely a place for talented dyslexic legal professionals.