“Autism isn’t often associated with empathy. But I was named a Legal Hero for helping others.”

Meet Martin Whitehorn, residential property solicitor at Julie West Solicitors. He was diagnosed with autism at a young age and his mother was told he would never make friends or get a good job. He discusses how neurodivergence can be an asset, how he’s helped others and why it’s important to communicate openly.
Martin is a white man, with brown hair and glasses. He is wearing a navy blue suit and a light blue shirt. He is walking and smiling, holding a trophy.

I was diagnosed quite early in life. My mum was told I would never have friends, a spouse or get a good job. She knew that was rubbish. I remember I had a great sense of right and wrong. Those traits stuck with me. I guess that’s part of the reason the law appeals to me.

I can get tunnel vision every now and then. I’ll be focused on one thing to the exclusion of others. Sometimes it’s useful in my work when I’m focusing on sending out reports. It can become an issue when I’m talking, perhaps without appreciating someone else might not be as interested in a topic.

It can be hard for me to keep pace with conversations. My interactions with others used to be like student and teacher. If someone was talking, I presumed the polite thing to do was to look at them and be quiet until they had finished. So much of natural conversation involves near interrupting each other. Initially that annoyed me, but I’ve got used to it.

People don’t often associate autism with empathy. But this year, I was named one of the Law Society’s Legal Heroes for my efforts to help others. I’ve supported Ukrainian lawyers who have fled to the UK following the start of the war, trying to help them find work and reviewing their CVs to help show employers they possess the transferable skills they need so employers will trust them.

The 2020 “Legally Disabled?” report was so eerie. My girlfriend is physically disabled and, unlike me, she hasn’t had a positive experience of employers supporting her. The report put in writing what my girlfriend and other disabled legal professionals had been saying. We had confirmation that disabled and neurodivergent people in the law are struggling more than they need to be.

But, for neurodivergent solicitors, the profession has improved. It’s been great to have the Disabled Solicitors Network and Legal Neurodiversity Network advocating for neurodivergent access to law. My firm had almost an entire day on autism training, trying to understand what we should do to improve the experiences of autistic employees.

We don’t always know ourselves what reasonable adjustments we might need. The training at my firm prompted me to start telling clients that I’m autistic and explain how I prefer to communicate. For example, I need time to review things; it can be hard for me to process what’s being said if I get caught out of the blue. I also have a desk facing a wall because it helps keep distractions out of the way.

It's important to foster a psychologically safe environment. People have to feel safe. Then they won’t hide aspects of themselves because they fear how others will react. My experience has been positive, but not everyone’s has been. I know the values of the profession and my firm, and they match with my idea of doing what’s right and fair.

It's difficult if you encounter an employer unwilling to make adjustments. It’s much better to find an employer who respects you and wants to help you do your best work. When I was looking for a training contract, most had rigid requirements. But my firm were willing to look beyond that. In the application process, I felt like a person, appreciated for what I had to offer, rather than someone who didn’t tick all the boxes.

During my training contract, I found a community. I realised the Law Society had a network for junior lawyers who were giving support and guidance. I joined an associated local group where I found people going through similar things to me. In these groups no one has had an easy path into law, they all know the pain and struggle, and they want to help.

It helps to see that the people supporting you are not so different. I was scared to contact my mentor at university because I was intimidated by the idea of talking to a lawyer. When mentoring others, I’ve tried to emphasise that even though I’m a qualified solicitor, I’m still just a person who wants to help and they don’t have to impress me.

Don’t be afraid to disclose you are autistic to others. Often, the people I prefer spending time with turn out to be neurodivergent. I’ve found, they’re friendly and genuine. When we are interested in being friends with someone, we mean it. We’re not polite for the sake of it.

10 years ago, autism was still seen as something to be cured. So, 10 years from now, I hope all employers are giving people all the adjustments they need to thrive. I hope that becomes easier for both neurodivergent and disabled solicitors.

Find out more

Nominate your legal hero today.

Learn about what support is available to disabled students thinking of becoming a solicitor.

Use our D&I framework to develop a plan for lasting change in your organisation and improve the experiences of disabled colleagues.

Find out how Herbert Smith Freehills set out to be more inclusive of neurodiversity in the workplace.

Explore our best practice guidance for disability inclusion.

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