We asked Jonathan Andrews his thoughts on diversity and inclusion, how well represented disabled lawyers are, and what he believes the most common misconception about autism is.
Jonathan is an autistic trainee solicitor at Reed Smith and a valued member of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division committee and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, for which he has just been reappointed by Council.
How long have you been a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the Lawyers with Disabilities committee? What has your experience been like working with these committees and the Law Society generally?
I've been a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee (EDIC) since 2016 and am pleased to have recently been reappointed for a second term, until 2022.
I became a full member of the Lawyers with Disabilities Division (LDD) shortly after this, having attended meetings for the previous year as an observer.
I've really enjoyed by time working with both, working to ensure fair access to the profession and support for people from all backgrounds.
Fair access is a real passion of mine, and I've had the chance to work alongside some great people and to be involved in some great initiatives - such as CV speed networking events, helping disabled and autistic people to build their skills and increase their chances of entering the profession.
What made you want to become a member of thee committees?
I applied to EDIC as a future trainee solicitor because, having been involved in a number of initiatives to level the playing field for disabled applicants and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and to support LGBT+ inclusion, I recognised that EDIC would allow me to take this work to the next level, working internally with the Law Society while building external networks.
As someone who was relatively young (22) when first appointed, and an autistic person, I also wanted to ensure that I put my money where my mouth was when it came to diversity, and apply for leading positions, so that the committee would have a chance of having autistic and under-25 representation - which would not have been possible if no one with these identities had applied.
I also became involved with the LDD because I recognised that having autistic representation on the body representing disabled solicitors was incredibly important - and to be able to show, having obtained a training contract, that while barriers still exist, autistic people can enter, and excel within, the profession, as long as interviewers and co-workers take the time to understand us.
What is the most common misconception of autism in your experience?
The first thing to remember about autism is that everyone is different - when you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person.
So a lot of misconceptions can come from blanket assumptions, like the fact that every autistic person will be a great mathematician, for example, or be focused only on black-letter law and won't be able to add in terms of client relationships and business development, even if they excel in academic law.
This certainly hasn't been my experience, as my external diversity work has built networks and developed business for my firm, alongside my technical work as a trainee.
More widely, there can also be assumptions that autistic people's special interests should always be discouraged; but focusing on these brings fulfilment, and if someone's special interests align with their job (which I've experienced in media and employment law during my training contract), this will often mean they will be very focused and dedicated to this by choice, making them better lawyers and increasing their wellbeing compared to if they were encouraged to suppress this.
Do you think disabled lawyers are well represented in the legal sector?
There are firms who are leading the way on ensuring disabled lawyers are well represented; Reed Smith, my firm, have offered training contracts to over 10 disabled individuals over 2013 to 2018, for example.
There are also some brilliant, visible disabled partners in the sector, such as Robert Hunter from Herbert Smith Freehills. I think a key area to focus on to increase representation is ensuring employees are supported to progress throughout their careers - firms should be taking on more talented disabled applicants if they're the best person for the job (and they often are), but firms should ensure they are long-term investments and that retention is focused on.
However, it's important to remember that many people who today would be understood to have hidden disabilities would not have been so recognised in the past - or may not want to be open.
There may well be several more autistic or dyslexic lawyers in the profession than those who are open about this, or are aware of this, for example - so stats can only show us so much.
What would you say if you had only one sentence to sum up why diversity and inclusion is so important?
Diversity is a fact of life - people come from a variety of backgrounds and hold different identities, and the best people will come from all of these, so if a business doesn’t take steps to hire from a wider talent pool, and ensure these people feel included and belong at the firm so they can work at their best, that firm is missing out.
What advice would you give to aspiring disabled solicitors?
Focus on firms which do the law you want to do - there is no point qualifying into something you’re not passionate about.
Within these firms, try to work out which are the most understanding of diversity and in particular, disability - some firms, like Reed Smith, really stand out in this area.
When you know where you want to go, do your best to network, make connections, and gain relevant experience just like everyone needs to do - and don’t give up.
It is incredibly rare to be hired by the first firm you apply to, to pass your first interview, or to get a training contract from your first vacation scheme - I didn’t manage any of these!
But it’s through perseverance and gaining skills from your experiences that you can put yourself in a better position - it’s difficult for anyone to get a TC, and while some barriers may be due to discrimination, others will be challenges which everyone will face and simply need to be overcome.