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World Autism Awareness Day: Martin Whitehorn

ULaw alumnus Martin Whitehorn studied the GDL and the LPC LLM at our Guildford campus until 2017. Since then, he’s become a qualified property solicitor at Julie West Solicitors (JWS). To highlight World Autism Awareness Day on 2 April, we caught up with Martin to discuss everyday life as a solicitor with autism and being open about neurodiversity in the workplace.

I qualified as a solicitor in mid-July 2020, soon after the stamp duty land tax holiday had been announced. Because of this and other factors, including the Surrey’s desirability for Londoners who want to live somewhere more rural, my work has mostly involved helping people move home. My typical day includes investigating titles, reviewing searches and surveys, drafting or amending contracts of sale and raising enquiries. As well as this, I report to my clients, along with exchanging and completing their sales and purchases.

The first lockdown was announced during my commercial property seat and on the evening of my birthday. I had little expectation that life as I knew it would return to normal anytime soon. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies had said we could expect disruption for 12-18 months if all went relatively well. As someone who likes routine, having to work from home, losing in-person access to my colleagues and friends, not venturing into public spaces for fear of spreading infection came as a crushing blow.

It has taken time to adjust but I am glad to work at JWS as I could not ask for more supportive colleagues. Working from home, it initially felt so much more difficult to seek supervision than asking in person. When picking up the phone, you don’t know when your supervising solicitor is otherwise engaged, and writing emails seems to take so much longer. Scheduling regular supervision sessions has made my work so much easier and I am thankful my senior colleagues continue to help me.

I find my work most rewarding when advising clients in a way that clearly adds value, whether to their properties or during transactions. This might be from drawing their attention to multiple dwellings relief on stamp duty land tax to discover, advise on, and rectify title defects to allow for a smoother sale.

My best friend, Sarah Wilson, inspired me to study law. We met at The University of Southampton, where we both completed English undergraduate degrees. When I heard she was planning to do a GDL, I looked into law as a career. I had not given it serious thought previously.

At the time, I was doing odd jobs on zero-hours contracts, including washing dishes at primary schools. Entering a profession with improved job security and expanding on my love of land made a lot of sense. It’s Sarah I have to thank for getting me into law.

In January 2020, Professor Debbie Foster of Cardiff University Business School and Dr Natasha Hirst launched the Legally Disabled? research reports on the experiences of disabled people working in law. For years I had been aware of the struggles of my disabled friends and taken the opportunity to highlight the barriers to disabled people progressing through the legal profession. However, when the reports were released, I was both shocked and unsurprised at how eerily similar the report findings were to the experiences of the disabled people I knew in the profession.

The reports are an accurate reflection of the difficulties disabled people face when entering and trying to progress through law and signpost disabled people to organisations that provide support. They also provide several achievable action points for organisations to improve disability inclusion. The reports add credibility to my statements about the experiences of disabled people, encouraging me to speak up about these issues all the more.

In October 2019, I joined the Surrey Junior Lawyers Division, becoming one of its social media and publications representatives. The executive Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) is a branch of The Law Society that supports and promotes junior and aspiring lawyers' interests and welfare, and provides training and networking opportunities. Surrey JLD is one of many local groups supporting junior and aspiring lawyers throughout England and Wales. In my role, I was able to promote the “Legally Disabled?” reports and other relevant resources on our LinkedIn and Twitter.

At the time, I was also singlehandedly working to organise a stakeholder conference between the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority (SRA), Guildford’s The University of Law, the University of Surrey Law School, Surrey JLD and Surrey Law Society, to consult with and challenge the SRA on the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The Legally Disabled? reports emboldened me to include more questions on how the SQE would impact disabled aspiring lawyers. For example, I queried how the multiple-choice questions in the SQE1 assessment are inadequate for certain subsets of neurodivergent people, including those with dyslexia and some with an autistic spectrum disorder.

Similarly, when Kate Charrington MRICS approached me about contributing a tmgroup webinar called Building an Inclusive Property Industry, I was delighted for an additional opportunity to promote the Legally Disabled? research.

I was not nervous to talk openly about neurodiversity in the workplace. This may be due to a combination of how my brain works, my having an invisible disability which can be easy to overlook. Also, my good fortune to work in supportive environments where I am comfortable being open with my colleagues.

My autism makes me a perfectionist in my work. While it is the nature of a lawyer to be a perfectionist, it can be hard for me to know how much information is too much for my clients. Surprise telephone calls can be off-putting, along with open questions, increasing the time it takes me to answer them.

I include below a paragraph I have developed to overcome these challenges and help communication with my clients during our early talks. This was partially inspired by a Westminster & Holborn Law Society JLD webinar featuring Laura Uberoi and Olivia Longrigg, which can be found on the JLD Westminster and Holborn Law Society Youtube channel.

“Incidentally, for future reference, how do you prefer to communicate? I ask as I am autistic and when I receive emails, depending on the questions raised, my perfectionist nature prompts me to send longer replies than are necessary for my clients, so sometimes returning an email with a telephone call to provide an answer, with a short follow-up email to confirm what was discussed, is easier and quicker for me and my clients. Also, when I receive a call without warning this can be off-putting for me and, depending on the conversation, increase the time it takes for me to process in my mind what is being discussed.”

Being vulnerable allows others to be open with you too. I have been very pleased with the consistently positive responses from my clients to this paragraph.

I can see many of the positive qualities of autism in my work, from thoroughness and long-term memory to keen observational skills and a strong commitment to the employer that has supported my development as a solicitor. Every autistic person’s experiences are unique to them. Not every person will identify with every beneficial aspect of autism, but that is the strength of being an individual in the workplace: we all contribute something different to the team.

I think disability campaigner Jonathan Andrews puts it best when he emphasises how persistence, reliability and loyalty are chief among the positive characteristics of autistic people. Jonathan has often stressed how high turnover rates and consequent recruitment costs are bad for employers, making committed employees all the more valuable.

I believe many neurodiverse students still mistakenly presume that their neurodiversity will be considered a disadvantage. They should know that thinking differently than others does not mean you think less well than others. It often coincides with heightened focus, creativity, diligence, sociability, communication skills and other strengths.

Each neurodiverse person is unique. I know a dyslexic lawyer who corrects her colleagues’ typos when drafting documents, an epileptic lawyer whose skillset makes her indispensable to her employer, and a lawyer with depression and anxiety who networks more effectively due to being open about her mental health.

Similarly, I cannot emphasise the extent to which it is important that disabled students, whether neurodiverse or otherwise, be open about their disabilities with prospective employers. The Legally Disabled? reports highlighted some legal recruiters encouraging practising and aspiring lawyers not to disclose their disabilities to employers until after they had obtained the job. This is the wrong approach to take.

As tempting as it may be, particularly for those with invisible disabilities like me, not to be open about being disabled, this strategy deprives candidates the opportunity to explain the skills they have enhanced due to their disability. I recommend students read Julie Jaggins’ excellent article “The need for different minds” for inspiration on this point.

Consider how your disability drives certain skills and strengths, whether that be diligence, attention to detail or persuasiveness, and seize the chance to highlight your accomplishments. Employers won’t know that you are putting in more effort than your non-disabled peers unless you tell them.

Furthermore, it is only through being open about being disabled that candidates will know whether prospective employers support disabled employees and that they will provide the reasonable adjustments necessary to empower them to do their best work. Whether the reasonable adjustments involve being able to work from home, text-to-speech software or disability leave – although, like me, you may not yet know which reasonable adjustments would be best suited to you - at least knowing that your employer is ready and willing to put them in place can help reassure you that you would enter a supportive work environment where you and your development matter.

In short, there is no point in getting a job if your employer is unwilling to support you in doing that job to the best of your ability. There is no reason to make life any harder for you than it has to be and there is no need to act against your own best interests.

At the Lawyers With Disabilities Division roundtable in 2020, I commented that the draft ‘Easy wins and action points for disability inclusion’ document that had been circulated seemed to be aimed at larger organisations rather than smaller ones. I was pleased at the beginning of 2021 to be invited to provide further feedback on The Law Society’s draft ‘Easy wins and action points for disability inclusion in smaller organisations’ document.

It was clear when I received the draft that a lot of thought had gone into tailoring it towards smaller organisations. However, one point I felt needed was changing the relegation of disability leave to less prominence than in the larger organisations’ easy wins section.

To provide context, disability leave is paid time away from work for disabled employees for a purpose related to their disability. This might include a medical appointment, treatment or assessment. It is a reasonable adjustment under the 2010 Equality Act and can be life-changing for disabled people, many of whom find other leave inadequate for their needs.

There is often a perception that smaller organisations do not have the resources to pay for disability leave. Still, I felt that the positive change it can make to disabled people’s lives was so significant that it warranted its own clearly noticeable line. I am delighted to say this amendment was made.

Paid leave that empowers disabled people to take the time away from work should be in addition to annual leave if employers wish to retain the best talent. It is similarly important that all employees in an organisation who need disability leave should be afforded it, not just the lawyers.

I find the Junior Lawyers Division a great platform for equality since so many of the diversity and inclusion divisions of The Law Society are of great relevance to junior lawyers. These include the LGBT+ Lawyers Division, Ethnic Minorities Lawyers Division, Women Lawyers Division and the Lawyers With Disabilities Division. One thing certain in my mind is that I still want to be on the national committee of The Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division as the representative for Surrey.  I find being involved with a Law Society Division highly rewarding and I look forward to what positive change I can help drive in the future.

 

If you’re a neurodiverse student and want to know how ULaw can support you, visit our Student Support Services page.