By Mark Turnbull, publishing manager, barrister magazine
Many neurodivergent law students are not getting the support they need, which is impacting on their future career prospects. According to the Office for Students, disabled students, including those who are neurodivergent, are less likely to graduate with a ‘good degree’ of 2:1 or above. Yet at the University of Hertfordshire, 86% of law students with a declared disability earn a ‘good degree’ – so what is behind their success?
Student Brett Hogan had wanted to be a barrister for years. His journey began when he started a part-time law course at university in 2013, but he had to drop out because of childcare commitments. He was not ready to give up on his ambitions, though.
Once he was ready to try again, he applied to several university law programmes. Despite his passion for law and a willingness to learn, Brett did not have any A-levels and was often rejected as a result. Brett faced another challenge too – he is autistic.
Autism is a condition included under the umbrella term ‘neurodiversity’, used to describe a wide range of conditions such as dyspraxia, ADHD, and OCD. All have different symptoms and impacts on behaviour, and neurodivergent people can struggle with aspects of the university admissions process.
“Neurodiverse people tend not to do well in interviews, for example,” explains leading tax barrister Patrick Cannon, who is himself neurodivergent and a champion for Neurodiversity in Law, an organisation that supports and promotes neurodiversity in the legal sector. “But neurodivergent people often make great lawyers. Some can understand complex cases because they a have strong attention to detail.”
Awareness of neurodiversity has grown in the profession and in legal education in recent years, with institutions such as the University of Hertfordshire leading the way. The University’s Law School has a flexible admissions process to ensure promising students with the right skills and qualifications can transition smoothly into university study. When a prospective student applies to study law, the admissions team consider their personal, professional, and educational experience to understand whether they can meet the demands of, and benefit from, the course.
“We believe being neurodivergent is not a barrier to success,” explains Claudia Carr, Director of Wellbeing at Hertfordshire Law School, who leads on supporting all students in the School with a disability. “We judge applications on a case-by-case basis, and this flexibility means we are able to welcome students with a wide range of qualifications and experiences.”
Brett applied to study a Bachelor of Laws LLB (Hons) at the University of Hertfordshire and had the opportunity to speak directly with an admissions adviser. “It was the first time I was able to speak informally to a real person about my experience. They gave me a lot of information on how they support neurodivergent students at Herts, and I quickly realised it was the right place for me.”
Brett impressed tutors with his passion for law and was accepted on to the course – but he knew that more challenges would lie ahead as he began his studies.
“When I first came to the University, I was very nervous. I find it hard to adjust to new routines because of my autism, but my tutors have been incredibly supportive. They have made adjustments to make me feel more comfortable, including sending me their lecture slides in advance so I can get to grips with them early, and showing me to my lecture rooms so I feel more comfortable moving around campus. There is even one lecturer, who does not actually teach me, who has given up his spare time so I can pick his brains and go over complex case notes.”
13% of students at Hertfordshire Law School have a declared disability. The school provides tailored support for these students, which begins as soon as they join the University, to help them reach their full potential and prepare for future law careers.
A big part of this support is the University’s Study Needs Agreement (SNAs) process. SNAs are written agreements between a disabled student and the University about the support and adjustments that will be supplied for their studies for reasons related to their disability. As in Brett’s case, this can include receiving course materials earlier, making adjustments to their examinations (including giving the student extra time or 1:1 invigilation), specialist mentoring, or assistance from a disability support advisor who works with disabled students to arrange support for aspects of their studies.
“We are proactive with how we use SNAs,” explains Claudia Carr. “If a student declares a disability, we promptly make them aware of the process and work directly with their tutors to help them implement any reasonable adjustments. This support is tailored for each student and dependent on their needs.”
In addition to the extensive support available to neurodivergent students, the University of Hertfordshire also became one of the first universities to partner with Neurodiversity in Law in October, highlighting its commitment to promoting and supporting neurodiversity at the institution. “We aim to eliminate the stigma of people who think differently,” adds Claudia. “To help achieve this, we have nurtured a positive and supportive environment where mental health and disability is treated the same as physical health, giving our neurodivergent students the platform they need to succeed. Our partnership with Neurodiversity in Law demonstrates our ongoing commitment to this and to the success of our neurodivergent students.”
This approach has had a significant impact on attainment. In the 2020/21 academic year, 86% of law students with a declared disability achieved a ‘good degree’ of a 2:1 grade or above – a higher percentage than those with no declared disability. In the same year, 86% of law students with a declared mental health condition achieved a ‘good degree’ – up from 75% the previous year.
“Law is one of the hardest professions to enter,” explains Claudia. “I have spoken to a lot of neurodivergent students at the Law School and I know that many feel being neurodivergent will hinder their success. Attainment data from Hertfordshire Law School shows that this is certainly not the case, but it is important that other institutions and law groups have the right support in place to help these students succeed.
Patrick agrees and has seen a positive change in the profession over recent years, but believes more needs to be done. “When I started practising law, neurodiversity was not a thing. The fact we are now having these discussions means that it is better recognised and understood.
“However, representation across the Bar is still poor. There are many neurodivergent people in the profession who try to mask it because of the stigma. Part of the work we still need to do is to encourage neurodiverse people to embrace their differences and help those in junior roles climb the ladder and become influential in their own sectors. Only then we will see a greater acceptance of neurodiversity across the profession.”
As for Brett, he is continuing his studies at the University of Hertfordshire. He believes other prospective neurodivergent law students should not be discouraged. “When I was applying to study at the University of Hertfordshire, they told me that having autism was no barrier to success. The University is certainly the right place for me, and others like me. It has become a second home and I look forward to completing my studies here.”
Hertfordshire Law School is an Authorised Education and Training Organisation delivering Bar training. Visit the University’s website to find out more about Hertfordshire Law School’s undergraduate LLB, Bar and other postgraduate courses.
Mark Turnbull, publishing manager, barrister magazine