Associate Charlotte Clewes-Boyne discusses her legal career in The Law Society Gazette’s My Legal Life
From a young age, I was determined to study at Cambridge. As a Northern lass from a working-class family and state-school education, I was aware that achieving this might be difficult. I’m incredibly driven, which is one of the many qualities I associate with being autistic, and which helped me to achieve that goal. In the end, I decided to study law because I thought it would be one of the most challenging subjects to study. I didn’t qualify into pensions law initially: I started in family law and decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted something a bit more intellectual and cerebral, but still wanted to feel like I was doing meaningful work. Autistic people often have a reputation as having strong moral compasses, and that is definitely something that factored into my decision to practice law in the specialism that I did.
I have known I was different since I was a child and suspected I was autistic since I was about 16. My early years in law were very challenging, in part due to being undiagnosed, but I can also see the ways being autistic (even though I didn’t know it) helped me to succeed too. I feel more sanguine now about past interactions, which at the time had no explanation and were upsetting, but I now understand were due to me being an autistic person in a mainly neurotypical workplace. I am kinder to myself through knowing that, and also have a different perspective on those interacting with me at the time, who didn’t know either. I also remember the glowing feedback I would get as a trainee for my attention to detail, my keen research and analysis skills, and my work-ethic, all of which are attributes that I think are linked to me being autistic.
I self-diagnosed as autistic in April 2021 and was formally diagnosed in January 2022. Diagnosis made me more confident and more open. I tried wearing my “Hidden Disabilities” sunflower lanyard just before my diagnosis, but I felt safer wearing it afterwards. I started advocating for my needs more and using stim toys at work to reduce anxiety. I began to share my experiences on social media, personally and in professional circles. I also recently set up a law-focused Instagram account where I share hints and tips about being neurodivergent in the legal industry. I moved firms at the start of 2022, and in interviews I made a point of telling people I was seeking an autism diagnosis. At work, I now talk openly about being autistic, and the positives and challenges that presents in my everyday life. I’m lucky to have a really supportive team that is keen to help me raise awareness both internally and externally.
That said, there’s a lot more work to be done in our sector. A lot of the old-fashioned stereotypes about certain neurotypes still persist, and I think this prevents people who don’t exhibit those criteria seeking help and support. By developing our understanding of what each neurotype actually looks like from neurodivergent people, we can create safer and more inclusive workspaces.
A lot of flexible working options that were forced by the pandemic were really beneficial for neurodivergent people. As an autistic person, I’m not one for small talk, crowded and loud trains, uncomfortable clothing, and long commutes. Being able to completely control my own routine, use work time efficiently and effectively, and surround myself with comforting and safe things, was a huge breakthrough for me and my productivity was higher because of it. Of course, there are challenges with the hybrid / work-from-home model, such as supervision and the absence of “learning by osmosis”. However, I think there is a bit of a push in the industry as a whole to return to the status quo, and I think that could be a missed opportunity for real change.
We also need to lose the “you should have known” mentality. Assuming a neurodivergent person “should have known” something and they just haven’t bothered to try is very confusing and distressing, especially when it could have easily been explained to them. This will probably help neurotypical colleagues too!
Finally, we need to encourage unmasking. Let your neurodivergent colleagues stim and fidget, and share their personal stories and special interests with you. We spend most of our working days hiding most of our character from you, because many neurodivergent behaviours are seen as “unprofessional”. However, masking leads to burnout (which presents differently for neurodivergent people) and “meltdowns”. This doesn’t allow us to work at our best. If we are serious about promoting diversity and inclusion, we need to allow everyone to bring their whole selves to work, which means getting comfortable with what that actually looks like. Neurodivergent people have so many unique skills and perspectives which are so valuable in a dynamic industry like law. We just need to make sure that we are making enough space to allow that to shine through.
Read Charlotte’s article in The Law Society Gazette on page 33.
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