The power of ADHD and how to harness it

Read Time
5 mins
Published Date
Dec 11, 2023
A&O alumna Stephanie Camilleri discovered she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) after her daughter was diagnosed with the same condition. Drawing on her experience as a lawyer and a parent, Stephanie created her coaching and advocacy business, The ADHD Advocate.

Stephanie Camilleri always had a passion to help people and to understand how the brain works. Growing up in Australia, she wanted to be a psychiatrist, but just missed out on the grades she needed so, encouraged by her parents, she decided to study law.

As a law student, Stephanie faced challenges keeping on top of all the studying, not knowing her undiagnosed neurological condition was the reason why her brain seemed to work differently from those of her fellow students. It forced her to develop her own strategies to succeed. “One of the many characteristics of ADHD is having a weak working memory, which meant a lot of last-minute cramming for me before exams,” she says.

Not for the first or last time, she found herself working harder and longer than her neurotypical colleagues. Stephanie learned speed-reading to compensate for her difficulty in digesting information. She also avoided participating in class. “Thinking I might not be able to recall the correct information made me anxious so I wouldn’t speak up. I realise now that meant I missed out on taking part in interesting discussions.”

Following her studies, Stephanie trained and qualified at Coudert Brothers in Sydney. A stint in the firm’s New York office opened her eyes to the opportunities to travel that a career in law could offer.

After a spell in property finance with Blake Dawson Waldron, in 2006 Stephanie joined A&O in London for a job in real estate finance.

“I loved working with such accomplished and interesting people at A&O,” she says. “It was all so exciting and varied. I got to travel to Norway for a celebration dinner after a deal closed. I felt really valued and my work felt important.”

The struggle for balance and boundaries

Stephanie found stimulation in the high profile deals, removing the danger of becoming bored. “Boredom to people with ADHD is like kryptonite to Superman. I needed the challenges to make me perform and keep me motivated. Work deadlines kept my ADHD brain focused and client demands removed distractions.”

For Stephanie, having ADHD meant she was hyper-focused on her work and she struggled to set boundaries for herself. “For someone with ADHD, finding balance is the holy grail,” she says.

Australia eventually beckoned when Stephanie wanted to raise her children with her wider family nearby. She joined the Project Finance team at the Australian bank Westpac, where she enjoyed working with a variety of different industries.

A move back to the UK – this time with three children – followed and Stephanie began working at Westpac’s London office in the Global Derivatives Reform team where she was responsible for implementing financial regulations. Though it was “a high pressure environment and a stressful job,” her ADHD meant she was “motivated and stimulated by the urgency of the trading environment.”

The importance of a diagnosis

Stresses were developing at home too when the behaviour of Stephanie’s eldest daughter became concerning. “She was inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive, but she was misdiagnosed with sensory processing disorder so we weren’t getting the help we needed.”

It took two years for Stephanie’s daughter to be correctly diagnosed. Stephanie was reluctant at first to give her ADHD medication, but when she did, she saw an instant change.

"I had my first real conversation with my daughter the day she started taking the medication. It was like she was present for the first time in her life.”

Stephanie began noticing traits in her own behaviour that made her start to analyse herself. She saw a psychiatrist who eventually diagnosed her with ADHD.

Stephanie started medication like her daughter.

“It was like the world stood still,” she says. “For the first time I was able to stop working on autopilot. I wasn’t just reacting to work demands anymore, and I found I could reflect on what I really wanted to do with my life.”


Beating the stigma with practical support

When Stephanie was diagnosed with ADHD, she already had a successful career. “That shielded me from the prejudice that I could have faced as a junior lawyer,” she says. In fact, the first thing the psychiatrist said to Stephanie was: “How can you have ADHD when you’re a lawyer?”

Like other demanding professions, law actually attracts many people with ADHD who can operate at a high level, but are at risk of burnout from overcompensating, for fear of discrimination. That is where training and coaching come in.

“At The ADHD Advocate, we help people look through the ADHD lens, to ensure employees have the right tools to work with their ADHD, and equally to empower organisations to create safe and supportive environments where neurodiverse people can thrive.”

The benefits for businesses are clear as they retain talented employees with a lot to offer their organisations. “People with ADHD have powerful brains. They bring creativity, vision and perseverance. Who wouldn’t want them as part of their talent pool?”

Stephanie references psychiatrist and ADHD specialist Dr Edward Hallowell who describes ADHD brains as being like Ferraris, but with the brakes of a bicycle. “They are powerful, but burn fuel very quickly without the right brakes. With the correct support, we can harness and protect that power.”

Get curious

What can we do to help colleagues and friends with the condition?

“Get curious,” Stephanie says.

“Make time to go to the awareness training, and check in with colleagues with ADHD. Be willing to listen, and ask them what adjustments they need so they feel enabled to work more effectively.”

Stephanie says 98% of people with ADHD suffer from rejection sensitive dysphoria, which means they are hyper-sensitive to criticism and perceived criticism. Adapting constructive feedback can be powerful, she says. “Begin and finish in gratitude so someone with ADHD feels safe.”

Creating this kind of supportive environment will encourage more people with ADHD to get diagnosed, Stephanie believes. “Through diagnosis and coaching they can develop strategies to work with and not against their ADHD, feeling comfortable to discuss the adjustments they need to thrive at work.”

In practical terms, administrative tasks can often cause issues for people with ADHD. “In my experience, what is in sight is in mind – like responding to urgent client requests. Unfortunately, submitting a timesheet or updating a spreadsheet can easily become out of sight. That puts pressure on relationships but can be easily worked around.”

A quick chat instead of a written progress report, for example, is much more effective. Stephanie calls it verbally processing a task. Employees and managers are encouraged to identify and agree these kinds of strategies together in co-coaching sessions run by The ADHD Advocate.

“ADHD is a hidden disability,” said Stephanie. “Let’s increase awareness and support to break down the stigma and protect employees from anxiety and burnout.”

 

Reconnect with Stephanie Camilleri.

Stephanie Camilleri

Director at The ADHD Advocate
A&O: 2006-2007

At The ADHD Advocate, we help people look through the ADHD lens, to ensure employees have the right tools to work with their ADHD, and equally to empower organisations to create safe and supportive environments where neurodiverse people can thrive.

Content Disclaimer
This content was originally published by Allen & Overy before the A&O Shearman merger