Associate / Trustee / Employ Autism Board Member – Reed Smith
Jonathan is an associate in Reed Smith’s global Entertainment and Media Industry Group in London, specializing in litigation. A strong advocate for fair access to the legal profession and the wider workplace, particularly for those with disabilities, Jonathan, along with many other responsibilities, represents the UK on the International Trademark Association’s Diversity Council and is a member of the Westminster Autism Commission. Jonathan has been widely recognized nationally and internationally, including through the Queen’s Young Leaders program, as the Open University’s youngest ever honorary graduate and as the UK’s fourth most influential disabled person in 2020 by the Shaw Trust Power List, on which he now serves as a judge.
Jonathan’s career journey
In many ways, my career journey has been influenced by my advocacy work. When I first started looking for training contracts around ten years ago, I attended quite a few open days focusing on disability. I was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum when I was nine years old, but I was never taught or brought up to think it was going to hold me back or stop me from doing things. It was always explained to me in terms of difference – that it may make certain things harder, but that it also gave me strengths.
I never felt I would be held back from what I was interested in, and I was quite keen to go to events to see what support there was around neurodiversity in the legal sector. I didn’t see many people that were open about working with autism, so it was something I wanted to advocate for. I began speaking with a range of students and with firms directly about their employees with disabilities and about neurodiversity, explaining the support they might need and how companies can improve recruitment of neurodivergent people.
When I discussed the initiative with Reed Smith, they were keen and signed up for it immediately, which I saw as a fantastic commitment from them. From that interaction, I decided to apply there for a training contract, and secured a place in the media team – I’ve since been in the media team for over four years, first as a trainee and now as a qualified solicitor.
They’re very supportive, particularly of the work that I’m involved in around inclusion for neurodiversity. It’s been a very positive journey – I’ve received great support and they very much recognize my strengths as a lawyer and in the work I do to help others. It’d be great if more firms were doing the same thing across the country and the world to ensure others have that same journey.
On their Role Models
One of my biggest role models is Carolyn Pepper, a partner at Reed Smith. She was instrumental in the firm changing its processes, making them disability inclusive and ensuring they have remained consistent over the last ten years.
I came to know Carolyn through her work on the disability initiatives, but I also work with her on a day-to-day basis. What I very much admire about Carolyn is that I don’t believe she is neurodivergent or has a disability, yet she continues to champion diversity and disability and neurodiversity inclusion, focusing on the skills people can bring. She’s a very busy lady, as many of us lawyers are, and she has lots of commitments, including being a mum of three children, but still finds the time to support these initiatives as well as my personal involvement in them.
She’s also been extremely supportive of the roles I undertake outside of my everyday responsibilities, such as my position on the International Trademark Association (INTA)’s Diversity Council, my speaking at events and my serving on the Law Society and other bodies in elected positions. She understands their importance alongside the legal aspects of the job and has certainly been a very strong role model in my career, as well as being somebody I personally enjoy working with – a very lovely person.
“What I very much admire about Carolyn is that I don’t believe she is neurodivergent or has a disability, yet she continues to champion diversity and disability and neurodiversity inclusion, focusing on the skills people can bring.”
Risks and achievements
When you’re neurodivergent or have any disability, even deciding the firms you are going to apply to can be a big risk: you never know how people are going to react to your disability. As a result, at first, I was in two minds about being open about being autistic. There were very few people I could talk to at the time, when people were much less open about it. Ultimately, I decided I needed to be open about it to hopefully shine a light on the benefits that neurodiversity can bring, but obviously, there was a risk in doing so.
Despite that, it’s turned out very well in a lot of ways, and has directly led to what I think is one of my greatest career achievements. Alongside getting a training contract, qualifying as a lawyer, and building my career at Reed Smith, I have been able to fulfil that continuous advocacy and to raise awareness of autism and why firms should be hiring those on the autistic spectrum. My ability to build up these networks and be an advocate was absolutely linked to being open about my disability in the very early stages of my career.
It’s led me to become a judge of the Shaw Trust Disability Power list, which judges the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK, as well as being named at number four on the list in 2020. It’s a great achievement that I really put down to that risk that I initially took in being open and choosing to champion others in the community. It was about saying, “I am autistic, I know the skills that I can offer an organization and it shouldn’t hold me back”.
Advice to their 18-year-old self
If I could give any piece of advice to my 18-year-old self, it would be to not worry so much about how things are going to pan out. As a teenager, there can be a huge amount of worry about what route to take that may define your future, but in my experience, it’s best to just make the choice and see how it goes.
Navigating their career
In terms of my personal journey, I was diagnosed quite young as being on the autistic spectrum compared to a lot of individuals, particularly women, who are often diagnosed as adults. I think my early diagnosis gave me the chance to develop a greater understanding of who I am early on in my life. My parents, too, has a wonderful approach and never highlighted it as something that could hold me back. Certain types of social interactions were certainly challenging, but I wasn’t taught to see myself as being lesser than other people, which gave me the confidence to be open so early on in my career.
The positives that I have found have been varied, including the ability to raise awareness but also having colleagues get in touch with me to discuss family members or friends who’ve had similar experiences to myself. I’ve been on secondments with clients who were setting up diversity initiatives and have asked for my advice, so I’ve found myself adding more value to client relationships because of my knowledge and expertise in this area. Being open about my disability has certainly filtered through to having advantages in my career as well as allowing me to advocate and help others.
The benefits of connecting globally
Through working for an international law firm, I spend much of my time interacting with colleagues in the US and lots of individuals from the States who are involved in driving inclusion for people with disabilities. I was also an inaugural Co-Chairman of the Commonwealth Children and Youth Disability Network, which is open to individuals across the Commonwealth, so I’ve met several people from both developed and developing countries.
There is of course a shared issue across the world in terms of inclusion for people with disabilities and the barriers society puts in place. However, there are certainly differences in terms of where each country stands on the inclusion of people with disabilities, and we need to recognize that and be mindful and support them in various ways. But ultimately, it’s all about inclusion and recognizing people’s skills and that’s what we should be aiming toward.
On debunking myths and misconceptions
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding disability that I’d love to see debunked. For example, I remember seeing a poll that said 99% of the population have heard of autism, but when asked, they couldn’t necessarily tell you what it was.
With employment, when I started applying for jobs, the idea was that autistic people would be good in certain roles and not others. For example, IT was labelled as a sector where those on the autistic spectrum would thrive. For many that is true, but the issue here was the assumption that it was the only pathway available, which encourages a lack of openness and awareness among those who may be in roles that aren’t labelled as ‘for them’.
What’s key is remembering that we are all individuals and championing our individuality. There are people on the autistic spectrum, whether open about it or not, in every sector and they should feel free to apply to any role they believe they have the skills to thrive in. With disability, of course, there might be certain cases where people are not able to do certain things, but it mustn’t be forgotten that this often forces people to adapt and find ways round hurdles that may exist, which in turn develops skills such as problem-solving. The focus must be on the strengths and skills that people with disabilities can bring to the workforce, not the things they may find more difficult.
“the focus must be on the strengths and skills that people with disabilities can bring to the workforce, not the things they may find more difficult.”
Unique challenges and opportunities of driving inclusion
Although the UK still has a way to go in terms of driving inclusion, it does measure favorably compared with other countries, particularly when considering the awareness of neurodiversity here. Awareness of autism and the understanding of the more obvious myths and misconceptions is greater in the UK than in some other places across the world. The media is more interested here in pushing for greater inclusion and this gives me the opportunity to do what I do, speaking openly about my disability and campaigning for others to do the same without fear of being treated differently. It’s great that we are now in a position where the idea of somebody who is autistic being a lawyer probably isn’t very surprising to most people. In many other countries, that itself may be something where more advocacy and persuasion will have to take place before it is seen.
Every nation of course has unique challenges: one of the great things about international involvement with advocacy is the exposure to the experiences of others. Not all people in all countries are in the same position we are in. We need to do what we can to support all individuals with disabilities across the world.
Practical advice for business leaders and allies
In terms of driving inclusion, a key piece of advice for any organization is that it must be considered at every level of the business. Sometimes, there is a focus on the need to hire diverse candidates, which is of course necessary, but it’s important that jobs are available to them at every level of an organization, rather than being disproportionately junior roles. The company must be inclusive at every level to ensure diverse talent feels supported and therefore more likely to progress into roles with more responsibility. It’s important that the individuals who are hired feel as though they are getting to where they want to be and stay within the company, rather than leaving a few years later. Neurodivergent people bring benefits to business and by having that inclusion at every level within your firm, you’re not only allowing them to thrive but also making the best possible use of their talent.
It’s also important that where DEI initiatives are taking place, they are shared and publicized. There may be people with disabilities going into entry-level roles who need to know that a firm is going to be looking out for them. For example, when I was looking to apply to Reed Smith, I could see the interest in diversity and support that was available for employees, which certainly made me gravitate towards them. There could be firms who are implementing policies and support around diversity and inclusion but aren’t really telling people about it, which isn’t helpful for encouraging people who really value that support to apply to them. Being as open as possible and publicizing about what you’re doing for diversity and inclusion is invaluable to any organization.