Lincoln's Inn logo

Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2024: Are academic grades an accurate indicator of intelligence or aptitude for a career in law?

Headshot of Roxy Lackschewitz-Martin. She has shoulder length brown hair and wears a black blazer and white blouse.
By Roxy Lackschewitz-Martin, trainee at Mourant, co-founder of Neurodiversity in Law, Lincoln's Inn Cassel Scholar and Lincoln's Inn 2020 EFTA Court Scholar.

Do not let anyone, especially those with little understanding of what being neurodivergent actually means, put you off a career in law.

Roxy Lackschewitz-Martin

Why law?

Learning was and still is the fibre of my being. Like many other neurodivergent people, I have multiple special interests. I seek out and absorb knowledge at every given opportunity. As a career-changer, I knew that I needed a job that was intellectually engaging.

During my journey into law, I discovered that squaring my love of learning with my imperfect GCSE, A Level and undergraduate grades appeared incongruent to interview panels. Nobody seemed to believe I was intellectually competent and my answer to the “why law?” question never seemed to pass. But how could I evidence my intellectual ability if not on paper? Why did the results of exams I took a decade before still matter?

Learning as a neurodivergent

Mainstream education is constructed to test the abilities of neurotypical people who learn in a very specific way. It does not cater to neurodivergent individuals and is therefore not a marker of their abilities.

While studying the GDL I was diagnosed with ADHD and a form of dyslexia associated with visual processing. A mooting competition led to my late diagnoses. My mooting partner and I had been preparing our case. It was my first ever mooting competition so I thought it better for my nerves to write a speech in advance and recite it verbatim. However, when the time came to practise, I could not recall what I had written.

My diagnoses explained why: I regularly experience sensory overload, a trait associated with many forms of neurodivergence. This, in short, means that an overloaded brain has trouble filtering out the noise and storing the important information. Working memory (short-term memory) is impacted.

Most academic subjects are taught and examined within a very short space of time and are therefore reliant on students’ working memory. This method is not helpful for (i) individuals with working memory issues; (ii) individuals who need an overview of the topic before learning about it, rather than being taught in stages; or (iii) individuals who cannot memorise material simply by reading a textbook, and, for example, need to be able to ask questions to aid their understanding.

These are differentials in learning that apply to neurotypical people too, however, it is an undisputable fact that they are more prevalent in individuals with neurodivergent conditions.

Many neurodivergent individuals are therefore simply not neurologically equipped to achieve consistently high marks in exams without support or adjustments throughout their education.

Neurodivergent strengths

It is crucial to note that there is a difference between memory recall and understanding.

Just because a person has the aptitude to recall facts and concepts, it does not mean that they have understood them.

Neurodivergent individuals excel at understanding. They tend to see the bigger picture much better than neurotypicals. They are also proficient in other skills like creative problem-solving, analysis and original thought.

Autistic individuals tend to be very detail-oriented. Dyslexic individuals are known to be more empathetic. Individuals with ADHD can hyper-focus on tasks and complete them with astounding efficiency.

These traits are given very little credence in mainstream education in comparison with short-term memory recall. However, they are integral to a successful career in law and much more valuable in practise than the ability to regurgitate newly learnt information on command.

Neurodivergent suitability for law

The first time I truly felt understood as a neurodivergent person in law was during my Bar scholarship interview at Lincoln’s Inn. Prior to the interview I was asked to prepare a ten-minute presentation on any topic of my choosing. I could finally display my specialist knowledge on obscure topics. I didn’t write a speech. I simply talked in a structured way about one of my passions. Against all odds, I was awarded a merit-based scholarship.

The interview process allowed me to demonstrate my aptitude for the Bar in an inclusive way. The following year, I was also awarded the EFTA Court scholarship. The support I have received from two scholarships at Lincoln’s Inn put to bed any assumption that I may not be academically capable of a career in law.

My confidence has been enhanced by my current role in litigation in a law firm. Observing my colleagues in court, they never recite a script verbatim, nor do they need to quickly memorise large volumes of information. What is important is having the cognitive ability to find the answer when needed – which neurodivergent people absolutely do. How you get there is of less importance.

Lessons for aspiring lawyers and decision-makers

The fact that I was asked to write this blog indicates that attitudes in the legal sphere towards neurodivergent people’s capabilities and strengths are improving.

As the mainstream education system is not built to enable neurodivergent people to excel, I hope that decision-makers in law firms and on pupillage committees will move towards assessing merit by a person’s individual characteristics rather than their academic grades. Discussions about neuro-inclusivity will be the catalyst for that change, and I encourage everyone with an interest in these topics to publicly contribute.

Finally, I want to stress to any neurodivergent aspiring barristers and solicitors that their differences are assets to the legal profession. I speak, in part, to my past self when I say:

“Do not let anyone, especially those with little understanding of what being neurodivergent actually means, put you off a career in law. Your academic grades do not reflect who you really are or what you are capable of. You are clever, and just as worthy as anyone else.”