Suspect ADD? A Few Insights for Attorneys

If you’re unhappy in law because you

  • hate the lack of creativity in it,
  • despise having to show each tiny piss-ante step of reasoning when it’s freaking OBVIOUS how you got there,
  • get bored and pissed with all the pointless bickering back and forth about commas and such–except when you’re really exorcised about something you wrote,
  • rail at all the ridiculous workplace rules about listening to music on your computer (for example),
  • seethe at the dress codes with such specific rules about flip-flops v. sandals,
  • billing time is the albatross of your existence, plus
  • buckling down to work often feels impossible, even though you know you should,
  • miss deadline often, and
  • are late to work often

you may want to contemplate whether an evaluation for ADD makes sense.

Post-it pile on ADDer desk
Post-it pile on ADDer desk

(Here’s one quiz to get you started.) Just because you did well in school doesn’t mean that you are immune from ADD. The authors of one of the ADD bibles, Driven to Distraction, are MDs who practice in Boston, and are ADDers themselves.

I’ll write another post about my theory that ADD is hugely underdiagnosed among attorneys, but here are some experiences to get you thinking.

Real-life ADD symptoms in lawyers

Looking back, I had ADD symptoms out the yin-yang when I started practicing. They included things like:

Spending hours customizing my calendar display options. By picking all the pretty colors and fun sounds for reminders, I was (unconsciously) trying to increase the stimulation of my organizing tools, so that maybe they would interest me enough to use them.

Spending great amounts of time avoiding writing memos by futzing with fonts, and adjusting all the colors in various templates and in track changes. Same reason as the calendar color/sound obsession.

Hating, moaning, whining and bitching about keeping track of my work in 15 minute increments. Two reasons time tracking drove me nuts that are ADD-related: ADD brains are supersonic when they’re “on,” so I would get six hours worth of work done in half that time, and essentially got penalized for it; and 2) OMG, having to track what I was doing??? With my brain flitting everywhere and not staying neatly inside the task box at hand, I felt dishonest and stressed about my billable time. Not to mention the whole horror of keeping track of details that bored me stiff.

Arriving late to the office constantly. Now, DC is a late city where it’s normal to hit the office at 9, so I was only slightly later than many of my colleagues. But one of the traits of ADDers is their energy cycle, as nature’s night owls. Many are all but non-functional until mid-morning, have a great burst of energy over lunch-time, seriously slump until late afternoon, and then pick back up again around 5 for a few hours. I unconciously adapted to this circadian rythym by arriving late to the office (around 9:30), either bringing lunch or buying a quick sammich and working through lunch, getting coffee around 3pm, futzing around for a while, and really starting to focus on work about 5 or 5:30 for two or four more hours. (Yeah, I was single then.) In a law firm, with its work-all-the-time mentality, this did not seem unusual, but once I started working in corporate America, it rubbed a LOT of people the wrong way. Especially the 8am-in-the-office types, who strangely enough were usually the executives at the top of the food chain.

Being clueless about organizing a case file. I had no idea what was important. I grasped the idea that correspondence should be in reverse chron order, but that was about it. And I was beyond irritated that no one thought to instruct associates in how to organize their part of the case. How were we supposed to just KNOW?

Performing very inconsistently. One day, I could write a section of a brief that went into the final version almost untouched. The next, I could barely research my way out of a corner. Performance issues plague ADDers, because their brains are, in fact, not consistent performers.

Missing deadlines, even reasonable ones. I knew I was avoiding work, and I tried countless books on how to organize and prioritize. They sounded great in theory, but never worked in practice. Do the hard tasks for your day first–are you kidding me? I barely knew my name then. Do the most important tasks before lunch? Well, that kinda worked, if the phone didn’t ring, people didn’t drop by by office, I didn’t get a lunch invitation for noon instead of, say, 1:30, and I didn’t get too many emails. Or, if I didn’t decide I needed another cup of coffee.

Deadlines being the only way work got done. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I do not understand people who can see that they have a week to get a project done, and who then actually START WORKING ON IT. Only when I had almost no chance of meeting a deadline, and terror struck deep in my heart, would I actually start work on a project. Part of this was due to the then-unconscious ADD need to make things more interesting (the adrenaline rush), and part due to the ADD trait of having a very poor sense of how long things actually take. Time is a very elastic concept to most ADDers.

Desk always piled precariously. In all my professional life, I’ve had a neat desk for about 30 days total. By neat, I mean folders in a pile related to only one case, and only three piles on my desk, with no trail of post-its wandering from my bulletin board to my computer to around my keyboard then spilling over to any space available (book spines, say). Actually, 30 days is probably a generous estimate.

Now in isolation, many of these experiences are normal reactions to a punitive, dysfunctional law firm environment. But when you have many of these issues simultaneously, that’s when you start wondering about ADD. Most people would recognize a couple of these traits, but it’s the ones who see themselves in nearly all of them that probably have some degree of ADD, or at least should investigate a bit further.

So what do you think–anything I’ve discussed ring a bell for you? What are your ADD-driven work habits that drive you nuts? Drop me a comment or send me an email, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who is getting better at showing up on time. But if she’s writing, time becomes stretchy, and all bets are off. You can email her at jalveyATwordsolutionsDOTbiz.


  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been wondering whether I might have ADD, but I see from going through your list of symptoms, that I’m probably just fed up with being a lawyer.

    I bill 10 hours a day (every day) with plenty of 5 minute entries, keep my desk clean, and organize my files – or rather, have my secretaries organize them – so I can find anything in a moment. I do a lot of trial work, and I can separate the important from the irrelevant, and I never miss deadlines.

    But I thought I might have ADD because I often surf the net – like now – and do other stuff that’s got more to do with managing my mood than getting work done.

    I think I’m just bored, tired of the treadmill, and all the negativity and conflict surrounding my legal work.

    It’s a relief to know that ADD isn’t to blame for my ennui.

  2. Oh wow, this sounds so much like me, though I’m only in the middle of 2L. I’m taking a leave of absence to figure out what to do–how to get a handle on this.

    How was getting through law school for you? I find my biggest issue to be basic distraction from school–anything does it. Hobbies, family, interesting internet articles. Maybe this is that ADD symptom listed of always needing tings to be interesting? How do you overcome that need when things get boring?

  3. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. I am self-diagnosed for now, and keep considering whether I should seek treatment/medication. Sometimes ADD is fun, after all.

    It amazes me that people start a project, get drafts into the partners, and finish the final draft with adequate pacing, whilst I’m running around like the proverbial headless chicken, relying on adreniline to get the final product in. Not currying any favors with the partners, for sure.

    Law is a difficult profession for someone who lacks attention to detail and is time and deadline-challenged. I am trying to design another way to work in the field that offers flexibility (e.g. contract work doing the parts of the job that suit me), and supplementing it with work that doesn’t have me tied to a desk (which requires about 18 bathroom breaks per day to get up and move away from the monotony), that is unless I’m really “On”, in which case I can get soooo much done.

    Nice blog!

  4. I know I’m late to the game on the comment, but I COULD ABSOLUTELY HAVE WRITTEN THIS POST. I am going into my third year and I felt sooo alone. I cannot believe that someone had the EXACT problems that I have now. I am in fact getting ready to leave the law more than likely, but what do I do about the ADD? I’m overweight and when I suggest to somene that I believe I’m suffering from ADD they look at me like I’m crazy. What did you do to treat yours? Thanks for the blog. This post brought me to tears.

  5. I took a non-traditional policy path after law school but now, five years in, am just finishing up my first year as a litigator. I love the issues, actually love my clients, and love the work (even if the other lawyers are kinda horrible). But it’s been the most difficult year of my life, even though the subject matter is not all that hard…. Litigating, of course, is an entirely different kind of advocacy that values long-term, sustained focus over quick-moving, creative thinking on the fly. I was so good at the policy work and, early on, that passion translated into litigation. But…then…one year in, I’m completely drained and exhausted….struggle constantly with my billable hours (even though I work insane hours), have completely uneven performance (even though I don’t find the subject matter difficult at all), am always late on my deadlines (though, knock on wood, I’ve never missed a filing deadline), and my personal life is in shambles becuase it takes all of my energy to keep work under control…if you can even call the status quo “under control.” Hyperfocus and procrastination have gotten out of control in a way they never have in the past. My short-term memory just seems to have…well…disappeared. I’m always, always behind. Even on the project/issues I find interesting. I find myself depressed — a lot — becuase I know I can do so much better but everything seems so much harder for me than for everyone else.

    Then, 6 days ago, I finally went for help and was diagnosed with adult ADHD. It was strange that, as I was describing my work and school habits over the past 20 years, I suddenly realized how my fun, flaky, loveable, passionate personality had so many clear signs of ADHD. It was also clear how I had leveraged so many aspects of my personality that could be manifestations typical of ADHD — like my ability to work in fast-paced environments and seemlessly move from crisis to crisis, or effortlessly formulate impactful talking points on an issue. It wasn’t until my life, my job, my interests got more complicated that my old coping mechanisms became insufficient ways of deadling with whatever is going on in my brain. I had to push myself to the brink of crisis to get anything done and, frankly, at this point in my life I’m not looking for drama. But I seem to crave it. Even though I don’t want to.

    So, for about 5 days now, I’ve been taking a very low dose of Ritalin. Unfortunately, except for some more sustained moments of calm, I dont’ know that it has made a difference. But, hey, it’s only been 5 days and I’ve got, like, 8 deadlines on my mind. Not to mention non-work stuff to do. Just the anxiety of the diagnosis preoccupied for so so many hours that I was totally and completely unable to focus on an internal deadline that I ended up missing….and made one of the partners very mad. In a sad attempt to make up for that missed deadline, I didn’t go to bed two days ago. I literally worked through the night. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. I was in the office for — literally — 25 hours straight. In retrospect, I was totally manic, but only managed to bill 13 of those hours.

    Was it worth it? Probably not. What I do know is that if this is really ADHD, I want it gone. Like, now. I’m frustrated and I’m terrified that I’m going to destroy a good reputation that took years to build b/c I can’t seem to get my shit together. I can’t finish a sentence anymore because three thoughts will suddenly invade my brain all at once. (I read transcripts where I’m talking and my words are just a jumbled mess. I used to be so articulate, so persuasive.) And I never seem to have any time at all…. so much so that my boyfriend of 6 years refuses to get engaged (even though we talk about our wedding all the time). He says too many of the household responsibilities fall on him and he has a demanding job, too. And if we had kids, well, unless I can manage to share some of the work at home in a manner that’s more fair, then he doesn’t want them.

    I cycle between anger, relief, depression, an unbelievalbe feeling of lonliness (though my boyfriend has been incredibly supportive of me during this process), and an anxiety that has more or less paralyzed me at work. I love my work. I love my clients. I am passionate about the issues. I want to be married and start a family (I’m 34, after all). And I’m going to lose it all because it feels like ADHD (if that’s what I really have) has stopped my life in its tracks.

    • I swear…your post is like an excerpt from my life. If you don’t mind, I would love to know how you have coped/managed since writing this post nearly 3 years ago. Thanks.

    • Amy – your experience is exactly like mine. I have ADD – I always knew I had it (ADD), but when I was a kid there was no help for it and once I was an adult and Ritalin became available I simply assumed that it was only available to children. To make a long story short – your post really struck a chord with me and I hope that you managed to sort things out? If you are ever on this page again and want to post an update it would be great to know how you’re doing! I’m a lawyer and doing ok most of the time but also find the life extremely exhausting and seems to absorb absolutely all of my time and energy. In fact, more than I have…. Would love to hear how things worked out for you.

  6. Well, I’ve completed this evaluation, too.

    I scored a 4 out of a possible 8 on the Jennifer Alvey Adult ADD Scale (“JAAAS”). I think this applies only to Adult ADD – Inattentive . So if you want to Internet Diagnose people with ADHD, you’re going to need a new scale in addition to the JAAAS. (Pronounced “Jazz”).

    That Amy person could easily get a diagnosis of Bipolar (that hypomania/mania thrown in there is key). Everyone is diagnosed with Bipolar these days. I know. I have to read the records.

    So sure, I could get a diagnosis of ADD – Inattentive. I’ve got very little hyperactivity (if any).

    And I’m still not sure how the entire issue of high intelligence/giftedness relates to the entire concept of ADD.

  7. I scored 100%! As I avoid my boring work in an attempt to create a time crunch that “might” make it interesting!!!

    OMG, I”M NOT ALONE!!!!!!!!

    I don’t think I had this in law school, though. I was still in the blank stare “I can feel disaster looming” phase then.

  8. Is it a sign of ADD when you’re reading this post when you’re supposed to be getting your work done?

    I was diagnosed in 2nd grade and have been medicated ever since. It’s a blessing at times and a curse at times. I’ve been successful as a lawyer, but I am definitely my own worst enemy.

    Very interesting post. Thanks.

  9. I was diagnosed last year. I’d suspected, even joked about it, for years, and because it was only my brain that was hyperactive (aka I can sit still for hours and I’ve never bounced off walls) no one really took it seriously, including myself. I’m still in law school, and so haven’t experienced the symptoms in a professional capacity, but everything you listed I have done, and still do, even with the help of medication, though fortunately to a lesser extent. Although, considering a have an exam tomorrow morning, it could be better.
    I mostly wanted to thank you because I have never had anyone else express so clearly and understandably the way my brain works, and it’s nice to know that it’s really not that I’m lazy or rude (as in my perpetually inability to make it anywhere on time).

    So, thank you

  10. Totally my life you’re describing there. Am also a lawyer and was diagnosed as an adult. I wish I had known earlier too. Even today (right now) I am struggling with management. I even have to get my trainee to tell me everyday what I have to do for the day.

  11. I suffer from the condition as well. I’m 35 now. I was diagnosed at the age of 15. Practicing law is not a good fit. I now suffer severe depression and I am anti-social. What bothers me most is the business of the law — As Charles Dickens said, the business of the law is to create its own business. Do any of ya’ll truly enjoy this career?

  12. I always try and “get organized” which is just another procrastination technique. I’ll spend 1/2 a day going over all the files I have and writing down every detail and deadline that’s coming up in a big spreadsheet only to print it, place it on a desk pile and never look at it again. Now 6 hours further behind with nothing done.

    Only the threat of negative consequences from a partner, judge, or the protential loss of a client can get me to work on the tedium our stuff – often late anyway.

  13. Thanks for pointing out that an attorney’s case file is organized in a specific way, like correspondence having to be in reverse chron order. My brother wants to be a lawyer so I’ve been trying to learn more about what they do and how they do it. I had no idea that the case files needed to be organized so specifically, so thanks for explaining that here!

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