A Lawyer Tells His ADHD Story

"I knew that I was smart. But I had idiosyncrasies in regard to meeting deadlines."


Filed Under: Organization Tips for ADD Adults, Focus at Work, Adult ADD: Late Diagnosis, ADHD Time Management
ADHD legal rights and work. ADDitude Magazine

In the years following my diagnosis, I have made remarkable changes that have greatly improved my ability to function as a lawyer.

When I first opened my coaching practice in Washington, D.C., I was surprised by the number of high-powered attorneys with ADD who sought my help. Sitting in her spacious corner office, one of my clients said, "Yes, I have finally arrived. But how can I remember to take my cell phone out of the diaper bag?"

Another attorney, who practiced at several prestigious firms, said, "I have no problem getting great jobs, I just can't keep them." A third attorney called me to seek help after having booked a flight to the wrong conference in the wrong city. All three had doubts about their profession because they were unable to manage the ordinary details of their careers.

"Lawyers face the same life problems other people do - problems that can adversely affect one's ability to live and work at full capacity," says Lynn Phillips, founder of the District of Columbia Bar Association's Lawyer Counseling Program, and the inspiration for a weekly support group for ADHD lawyers. The attorneys in this group are facing their condition, and finding ways to thrive professionally. Here, you'll read a stunning example of this, in the words of one D.C. attorney who chronicles his career before and after being diagnosed. You'll also find strategies that can help anyone manage work life more effectively.

(Introduction by Sandy Maynard, ADDitude's Coach on Call)


Knowledge is Power

One Lawyer Tells His Story
by an anonymous D.C. lawyer, as told to Lynn Phillips

I always knew that I was smart. But I also knew that I had certain idiosyncrasies in regard to learning and meeting deadlines.

I graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in the early '70s and took an associate position with a prestigious Washington, D.C., firm. From day one, I had trouble juggling assignments. When I enjoyed the subject matter of a research project, I would spend hours tracking down minor points and creating memos replete with largely irrelevant academic footnotes. But if an assignment was boring or hard to get started, I'd let it linger until the assigning partner exhausted his patience and stopped using me.

In areas that I enjoyed, I was creative in conjuring legal theories and very intuitive. And I used my combative intensity well. For example, I took on a court-appointed pro bono criminal case everyone else had given up on. The same senior partner who later canned me for missed assignments was elated when I found grounds to appeal and won a favorable decision before the D.C. Court of Appeals on unique grounds, the first such success in the firm's history.

My uneven performance perplexed the firm. I was one of their "remedial troubled" associates, although I was considered bright and personable. With the negative feedback, I started doubting my skills and wondered if I had chosen the wrong profession. Several missed assignments, along with sloppy work product on matters that didn't interest me, created a spiral of disappointment. One day I asked for more meaty assignments, but the firm had had enough and it was suggested that I look for work elsewhere.

I bolted to the opposite extreme and started a litigation shop with two litigators and no structure. With the excitement of my own cases and the freedom from unwanted structure came the realization that I was now responsible for results. My bad habits remained, and I doubted my skill as an attorney. The firm broke up after one year.

There followed a series of job changes - in seven years I was an associate with three different law firms. In the next 14 years, I was a partner in four others. During that time I continually questioned my competence, despite the fact that I had built a well-respected civil litigation practice. My colleagues would remark on my unevenness of performance, which ran the gamut from brilliant to dismal.

And the Verdict Is...

The turning point came when my 7-year-old son was diagnosed with ADD. When he was put on medication, I said I would take it as well, to ease any stigma he felt. But I also knew that ADD was hereditary, and I recognized many of his symptoms in my habits. After that initial self-diagnosis, I went to see my doctor, and I have been taking a form of stimulant medication since 1995, with very positive results. My dosage is small, but the difference is dramatic.

I have subsequently learned that many adults are never correctly diagnosed with ADD, and that recognition of the condition is frequently missed in childhood. Many children use their high intelligence and determination to mask ADD symptoms. This compensation occurs at great emotional cost. Many high-functioning individuals with ADD harbor feelings of poor self-worth. They often see themselves as failures and feel that they are constantly letting others down. Over the years in which an individual adapts to his ADD situation, the adaptations (both positive and negative) become part of his personality, layered over the ADD symptoms.

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