So the other night I was watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey [goodness, is there a time when these chicks don’t inspire me to want to write something?], and Caroline was having a heart-to-heart with her son, who is coping with ADD. Albie is telling his mom how bad his law school grades are and how the school will not make any allowances for his learning disability. The administrators actually told him to consider a new career path, because if he is coping with ADD, he had no business being a lawyer. As a lawyer who is coping with ADD, this struck a nerve with me.
There are a lot of people out there who assume that Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (commonly known as ADD and ADHD, though often grouped under the acronym of one or the other) are completely made up diseases, the title of which is given to kids who have too much sugar in their diet or don’t get enough sleep. While I will concede that in some cases, ADD and ADHD are over-diagnosed, the fact is that there are also many people who go undiagnosed who should be. Although scientists aren’t entirely aware what causes it, there are many studies showing that the disease is hereditary. So parents with ADD may find themselves dealing with ADD in their children.
As someone who is coping with ADD (and, incidentally, is the child of two parents with ADD), I can say beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the disease is real. And it can be debilitating throughout your life – even as an adult. I was fortunate enough to be a smart child with coping mechanisms, so that my ADD didn’t affect me too greatly. I say this, not with conceit, but as an actual fact. The first doctor who diagnosed me thought when I came into his office that I was just fishing for medication or something, because on paper, I don’t sound like someone suffering from a learning disability. I graduated at the top of my class in high school, graduated summa cum laude from a good college in only three years, and had gone to an Ivy League law school. However, once the psychologist did my ADD/ADHD test and started delving into my history, he was surprised that no one diagnosed me when I was in elementary school.
You see, I always read at least four or five grade levels ahead of my grade, but had NO reading comprehension. I couldn’t pay attention to simple tasks – even books I enjoyed (or at least would have enjoyed if I had fully read them) – and I would hyperfocus on the most stupid, low-priority tasks. Through most of my life, I had been internally coping with ADD, which is why my marks were good enough (before law school, anyway) that I flew under the radar. However, once I started interning at law firms and having to account for what I did with every minute of my entire day, that’s when it became apparent that I had focus issues.
I spent most of my life dealing with ADD, but not knowing that’s what was going on. I never knew why I couldn’t focus on the assigned reading in classes or why it was impossible for me to stay on task. The only times I could stay on task, I would get so involved with what I was doing, that the rest of the world would disappear.
I had these odd ways of dealing with ADD, without even knowing I was coping with ADD. For example, in high school, I just couldn’t pay attention to biology class. So one day, I took the text book home, and started outlining the chapters. Keep in mind, this was pre-computer-in-every-home, so there I was on my bedroom floor with a typewriter, outlining a semester’s worth of biology. For hours and hours, I typed outlines until my mother finally made me go to bed. And the next night, and the night after that, I did the same thing. Eventually, I’d outlined the whole book. We didn’t even cover the whole book in class – probably not even half. But this was my internal way of dealing with ADD (without even knowing I was suffering from the disease). While typing that outline, I managed to memorize the book. The class I never paid attention in became one of my best classes. This happened a lot. I volleyed between hyperfocus and complete lack of focus as a way of dealing with ADD. It got me through college no problem.
However, law school wasn’t the same. Reading comprehension is actually a pretty important skill for a lawyer and for law school. That’s why the LSAT tests it. Unfortunately for me, I missed about 50% of the reading comprehension questions on the LSAT [which, incidentally, tends to be the section 95% of people excel]. This, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t – couldn’t – read the four passages. As the clock ticked away, I ended up guessing. Fortunately, that year, three of the four sections were logic games and reasoning. Most people are horrible at these sections. Not me. I missed one question on the three sections combined – and I knew that one answer; I had just accidentally bubbled the wrong thing. The combination was good enough for me to score overall in the highest in the country, and basically (combined with my college GPA and extra curriculars) assured me I could go to pretty much any school I desired.
Once in law school, my internal ways of dealing with ADD did not work the same. Memorizing doesn’t really help you in law school. By then, I had a friend with ADD, and she recognized the symptoms in me. By our last year, she encouraged me to see a counselor. That counselor encouraged me to see a psychologist. And it was there that I was tested, diagnosed, and the world began to make sense.
Turns out, while dealing with ADD, I was doing a lot of things I didn’t even notice. For one, I misspelled a lot of words, because my mind would think that I had already written letters I hadn’t. I also missed a lot of words in sentences. This explained to me how I could compare notes with my peers after tests, have put all the same answers they did, but get lower grades in the class. In law school, half the battle is how you say things. Although I fancy myself a good writer, misspellings and partial sentences, are contrary to that skill. So while, proofread-me is a good writer, ADD-brained me is not. After I began taking medication, I started to catch these errors. Phew!
Work is 1000 times better now that I’m on medication. I am much better at staying on task or stopping myself from hyperfocusing on trivial tasks. I’ve talked to my superiors about the types of projects that work better with my disability and I’ve spoken with firm management about the type of assistants I need – yes, everyone needs a good secretary, but when you are dealing with ADD, you need someone who is good at scheduling and keeping things organized.
I won’t say that the medication and the disability concessions have made my work life perfect, but they have certainly helped. I’m never going to be a super-star biller, unless I want to live at the office [since, even with medication, it takes me more time to stay on task than it does “normal” people], but I do a darn good job.
The fact that there are law school administrators out there who would tell someone that you cannot be an attorney with a learning disability like ADD angers me. Yes, you can be an attorney with ADD… just like you can be a blind attorney… or an attorney in a wheelchair… or an attorney with dyslexia…. It’s insane that people working in a field which has made so many strides in getting access to people with disabilities would then turn a blind eye to the needs of those with a disability. Yes, you probably can’t be an attorney if you don’t know how to deal with ADHD/ADD or don’t get treatment for ADD/ADHD, but don’t tell me, or the thousands others who do it every day, that we can’t be an attorney at all.