Understanding ADHD in Lawyers
As an adult, you carefully balance life’s near-endless opportunities and responsibilities. It comes with the territory. Earning money. Paying bills. Sending mom a birthday card. Cleaning the house. Grabbing groceries (and cooking them). Balancing your schedule and time and passion and patience. With your spouse’s. And your kids’. And your neighbors’, and your friends’, and your parents’. You’ve got your hands full, no doubt.
As a lawyer, you’ve got even more balancing to do: tackling clients’ problems, tracking time, billing, earning new business, helping to run the business or department (or doing it all on your own as a solo), managing projects and matters and deals and litigations, and controlling a docket. And, as we all know, that’s just scratching the surface.
But maybe you don’t actually have it all together. Maybe you’re late. Or forgetful. Maybe you’re disorganized and overwhelmed. Maybe you’re anxious. Or depressed. Maybe you feel a bit like all of this is just a it harder than it needs to be.
Here’s the thing: you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. And there could be a hundred reasons you feel that way.
We’re not going to cover all of those reasons here. In fact, we’re going to talk about just one, but it is a big one. We’re going to talk about attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
Understanding ADHD in Lawyers
ADHD is a common, frequently-misunderstood, and potentially-devastating condition.
It is particularly vexing for lawyers, law students, and people in the legal industry in general.
Depending on which study you read, ADHD affects somewhere between 4.4% to 11% of the population (yep, adults, too). Lawyers report its incidence at 12.5%.
We also know that between 75-80% of adults with ADHD don’t have a diagnosis and don’t treat it.
The upside of all of this is that when treated appropriately, ADD can be an incredible asset for lawyers.
The downside is that, at least in its untreated form, ADHD can gut you.
What Causes ADD?
To be blunt, scientists aren’t entirely sure. A significant part (as much as 88%) is genetic. Environmental factors contribute, and differences in brain wiring and neurocognitive function contribute, too.
If you were diagnosed as a child, you have carried symptoms into adulthood. They may look and feel different, but the science is clear: they’re still there.
If you weren’t diagnosed as a child, you’re not out of the woods. ADHD can be really difficult to diagnose. Particularly in those without the “hyperactive” features everyone assumes are prevalent in everyone with ADHD (spoiler alert: they aren’t). Particularly in women and girls. Particularly in people with high IQs.
ADHD can go unnoticed. It can go untreated. There is stigma about taking medication, mythology about ADD being a “hyper little kindergarten boy” condition. There’s a belief that people with ADHD can’t ever focus, and that all of them are hyper… all the time.
Making this even more complex, ADD shows up differently in different people.
It responds to treatment differently.
It bestows different strengths and complicates with different weaknesses.
And we’re in a moment of clarity about ADHD. In this moment in our species’ history, we know more about ADHD than we ever have before. And we’re doing more. And talking about more.
Adults of a certain age with ADHD are almost certain to have never been diagnosed. After all, if they weren’t hyper (and weren’t boys, or weren’t dramatically underachieving in school), they couldn’t possibly have it. Right?
Back then—as now, to some degree—parents, teachers, and others would label you as a troublemaker, slacker, goof-off, or a “bad seed.”
Or maybe you were particularly intelligent, leaning on your intelligence to compensate for your symptoms. Those kids look “merely” average, which is a hard thing to label as dysfunctional.
Kids with undiagnosed ADHD grow into adults with undiagnosed ADHD.
And sometimes the increased responsibilities that come with age becomes too difficult to manage and can lead to more obvious weaknesses.
Now that you’re #adulting, you have plenty to deal with (and often on your own). You probably have a family to sustain, a household to run, and a career to pursue. You need to be organized, focused, and calm.
If you have undiagnosed ADHD, though, organization, focus, and calm can feel miles away.
Here’s the good news:
No matter how overwhelmed you feel, you can get a handle on ADHD’s most vexing challenges.
By educating yourself, being creative, and getting support from your loved ones, you can learn to manage ADHD’s symptoms effectively.
More importantly, as you learn to control ADD’s symptoms more effectively, something amazing happens: you unlock a set of strengths that are perfect for where you are right now.
It is never too late. I was 42 years old when I was diagnosed. No matter your age, you can take control of your life and find new joy in your family, your career, and your self.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Separating Myth from Fact
Myth #1: “People with ADHD lack willpower. They focus well on things they like, and if they wanted, they could focus on other tasks, too.”
Nope. ADHD might look like a lack of willpower from the outside, but it isn’t. Its features are stem from brain chemicals that impact your management systems. No matter how hard a lawyer with ADHD tries to focus, she often can’t. And it’s not her fault.
Myth #2: “People with ADHD can never concentrate or pay attention.”
Wrong. The name “ADHD” is a misnomer. People with ADHD don’t lack the ability to give attention at all. Indeed, someone with ADHD will have no trouble concentrating on novel challenges, things they enjoy, and things that excite them.
Boring and repetitive activities, though? Ugh. Those are like teflon for ADD brains: they’re really, really slippery.
Myth #3: “Everyone has at least a little ADHD! If you're smart enough, you'll get it sorted out.”
No. ADHD affects people across all kinds of spectrums, including gender and intelligence. f different intelligence levels. And while everyone sometimes has ADHD symptoms, only people with chronic impairments resulting from these symptoms may need an ADHD diagnosis.
Myth #4: “You can't have ADHD and still have other conditions such as anxiety, depression, or other psychiatric issues.”
People with ADHD are six times more likely to have psychiatric disorders, learning disorders, and other related conditions. It’s just ADHD overlaps these other conditions and disorders.
Myth #5: “ADHD or ADD can't affect you as an adult unless you were diagnosed as a child.”
Many adults struggle with ADHD, but they don’t know it. They assume that the symptoms they are experiencing are as a result of other untreated health issues such as anxiety and depression. If you’re experiencing the signs and symptoms, don’t assume; be aware that you may have ADHD no matter your age.
ADHD Signs and Symptoms in Adults
ADD (or ADHD) looks different in adults than it does in compared to children. Plus, its symptoms are unique for every person.
We’re going to explore some of the more common symptoms. There are others, and we’ll get to them in time. As you learn more about ADHD, you’ll undoubtedly find new ways to look at old challenges.
The goal here is that once you find some symptoms that feel real for you, your next opportunity will be to starting thinking about how to deal with them.
The phrase “attention deficit” is misleading.
When someone has ADHD, it doesn’t mean that they can’t focus or concentrate. It just means they struggle to concentrate on things that don’t engage or stimulate.
When you’re working on a mind-numbing written discovery project, for example, someone with ADHD may get distracted by any number of things: unimportant sounds and sights, ideas, websites, projects, phone calls, email, group messaging, and unrelated tasks.
When it comes to concentration and focus, lots of lawyers may overlook these characteristics because they tend be less disruptive than other symptoms like impulsivity and hyperactivity. But they’re still troubling and they can still absolutely eviscerate your productivity.
Here are some signs that may seem familiar:
- You’re frequently distracted by unimportant and low-priority things.
- You’re an idea and thought machine. With all those thoughts you’ve got rolling around up there, and it’s difficult to focus on just one (and often even harder to focus on the “right” one).
- You struggle to give attention or focus when reading or listening, particularly if the subject is uninteresting to you.
- You’ve been caught yourself (or, worse, been caught by others) daydreaming. Sometimes you don’t know, and sometimes you do it even in the middle of a conversation.
- You often struggle to complete tasks. Even simple ones.
- Depending on the type, you’ve been known to overlook details. Boring, repetitive, basic details can avoid your fullest attention, often resulting in work poorly done or incomplete.
- Your listening skills can wax and wane, and sometimes you’ll have difficulty following instructions if you’ve tuned out.
We’ve said elsewhere that adults with ADHD can lose focus on things that bore them. Hyperfocus sits on the opposite end of that pendulum.
Adults with ADHD are known to pour 100% of their focus on interesting, exciting, rewarding, and stimulating things. Sometimes this hyperfocus is so complete that external interruptions are useless.
New and interesting ideas, products, hobbies, and technology can do it. So, too, can new clients, new projects, new roles, new jobs, and new research.
When I hit “flow” like that, I have been know to ignore alarms, I have spaced out on tasks, on departure times, and on meetings.
I can get too absorbed in my computer, a book, or social media. I’ll research a new interest until I’m satisfied that I understand it. I’ll buy all of the gear for that new hobby, but only after understanding the best, the worst, and the characteristics that separate them.
Indeed, I’m delayed in getting this page out. Know why? I was focused on learning how to upgrade the hard drive on my 2010 iMac. Ugh.
Here’s the great thing: when channeled appropriately to the “right” tasks and activities, hyperfocus helps lawyers with ADHD perform at extraordinarily high levels. Left unchecked, though, hyperfocus can quickly cause troubles on the home front and at the office.
Disorganization and Forgetfulness
For lawyers with ADD, life may feel out of control and chaotic. It did for me, that’s for sure.
Organization can be hard for all kinds of people. But adults with ADHD have deep and abiding struggles owing to ADHD’s impacts on executive function.
Lots of JDHDs will find organization difficult no matter how hard they try. They’ll adopt new systems. They’ll set New Year’s resolutions that start strong and fizzle quickly. They’ll struggle with time management, task prioritization, tracking deadlines, duties, and responsibilities, and sorting out the relevant information from the red herrings.
How do you know if you’re disorganized and forgetful?
Here are some signs to look for:
- Your world is messy and cluttered. Your home, car, office, and workspace all meet the same fate: it looks disorganized and, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit that it is.
- Procrastination. Lawyers with ADHD procrastination. Putting of boring and repetitive tasks is easy and relieves short-term boredom.
- You’re often (always?) late.
- Starting projects and tasks is challenging.
- Finishing projects and tasks is challenging.
- You’re chronically forgetful about commitments, deadlines, and appointments.
- You’ve been known to misplace or lose your things, even ones that are really important to you. Your inattention spares nothings: car keys, phone, wallet, purse, documents, and glasses are its frequent victims.
- You’re a “time optimist” (as my wife, Katie, calls me). You rarely schedule enough time to get things done and believe you can get more done that time will reasonably permit.
If you struggle with impulsiveness, you will often have difficulty controlling how you act, respond, listen, and comment.
I’ve been known to spend impulsively, particularly on technology. Maybe you often find yourself doing things abruptly without giving enough thought or considering the consequences.
You might dive headlong into work on a project without reading the instructions, blurt comments before thinking them through, or commonly interrupt others as they talk. You feel impatient and dive fast into situations, even the risky ones.
Here are some clues that you might be a bit on the impulsive side:
- You interrupt others frequently as they talk, or talk when they’re talking.
- You lack self-control, even with things and relationships that feel important to you.
- You’ll share inappropriate or rude responses without thinking them through.
- You jump into reckless or spontaneous behavior without much worry about the repercussions.
- You have difficulty sitting still (during long meetings, for example), and can sometimes be found fidgeting, walking around, or otherwise interrupting the meeting.
ADD adults often have complex emotional lives, too. For example, they might often find themselves overwhelmed with sudden and intense feelings that can lead to big feelings and big reactions.
We can have bursts of giddiness and enthusiasm that look to others like they’re out of sync with the situation. So, too, can our anger, frustration, shame, or irritability appear from nowhere (and disappear as quickly).
Some researchers talk about a condition called rejection sensitive dysphoria (or “RSD”), which can look like extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain, often triggered by a belief that someone important to them has rejected or criticized them.
RSD has been a huge part of my personal ADHD journey.
Here are some other indicators of emotional regulation difficulties for lawyers with ADHD:
- Getting upset or anxious, even with small issues.
- Feeling quickly irritated or putting an explosive temper on display.
- Feeling like you haven’t achieved anything worthwhile in life, insecurity, low self-confidence, and imposter syndrome.
- You have a hard time feeling motivated.
- You react to criticism in powerful ways, often disproportionate to the criticism (real or perceived).
First, a moment on my soapbox. Not everyone with ADHD is “hyperactive.” Indeed, wide swaths of ADHD adults don’t meet the criteria to be diagnosed with hyperactive-type ADHD and don’t have significant struggles with it.
So, if you’re an adult with ADHD, you may (or may not) feel “hyperactive.” In other words, if you don’t feel hyperactive, it does not necessarily mean you don’t have ADHD.
And even for those of us who do have the “hyperactive” component of ADD in our lives, hyperactivity can be hard to notice in adults.
Unlike hyperactive kids, ADD adults often—but not always—develop ways to quiet their omnipresent impulses to climb the walls or fidget incessantly.
That doesn’t mean they’re without restlessness or hyperactivity, though.
For instance, a lawyer with ADHD may feel perpetually energetic and always feel compelled to “be on the go” as if driven by a motor.
Still, as you age, hyperactive tendencies can smooth into subtle, mostly-internal symptoms
Here’s what “hyperactivity” symptoms can look like in adults with ADHD:
- Feeling agitated, internally restless, fidgety, or as though your thoughts are racing.
- Frequent boredom. You’re often looking for novel and exciting activities, foods, arguments, books, or hobbies and have little hesitation taking risks (even big ones).
- Constant chatter and frequently “multitasking” by trying to do lots of things at the same time (like driving and using your phone, watching TV and reading your phone, playing with your kids while doing the laundry).
- Difficulty sitting still and having the constant urge (sometimes acted upon) to fidget and move.
The Effects of Adult ADHD in Lawyers
If you’re an adult and you’ve just now begun exploring whether you might have ADHD, you’re like me. My curiosity started a couple of years before I was diagnosed.
If your experience is like mine, and if you’ve only recently learned that you have ADD, it means that you—like me—struggled unknowingly for many, many years. My diagnosis was a revelation and a gut-punch at the same time. I was so happy to have an explanation for some of my more persistent foibles. And I was really discombobulated, too. What did it mean?
Like me, if you’re a lawyer with undiagnosed ADHD, you have a long history of overcoming struggles and stress catalyzed by frequent disorganization, procrastination, impulsivity.
And if you’re even a little like me, you may have viewed yourself (or had others in your life view you) as stupid, lazy, irresponsible, forgetful, flakey, or unreliably.
And if you’re like me, all of that may have taken its toll on your self image.
I hope not.
Still, the science tells us that undiagnosed ADHD is can catalyze a broad range of struggle, and its effects can show up in nearly every aspect of your life.
Untreated ADHD can cause or worsen plenty of physical and mental health issues. For example, adults with ADHD often have low self-confidence, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. You may struggle with compulsive behaviors (eating, picking, drugs, alcohol), and you may be neglecting sleep, exercise, and mindfulness.
More tangibly, ADHD can make it quite difficult to keep up with doctor’s appointments, health checkups, medical prescriptions, and medication management.
At work, lawyers with ADHD frequently describe feeling unmotivated and that they’ve never achieved anything of value (even in the face of evidence to the contrary).
These complicated emotions about work and worth can manifest in all kinds of ways, like coming in late to work (or missing it altogether), missing deadlines, and ignoring work rules.
Money management can be a real challenge, too, because ADD complicates timely bill payment, impulsive and extravagant spending, and debt management.
ADHD puts stress on your relationships at work and home. Perhaps you tire of your colleagues’ foibles and and loved ones’ peccadilloes. Perhaps some in your life have come to view you as insensitive, unreliable, or irresponsible, they may harbor some deep-seated hurt and resentment that, left unmanaged, will lead to conflict and pain.
ADHD can also leave you feeling embarrassed, frustrated, hopeless, disappointed, and shameful. You may feel like you’ll never regain control of your life or fulfill your goals.
Vanquish Your Adult ADHD
Here’s the bottom line:
If you see yourself in these signs and symptoms, I have one single thing I’d like you to consider.
Go see a professional and search out a proper evaluation.
If you have ADHD, the sooner you learn it, the better off you’ll be. A diagnosis, treatment, and management can be (literally) life-changing events. An ADHD diagnosis can give you context for struggles, challenges, and patterns you’ve seen in your life, and perhaps (if we’re lucky) you can begin to free yourself from complicated feelings of shame, disappointment, and frustration.
ADHD is not a character flaw. It isn’t a personal weakness. And, as we will see elsewhere, it can—when well-managed—unleash your hidden potential and help you bring real and lasting change in your life, your business, and your career.
The key is discovering your strengths and using them to your advantage.
Using Self-Help Practices to Manage Your Adult ADHD
Learning how ADHD affects your brain and your life lets you find tools, resources, and strategies to counteract its most vexing symptoms.
Lawyers with ADHD can develop techniques to manage symptoms, capitalize on strengths, and lead better and more productive lives.
You will need support from other people in your life. But you can also play a significant role in starting the process of reclaiming your life and your control of it.
Here are some self-help strategies you can keep in mind.
Sleep, Diet, & Exercise
The science is crystal clear: exercise helps ADHD brains (and everyone else’s brain, too).
World-renowned ADHD psychiatrist John Ratey, MD wrote Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In it, he describes the overwhelming evidence that exercise is transformative for all brains (and particularly for adults with ADD).
If you’ve not been exercising, it’s time to get after it. Exercise helps you positively manage stress and frustration. It calms and soothes your body. And it helps your brain focus, prioritize, and create. Find time to make a habit of it. Start small. The results will almost certainly astonish you.
ADHD can wreak havoc on your sleep.
Done right, great sleep can help manage your ADHD symptoms.
Unhealthy sleep patterns can exacerbate stress, inattention, and impulsivity. 7-9 hours (yes, really) is best. Less than seven and you’re almost certainly performing suboptimally.
For all kinds of reasons, a healthy diet is critical for successfully managing your adult ADD.
Protein powers your body’s neurotransmitter manufacturing plant. Neurotransmitters are critical to optimal brain function, and protein gives you the fuel for their growth.
What’s more, a balanced diet can help smooth out fluctuations in your behavior, blood-sugar levels, and make sure you have plenty of nutrients that help your body minimize some of the more common ADHD symptoms.
On the flip side, there are plenty of foods you can avoid. There is evidence to suggest that high-sugar diets can increase inattention in some kids, and dyes and foods that cause allergies can complicate ADHD, too.
Even citric acid can be trouble. It breaks down some ADHD medications before your body can absorb them, so you’re best to avoid foods and drinks with citric acid for an hour before (and after) you take your medication.
Become an ADHD Time Management Master
Time management for lawyers with ADHD can be brutally difficult.
But with education, diagnosis, treatment, and hard work, you can get control of your time.
I use a timer on my watch to set an alarm for even the most mundane things: turning off the bath water. Changing over the laundry. Taking my medication. Giving my son his medication. Starting the car. Going analog before bed. And on and on and on.
Create deadlines for even your smallest tasks. Use a clock, an alarm, or a Time Timer to help you keep track of time. Find ways that work for you and your ADHD brain to prioritize time-sensitive projects, routinize the normal things, and avoid procrastination like the plague.
Remember Your Relationships
Being mindful about remembering the “non-lawyers” in our lives has been difficult for lawyers forever.
For lawyers with ADHD, though, it is even more crucial. Remembering to make time for your friends and family is good for your relationships, of course, but it is also really important for your well-being. You’ll need a network of support, and you’ll need to stay engaged and vulnerable with them.
And when you do talk with other people, try to be mindful of impulsivity. Try to take a beat before you launch a salvo, and work to listen without interrupting. And when you’re able, build relationships with other ADD lawyers. You’ll be surprised how powerful it is to see someone else nod knowingly when you describe an ADHD moment that you were sure could only ever happen to you.
Build a Supportive Work Environment
Your work environment can make your life easier (or harder).
Bend your workspace to your will. Use a to-do system that works for you (lists to manage your day’s goals and work, reminders, paperless office, and a digital and analog (if you insist) filing systems that help you stay organized.
As you learn more about ADHD, you’ll develop a curiosity about how to manage it. In time, you may come to see the power in pursuing a different career, employing your preferred working conditions, and spending more time on the tasks you enjoy.
Consider teaming up with your organized (but possibly less creative) colleagues to help each other with your less-refined strengths.
Mindfulness can work wonders.
I considered myself a fidgety skeptic for a long time. I just couldn’t do the meditation thing. I tried (lots and lots of times, actually), and I kept failing.
Perhaps with the benefit of ADHD medications (or a renewed focus on building atomic habits), I’ve found a groove in my meditation habit.
I swear… it works.
It can be hard for ADHD brains to find space to think deeply. Mindfulness techniques (like meditation) can calm your racing brain and give you tools to take more control over your emotions.
If you’ve never meditated before, grab a book, an app, or a YouTube channel. And start very small. Try just a minute or two in the beginning and go from there. Be gentle on yourself. Meditation is hard.
When to Look for Help with Your Adult ADD
If you’re struggling to manage your ADHD symptoms on your own, please consider seeking out some support.
If you’re like me, you might benefit from any number of tools and resources. Vocational counseling, educational help, behavioral coaching, ADHD coaching, mastermind groups, therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, self-help groups, and medication can all be useful. They have been for me.
Diagnosis and treatment for adults with ADHD absolutely must involve knowledgeable professionals and the people in your life who love you.
ADHD-trained professionals can help you control impulsiveness, manage time and money, soothe stress at work and home, control your anger and frustrations, and help you communicate more effectively.
I’m still a true believer in the legal profession. It is challenging, powerful, important, and (potentially, anyway) fulfilling work.
Don’t let undiagnosed and untreated ADHD stand in the way of your legal career. It’s time to make ADHD easier. Law is hard enough