Meet the Yorkshire lawyer changing the way people work after autism diagnosis ‘saved his life’

A diagnosis in his 30s helped to save the life of Ian McCann. Now the Legal Studio lawyer is reaching out to others with a different style of working. He spoke to business reporter Ismail Mulla.

Autism is a condition that is often misunderstood. It can manifest itself in different ways in different people. People with autism in effect have their brains wired differently.

The condition is certainly not a barrier to success, or at least shouldn’t be, as Ian McCann has proven and continues to prove.

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Mr McCann’s autism diagnosis came as an adult. He says the diagnosis “unquestionably” saved his life.

Ian McCann of Legal Studios. Picture: Tony Johnson

The lawyer, who helped set up Leeds-based Legal Studio in 2014, says the key to unlocking talent in autistic people such as himself are a few “reasonable adjustments”.

For Mr McCann there’s the sensory challenge. He can be acutely sensitive to noise, light and smells.

“If I’m in a public place with lots of conversations going on and lots of hustle and bustle, I can’t filter that out,” Mr McCann says. “I can’t stop it going straight into my brain. That makes you come across as either being rude, aloof or just really anxious all the time.

“Essentially, for me my brain is just really overstimulated.”

Ian McCann at Legal Studio in Leeds. Picture: Tony Johnson

The commercial litigation specialist added: “It is very much a myth that autistic people don’t feel empathy or just don’t feel full stop.

“I am one of the most empathetic people that I know. I will go out of my way not to upset, offend or disappoint someone to extreme lengths.”

This can be hard when you’re running your own business, which is all about making the tough decisions.

The third way that autism affects Mr McCann is a phenomenon called “masking”.

Mr McCann said: “I can interact, I can socialise, I can do the business development side of stuff.

“I can sit in that room full of noise and stimuli and talk to you. That isn’t my innate state.

“I am putting on a mask to be able to do that and I am putting on a mask to be able to work where I work and do what I do. That’s not a problem and is required but it is exhausting.”

In Mr McCann’s case, the reasonable adjustments are taking a five-minute break when things get overwhelming and using a set of noise-cancelling headphones when he needs to concentrate.

As he entered his 30s, still undiagnosed at the time, a very severe episode of depression brought things to a head.

Mr McCann says: “I hit the bottom, to the point I was contemplating suicide and various other unpleasantnesses.”

Thankfully, Mr McCann’s GP realised that there may be other contributing factors that were impacting his mental health and referred him to a psychiatrist. It ultimately led to the diagnosis of autism in 2017.

The diagnosis has enabled him to deal with his condition from an “empowered” position.

Mr McCann said: “I didn’t anticipate at the time quite how transformative that understanding would be.

“Since then, I have become ostensibly and obviously more autistic because I have dropped a lot of the masking behaviours that I used to adopt that were wearing me out. I’ve allowed myself to be me.”

Society is missing out by not focusing on what autistic people can bring to the table instead of what they don’t bring.

According to the most recent figures from the National Autistic Society, just 16 per cent of autistic adults are in full-time work.

Mr McCann says a part of the problem is that society tends to want people with autism to “regress to the mean”.

“It’s a case of ‘the stuff you’re rubbish at, let’s work on that and get that a bit better’ but the stuff that you’re good at comes down,” he said.

Businesses also need to encourage people from neurodiverse backgrounds to apply for jobs.

Workplace wellbeing is one of the main reasons why Mr McCann helped Matthew Dowell set up Legal Studio. He wants to change the way lawyers work.

The majority of the 15 people based at the Leeds-based business are self-employed consultants who trade under the Legal Studio banner.

Mr McCann said: “We set up Legal Studio so that lawyers could enjoy work and have a better life. That for us is really important.

“We want to give lawyers the freedom and the flexibility to run their practices their way without targets, without presenteeism, without all of the baggage that comes with a traditional law firm platform.”

The model is inspired by Mr McCann’s own experience. The greatest challenge while working for other firms was having to balance giving the right advice to clients and ensuring billing targets were met.

In fact, Mr McCann was so disillusioned at one point and “burnt out” that he left the legal profession altogether for a few years. “My job is to go out into the market and sing the praises of this style of working,” he said. “There is another way to practice as a lawyer.”

Recently, Mr McCann has started talking to Callum Gamble, a young web developer who also has autism, in the hope that it will give Callum someone he can relate to.

However, Mr McCann doesn’t see himself as a role model and in fact believes that he can learn a lot from Callum’s journey given that he was diagnosed at the age of eight.

Mr McCann said: “I don’t have all the answers. I’m neither perfect, nor ‘fixed’ myself. Ironically, there’s a lot I can learn from him as well.”

The lawyer doesn’t covet the title of role model. Instead, his main ambition on autism awareness is to be a role model to his young son and daughter, who are currently in the long process of diagnosis.

Mr McCann said: “The people that I do want to be a role model for ultimately are those two, to be able to say that if you are on the autism spectrum that you can live, work and thrive perfectly well.”

What is Mr McCann’s message to those that are undergoing a similar journey to his?

He says: “You’re not alone and there are people that care. It may not be the easiest to find, it may not be the easiest chat in the world that you’re going to have, it is going to be uncomfortable, it is going to be unpleasant but there is help there.”

Curriculum vitae

Title: Chief engagement officer at Legal Studio.

Date of birth: October 1983.

Lives: Shipley, West Yorkshire.

Favourite holiday destination: Coromandel, New Zealand.

Last book read: Let my people go surfing – Yvon Chouinard.

Favourite film: To Catch a Thief.

Favourite song: Hammer to Fall – Queen.

Car driven: None. I get the train and the bus everywhere.

Most proud of: My kids.

Education: Staindrop Comprehensive School; Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form – Darlington; Selwyn College, University of Cambridge.