Accessibility Without a Disadvantage: Supporting Neurodivergent Lawyers and Law Students

By Angela Sordi
NALP Bulletin+
March 2022

This article focuses on a conversation with Simon Margolis, a Disputes Associate at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto, Canada. He is currently transitioning toward a specialty in research and knowledge management. He was called to the Bar in 2020. He has a Juris Doctor from the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law and a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Prior to law school, he worked at an autism advocacy organization in Washington, DC which promoted an identity approach to autism and neurodiversity. While in Washington, he worked with Congressional offices on autism and disability services legislation.

I first met Simon Margolis back in the Fall of 2017. I had just started in my role as the Director of Professional Recruitment at BLG’s Toronto office and it was my very first 2L Toronto summer recruiting season. At the time, I had very little experience working with people with disabilities or who identify as neurodivergent, and I was just beginning to familiarize myself with the firm’s DEI initiatives. We received hundreds of applications for our 2L summer program that year and Simon’s was one of the packages that stood out. At the time, grit and resilience were the competencies du jour and I vividly remember thinking to myself — who would have more grit or resilience than an autistic law student at U of T? I mean, not only did this student secure a spot in this highly competitive program but he was doing exceedingly well.

We were one of five firms that offered Simon an on-campus interview (OCI) that year.

During his 17-minute interview, Simon not only impressed me, but he managed to wow the corporate partner I was interviewing with (candidly, not an easy feat). Now, I realize how incredibly difficult the “speed-dating” curtained-off experience must have been for Simon. How disorienting the 17-minute timeframe, the loud announcements, and all the moving about must have been for him? But he did it anyways and did it well.

Fast forward, Simon is now an associate at the firm.

Over the years, I’ve only ever had one conversation with Simon about his autism. Perhaps not the thing to admit here because looking back, I should have had more. It was uncomfortable and hard back then. But it was one conversation that changed my perspective forever. Today, as co-chair of NALP’s Neurodiversity in the Legal Profession Task Force, I jumped at the opportunity to interview Simon for this Bulletin+ article. I feel privileged to be sharing his perspective with all of you and adding his voice to our conversation.

We know neurodiversity is a broad term, one that sparks discussion and some debate. We know everyone’s lived experience is different and it was important to Simon to stress that his experiences and his story are his.

I’m sure this was one of the questions we asked you when we first interviewed you during OCIs in Fall 2017 … why law school?

Simon Margolis: Growing up, I learned early on how to advocate for myself. I would attend all my IEP [Individualized Education Program] meetings. I learned how to ask questions and ask for what I needed. I learned how to figure out what would be in my best interest and what would not. Law school would allow me to use my distinctive analytic abilities and parlay my advocacy experience into a career that would provide me with an introduction to the corporate world.

Can you speak to some the challenges you faced navigating law school?

There were different challenges I faced through all levels of school. But the main challenge is always adapting to the sensory experiences of the school. The main difficulties related to my autism is that sensory experiences are multiplied. Sounds are louder, colors can be brighter, and as a result, anxieties are multiplied and your reaction to the environment around you is heightened.

Law school meant a new building, new classrooms, new sights; and it took a bit of time to get adjusted. I think the most difficult thing  to get used to involves the difference in the lecturing methods (Socratic vs other methods) at law school as opposed to undergrad and high school. It has always been difficult for me to take notes. I must first process what is being said to really think about it and it’s that processing that takes up a lot of my bandwidth. If I’m focused on taking notes, I can’t really learn. Until the end of undergrad, I had a strong memory. I understood the intellectual frameworks that my professors relied on, I was able to plug information into those frameworks, and was able to follow along.

Law school presented new frameworks and new methods of thinking and taking notes became a real challenge. You are expected to take notes both while completing readings and during lectures. This was extremely difficult for me. Professors were still discouraging or disallowing the use of computers and recording lectures was prohibited. This was very difficult and required me to work extremely hard during first year to get the grades I needed. In fact, my study schedule and method were not sustainable. As a result, I never really felt that my intellectual abilities were accurately reflected in my transcripts. Even though overall I had above-average marks, I don’t believe my true potential was fully realized.

I don’t think the EDI [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion] sphere had properly developed in the disability space back then; it was pretty sophisticated in other areas; but in the area of disabilities there was still a way to go. Looking back, I think disclosure rules were still archaic and that career counseling for students with disabilities was still evolving. I think we faced a number of assumptions when it came to the business community and how accessible it would be for us. Among them was an assumption there was little room for persons with disabilities within a traditional and conservative business law culture and this was very discouraging.

You identified as autistic in your application to the firm — was the decision to disclose ever a question for you?

I’ve always been a discloser and I can credit that to my parents. My parents always framed it like it wasn’t a problem. In fact, growing up they would refer to my autism as my “super power,” which is a concept with its own problems, but was probably better than being left feeling hopeless. When I was growing up, I didn’t think my autism was a barrier for me.

I was loosely diagnosed when I was three years old but we received a clearer diagnosis when I was about seven or eight. My parents always operated on the assumption that it ran in the family and that many of my autistic relatives had been quite successful. I guess they normalized it. I thought it was one thing they did quite right. To be honest, I was shocked in adulthood when I began to understand that not all adults thought about it the same way or had the same experiences.

In my view, my autism was something I just couldn’t hide. I knew that if I tried to hide my autism, I would not have done well through the process. I continue to take this same approach today. I think it depends on the work environment but in my experience, many of the professionals I know with autism have decided to disclose. In hindsight, I think that maybe I should have pushed it or highlighted it more than I did back then.

What changes do you think we need to see in the way we recruit or evaluate neurodivergent students and lawyers?

I don’t want to focus too much on my own personal grievances here but there are a few steps legal pedagogy needs to take before the profession is able to assess neurodivergent students.

I found the expectation to produce a two-page CV [Curriculum Vitae; resume] extremely difficult.

The one thing that immediately jumps out for me is the expectation to explain gaps in application materials. While I prefer not to use “functioning” labels, there is a 70-85% unemployment rate among autistic persons labeled “high functioning” — it’s fairly consistent across the spectrum. Believe it or not, high-functioning autistic people do not have a particularly higher rate. Through the job search process, you are constantly reminded that employers will focus on the gaps in your materials or on service-type jobs as ways to assess your ability to multitask or work hard.

Most of the autistic students that I know don’t have part-time jobs and don’t participate in many extra-curricular activities. There is a real lack of understanding around how much bandwidth is required for an autistic student to succeed in school. Working at McDonald’s was never going to be an option for me. As a student, I was so exhausted from a day of processing and adapting to everything going on around me that I was happy and relieved to have my books and my television at the end of the day.

Looking back, I think it would have been great if the employers who met me had a better understanding of the sensory adjustments I was having to make while participating in the interview process. I found it very difficult to answer behavioral questions. I also found the weird questions for which I had not prepared, like, “What kind of animal would you be?” to be challenging. For me, I was so overwhelmed by the interview environment that it was extremely hard for me to process and understand on the spot why I was being asked those sorts of questions. I take things at face value and so trying to think about and understand that line of questioning is extremely stressful. I really process things in the here and now and so it’s difficult to think back on experiences and look forward to experiences that “might” happen. I would suggest that when someone has disclosed that they are autistic, employers avoid those sorts of questions.

I remember at one firm’s information session, someone from the firm joked about students today bringing fidget spinners to interviews. I don’t use a fidget spinner, but I do use a pencil and I’m constantly spinning it. It was never really communicated to me that it was OK to spin my pencil.

What aspects of the practice/culture of law do you find leverages your strengths?

I think legal analysis plays to my strengths. I excel at research and problem-solving. Through legal analysis I can come up with different solutions to problems. I don’t necessarily work faster or identify more solutions than someone else, but I can come up with different and novel solutions. I know autistic lawyers who have done really well in the tax planning or IP areas. I think different neurotypes will excel in different areas. For example, I know of lawyers with dyslexia who have great memories and make confident courtroom litigators.

Are there aspects of the practice/culture of law you find challenging?

My autism affects my executive functioning. Navigation, organization, and time management are my biggest challenges in practice. Applying structure clashes with the chaotic lens by which I view things.

Because it’s challenging to adapt and process new materials, I tend to be hyper-concerned with protecting my time and doing well. As a result, sometimes I might hold back on taking on new work or knocking on doors for new work. I worry that this is construed as a lack of confidence or trying to avoid work when it really is me trying to map out and process work and deadlines in my head. When I’m approached by a lawyer with a work assignment, I have the habit of verbally articulating all the work I have on the go and the related deadlines. I’ve had to explain that the reason I do this is to organize my schedule and not because I am trying to send a message that I’m busy.

Taking notes continues to be a challenge for me. As I mentioned, once upon a time, I was able to keep everything in my head; now I really need to focus on writing things down or diarizing.

Also, I find some of the focus on wellness in our profession distracting or too reminiscent of difficult childhood therapy. Some of the language that surrounds wellness, or things like meditation or yoga bring me immediately back to my ABA therapy years … I am working on that!

What would you say are some of the biggest misconceptions facing professionals who identify as neurodiverse?

I worry that my executive functioning skills or navigation skills that I continue to work through might be perceived as some sort of mental health issue … and there’s the sensory stuff sometimes. For example, brushing hair is a big sensory thing for me and I really don’t brush my hair. I sometimes worry that this could be viewed as a sign of a mental health issue like sadness, anxiety, or depression.

Another thing is the social piece. There is a perception that all autistic people are anti-social. People will say something like “remote working is probably a positive thing for you.” This is simply not true. I’m not inclined to make connections with people, but the office is the only place where I get to be social and speak to others without having to go out of my way to do so. Working from home has been difficult in this sense.

The expectation to start work early in the morning is something that I’m still getting used to. Autistic people often have wonky sleep cycles. I tend to stay up late working and then sleep in. I’ve worked hard to adjust to a more traditional work schedule because I think there is still a belief that productive and eager lawyers start their day early.

Sharing a workspace with strangers can also be a bit of a challenge. If I don’t know someone who is working with me or speaking to me, I find myself distracted by trying to process who they are, what they might want, or why they are speaking with me, etc. This is definitely getting better, though, with time and practice. Similarly, surprise conversations and walk-ins are also difficult for me. Before the pandemic, I was starting to get used to the drop-in nature of the open-door office environment.

The assumptions that others make about autistic professionals are often flawed. For example, not all autistic people want to be engineers or are good at math. I didn’t take calculus as an undergrad. I’m particularly sensitive to comments like, “we are all nerdy here” or “all lawyers are a bit OCD.” I consider these microaggressions and they happen all the time. Not all nerdy people are autistic and not all autistic people have OCD.

The labels that are often applied to describe autistic people are high-functioning/low-functioning. I’m opposed to these labels because they tend to minimize the accommodations needed on the high end while at the same time stigmatize those individuals on the low end.

These labels tend to hurt autistic professionals because there is a perception that because they are “high functioning” they are OK and might require fewer accommodations.

I remember early on, when you joined us as a summer student, I asked you if you might share anything you thought I should know/understand about you … looking back, was that the right approach?

[Laughing] No – it was way too open-ended. Especially when someone is coming from an experience that until very recently the basic features of autism were considered problematic. It’s incredibly difficult to talk about this stuff and especially scary when you are a student waiting for hireback. It’s scary because you don’t want to ask for too much or justify flaws. Specific and direct questions are better. They are challenging but clear and easy to understand what is being asked and why.

What does accessibility mean to you?

It really is contextual and depends on the environment — school is different than work. But for me, accessibility is when I am in a position where I can be most effective, most productive, and not feel like I’m at a disadvantage. Is there is someone I can go to if I require an accommodation … if the florescent lights are buzzing, a lot of autistic people can hear buzzing from florescent lights … am I able to go to someone and get this resolved?

Fast-forward, where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?

I’m not too sure. I can definitely see myself here at the firm for sure. I hope to achieve success, be productive, and thrive in what I’m doing. I’d like to create solutions and be a mentor. I want to lead by example.

Thank you, Simon.

Angela Sordi is the Director of Professional Recruiting at Bordeon Ladner Gervais LLP's Toronto office.

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