Flashing Lights and Guiding Lights - Lawyers and ADHD

Flashing Lights and Guiding Lights - Lawyers and ADHD

For many of us, COVID has materially altered the way we work and interact with others.  These changes have significantly impacted people with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).  Students with ADHD are often struggling to adjust to new classroom structures and methods of learning. One study reported that people who have untreated ADHD are 50% more likely to have tested positive for coronavirus compared with individuals who don’t have ADHD. Clinics report that more people are seeking help for ADHD during COVID. That has been true at the OAAP as well.  More lawyers and law students are reaching out for assistance with issues around focus and attention, motivation and procrastination, memory and emotional regulation ─ either because of a recent ADHD diagnosis or because they are worried about their performance.

First, it’s important to note that nearly everyone experiences lapses in attention, or sometimes finds it hard to get started on a task or see it through to completion.  Everyone loses their keys occasionally, or forgets the name of that person they met on a Zoom call last week. Second, behavioral and health concerns like anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, substance usechronic stressPTSD, or lack of good self-care can share characteristics of ADHD ─ and these conditions can appear on their own or co-occur with ADHD.  An accurate assessment can be key to getting effective help. Third, ADHD affects many lawyers.  In the 2016 American Bar Association (ABA)/Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study of lawyer well-being in the U.S. legal profession, about 12.5% of lawyers responding to the survey reported having ADHD ─ more than two and a half times that of the general adult population.

For some with ADHD, working or studying from home has allowed them to tailor their work environment to meet their needs in a way that provides maximum support.  They can take breaks often and when they need to, put reminders where they can see them, turn off distractions like the phone and email notifications, or shut the door. (Think of that one colleague at work who is always walking in unannounced, saying “I just need a second.”)  In his book, Transforming ADHD: Simple, Effective Attention & Action Regulation Skills to Help You Focus & SucceedPortland therapist Greg Crosby, MA, LPC, talks about optimizing our environment by replacing “flashing lights” (the bright shiny things that distract us and divert our attention from where we want or need it to be) with “guiding lights” (external cues and prompts to strengthen a biological deficit).  Russell Barkley, PhD, a preeminent ADHD researcher, uses a different metaphor.  He calls this effort to externalize our executive functions “building scaffolding.” In other words, those with ADHD need to create structures around them to help them manage challenges with attention, self-restraint, self-motivation, emotional self-regulation, and higher-level functioning such as organizing, planning, and problem solving.

Unfortunately for some, the “scaffolding” – whether intentionally created or not — existed only at the office or in school.  The shift to working and learning remotely comes with added distractions and less support, more isolation and less accountability, and a home office setup that may be less than ideal.  Often, support staff are less available to help with administrative tasks, which can be overwhelming for people with ADHD.  One of the defining features of ADHD is a difficulty in shifting attention away from things that are interesting (brief writing, maybe, or preparing for trial), while finding mundane or “boring” or future-oriented tasks nearly impossible to perform (billing, anyone?).  Without help, these things get put on the back burner, forgotten, or simply abandoned.  It’s not so much a matter of not knowing how to perform the tasks. As Barkley says, there is a break between the part of the brain that knows what to do and the part of the brain in charge of “doing.” 

By definition, a person who has ADHD had it as a child. However, lawyers who have what some might describe as “high-functioning” ADHD are often not diagnosed until they are adults ─ even though, looking back, symptoms of ADHD were present when they were young. This is truer for women and for people who have what’s called the “inattentive” type of ADHD (distractibility without the more typical “hyperactivity”).  In fact, many people who are diagnosed with ADHD as adults are tested as a result of having children who have been recently diagnosed.   In my experience talking with lawyers with ADHD who have been diagnosed as adults, it’s not uncommon to hear that they knew something wasn’t right when they were children. They may have even tried to ask for help, but their concerns were dismissed by parents and teachers as, “You’re getting good grades – you can’t have ADHD.”  As youngsters, they often developed relatively effective “scaffolding” instinctively on their own. But they still had the sense that, even though they were doing ok in school, they just weren’t living up to their potential.

The OAAP holds a monthly confidential support group for Oregon lawyers, law students, and judges with ADHD.  The most common sentiment expressed by members of the group is the value of sharing their experience with others who “get it.”  If you are interested in learning more about ADHD and about how to replace those “flashing lights” with “guiding lights,” check out the resources below, or call the OAAP.  If you would like to hear more about the ADHD group, send me an email or give me a call – I’d love to talk to you about it.

ADHD – The Basics

 Books on ADHD

Other Resources

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