Case Study: Focus on Autism at Herbert Smith Freehills

The challenge

We have chosen to prioritize inclusive neurodivergent recruitment, with a focus on autism.

Disability is the most overlooked area of ​​diversity and inclusion, with appallingly low employment rates. People with autism are the most underemployed outside of any protected characteristic group – with a significant pay gap when hired.

Our initiative was led by staff who have autism or have autistic family members. Together with the company’s Ability Network, they formed the Autism Task Force to discuss the issues, with the goal of:

  • create work experience and employment opportunities
  • diversify our employee pipeline to reflect the broader population
  • build trust and awareness in the process of disclosing disabilities and neurodiversity conditions and requesting adjustments
  • create a more inclusive work environment for all

With this in mind, the first steps have included:

  • conduct awareness sessions
  • ask external organizations to give talks
  • highlight the different channels employees can use to disclose neurodiversity – including making it clear that employees do not have to disclose to their manager

The action taken

Our action can be broken down into three areas:

  • recruitment
  • policies and processes around the work environment – including reasonable adjustments
  • provide meaningful work experience

Make recruitment more inclusive

We have offered a number of internships to autistic candidates to increase autistic representation. Internships are fixed-term and vary in duration, with placements in the General Counsel and Risk Management, Corporate and Pricing teams.

We explicitly welcome neurodivergent applicants and offer adjustments at every step of the process. This includes making job descriptions clearer, with information about what a typical day will look like and less reliance on buzzwords. During the interview, adjustments made include providing questions in advance.

When a candidate discloses their autism at the hiring stage or after they have started working for the company, our external partner will carry out an assessment and, if necessary, provide coaching and support.

To support recruiting staff, we offer inclusivity training and guidance on appropriate accommodations during interviews and panels.

We also work with recruitment agencies to change assumptions about how “good” candidates present themselves, as these can contribute to the exclusion of neurodivergent candidates.

Modification of policies and processes

Neurodivergent applicants and colleagues may not know if they need reasonable accommodations or which ones might be most helpful, so our accommodation policy now offers a list of examples of possible accommodations for all disabilities .

We ensure that managers supervising interns receive training, both internally and with external organisations, including Ambitious About Autism.

We also have internal guidelines to ensure all training and communication materials are neurodiversity and disability inclusive.

Self-identification can play an important role in crisis prevention. Our Adjustments Framework caters to people who identify as neurodivergent, in addition to providing diagnostic pathways for existing employees who are struggling in some aspect of their role.

Creating a Hiring Pipeline

Securing new neurodivergent candidates can be challenging due to low confidence levels competing for places at law firms across the city, but we will continue to encourage applications.

We are working to make more internships available and funded across different teams across the organization.

We have partnered with charities and specialist providers who do sustained work with established networks of autistic jobseekers.

We have also worked with a specialist recruitment agency that offers fixed-term contracts and consultancy assignments among their pool of autistic-only IT professionals.

We support Barclays Legal with its annual Think Talent programme, which provides work experience for aspiring neurodiverse lawyers.

We are in our third year of running a mentorship program with aspiring lawyers for neurodiverse applicants, applicants with disabilities, and/or those with long-term health conditions.

We also partner with MyPlus Consulting to host an annual open house for the same demographic.

The result

Our staff in London have chosen an autism charity as Charity of the Year – a good indication that staff think this is an important issue.

A trainee from the program is now a full-time employee and is doing well. We are also delighted that an autistic person has recently joined our office operations team.

Feedback from interns has been positive, with interns reporting an increase in confidence and opportunities to develop their skills.

Many colleagues indicated that they were learning to change their practices to be more inclusive. This includes, for example, sharing before meetings who will be attending, what will be discussed, and attendee expectations, as well as providing visual introductory guides to team members for newcomers.

At first, some teams were worried about taking on interns with autism. Working together helped crush assumptions, with teams continuing to offer full-time jobs and expressing interest in hiring more interns.

Measure the impact

We are reviewing data collection options over the next 12 months to support the formalized neurodiversity strategy. KPIs can include:

  • headhunters demonstrating that they shortlist various candidates
  • an increase in the number of neurodivergent hires
  • tracking career progression, as well as attrition/retention rates
  • an increase in disclosure rates

We are also interested in participating in an external certification program and will review available options, with a view to enhancing our reputation as a neuro-inclusive law firm.

Next steps

We are only at the beginning of our work in this area and there is still a long way to go.

We are grateful for the tremendous support we have received from all levels within the firm, including a number of our senior partners.

We are in the process of developing a company-wide neurodiversity strategy to gain formal support with annual goals and budgets.

Our UK network connects with international colleagues to share best practice, with interest from colleagues in the US and Australia, as well as partnerships and open days already held in our Hong Kong office.

We don’t want to work in isolation. We plan to partner with other law firms to share best practices and explore areas where collaboration will move the dial faster in our industry.

For example, since we currently have no associates who identify as autistic, we intend to learn from other law firm associates who do.

In September 2022, we co-hosted an event to discuss how to improve the inclusion of people with autism in the legal profession with the Law Society to start this conversation.

Our advices

Build and operate internal networks

People with a personal connection to neurodiversity will be your strongest advocates and organizers.

When these people come together, everyone benefits: the sharing of lived experiences and the insight they confer is more powerful than abstract talk.

Use partnerships and external expertise

A huge amount of free neurodiversity information and advice is available, along with organizations willing to help you become more inclusive.

We wouldn’t have come this far without AS Mentoring, Autism Forward, Ambitious About Autism, Aspiring Solicitors and Lexxic.

Having a high level sponsorship helps

We have had vocal and tangible support from influencers such as senior partners and our Director of Legal Operations. Their support has enabled us to accelerate internal and external progress.

There’s no substitute for trying things

It’s important to adjust recruitment processes and reformulate adjustment commitments, but the most effective thing you can do is give neurodivergent job seekers paid and meaningful work experience.

In addition to building their CV, their network and their self-confidence, the benefits of learning and demolishing stereotypes for the teams that welcome them are incalculable.

Ensuring a permanent feedback loop

All neurodivergent individuals and all managers and teams are different. Not everything will go perfectly when they meet, and there will be bumps in the road.

Ask everyone how things are going more than it seems natural. Capture and implement all lessons learned (share widely) so you can continue to improve and understand.

All opinions expressed in this article belong to the authors, not to the Law Society.