This was a difficult blog post to write, but an important one. We decided to write this after working with a number of candidates who had mitigating circumstances but did not explain them properly in their application forms for training contracts/vacation schemes. Instead of shying away from controversy we want to be open and transparent to maximise your chances of success.
While we would never be judgmental of candidates, especially those who have experienced hardships, there are better and worse ways to express those on a formal application for employment to a law firm. The below is subject to the general caveat that everyone's situation is different and it is always context dependent - if you are concerned about how to phrase your mitigating circumstances get in touch and we can help with this.
What Are Mitigating Circumstances?
We would define a mitigating circumstance as a temporary event that adversely affected your academic performance. They are also described as extenuating circumstances.
Common examples of mitigating circumstances include:
- Serious injury / illness
- Death, serious injury or illness of a relative or close friend
- Unusual event that had significant negative consequences (e.g. parents divorcing)
It often helps to disclose these situations to your university as soon as possible so that they are aware of it. They can then make a note of your case on file. If the extenuating circumstances are medical related, having a doctor's note can be useful evidence as well in case you are ever asked (although it's unlikely any law firm would ever ask for this). University medical services are generally overwhelmed and so it is possible they may either be more accommodative or tired of student complaints. Make sure you that you present your case to your university concisely and effectively.
When listing an event in the mitigating circumstances box you want to be clear and succinct. Even if a topic is emotional, the graduate recruiter does not want to hear your life story in that section. It's important that you remember that the sole purpose of disclosing mitigating circumstances is to ensure that graduate recruiters do not reject your application because of low marks when there is a good reason why you did not perform to your full potential. You can then use the rest of the application to shine.
“My paternal grandfather was diagnosed with testicular cancer a few days prior to my examination period commencing. We are very close and so learning about his illness was traumatic for me and I spent much of my exam period consoling him and my family. I was therefore unable to sleep well or focus before and during my exams because I was thinking and worrying about him.”
“My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer immediately prior to my exam period, which had a material and adverse effect on my focus, sleep and final results”.
The main difference is the level of details needed. Keep any extenuating circumstances to a sentence or two and avoid adding any flourishes.
What are NOT Mitigating Circumstances?
While most students who use mitigating circumstances as a justification for poor performance do so honestly and legitimately, there are the occasional applicants who try to abuse the system and list down any life adversity as a mitigating circumstance.
We strongly advise against trying to game the system this way as it is likely to backfire - law firms are looking for resilient students to join their ranks as a trainee solicitor. Most firms do not make exceptions for life events that are generally considered to be trivial.
The below list includes some generic examples:
- Your partner breaks up with you during exam period (i.e. an unfortunate life event but not sufficient to be a mitigating circumstance)
- Death, injury / illness of a pet
- Sprained an ankle (i.e. not relevant to the actual physical writing of the exam - it would be different if you sprained your dominant hand, but most universities will arrange a scribe / laptop)
Should You Ever Not Mention a Legitimate Mitigating Circumstance?
This is a little more controversial, but we think there are some things that should not be mentioned on a law firm application form. This is because they are either too complicated or jarring for a law application.
The ultimate question to ask yourself is this: does providing this detail add anything to my application? As we noted above, the sole purpose of this section is to make sure that poor academic results get explained away so the rest of your application can be judged appropriately. However, there are certain mitigating circumstances that you should think twice before disclosing.
One candidate we worked with had the following story as a mitigating circumstance*:
“I fractured my wrist in the lead up to my exam period playing football. As an international student, I was unaware of the procedures in place and that I would be eligible to use a laptop during my exams. I therefore had to write a number of exams with my non-dominant hand, which was time consuming and less legible.”
Having worked with the candidate we are confident that he was being truthful. Nevertheless, it is a pretty hard story to believe and is a little complicated. Universities are well prepared to help in this scenario so it seems strange they made someone write an exam with their wrong hand. This candidate had other mitigating circumstances which were more significant, which we helped him to present effectively.
Employers have come a long way in terms of supporting those with mental health struggles. What was once stigmatised is now openly discussed. However, most employers (including law firms) focus on helping existing employees overcome mental health conditions rather than adjusting their recruitment processes to accommodate candidates.
In terms of including mental health issues as a mitigating circumstance, we differentiate between temporary and long term issues. It's a personal decision for you to decide how much to reveal. Our views are conservative only because we would not want an interviewer / partner to draw a negative inference from any mental health problem. If you say you have a long term issue which has affected you for several years, some firms may decide not to take the risk that you will resolve the issue before you join. We in no way condone or approve of this practice, but we think it's important for you to understand what the recruitment process actually looks like. And unfortunately not all mental health issues have the same stigma - someone who battled a heroin addiction is likely to be viewed quite differently than someone who has the occasional panic attack.
So what does this mean in practice? Mitigating circumstances are context dependent: one candidate we worked with suffered from bipolar disorder, ADHD and had an anxiety attack during one of his exams. Instead of lumping them all in together, we encouraged him to only mention the anxiety attack. This is because it was a temporary event that directly impacted his performance. We think any recruitment team is likely to be sympathetic to this. But if they saw the complete package they may start to draw negative inferences (as unfair as that may be) which means that the disclosure will not add anything to his application. Remember not to lose sight of the goal here.
ADHD is another tricky issue that lots of candidates want to mention. Seeing as most universities cater for this already (e.g. by providing extra time during exams for those who have learning difficulties like ADHD), we don't think listing this as a mitigating circumstance is appropriate. If you have ADHD and have managed to perform well despite your condition, that can make a very convincing section of a personal essay (i.e. to answer how you have overcome a challenge) or answer in an interview and deserves to be recognised.
Depression is hard for us to comment on in the abstract. On the one hand if you have a traumatic event that caused depression and were medicated around the time of your exams or coursework deadline then this could be worth explaining; if you have suffered from depression for years then, as with ADHD, it is probably best not to include in this section and instead give it a more human element in an interview.
The other more life threatening ones - while tragic - are difficult to mention in an application. If you have previously been suicidal our heart goes out to you but we don't think you should mention it to prospective employers at this stage in the process. The application stage is just too impersonal.
Other Traumatic Experiences
While we have attempted to cover some heavy topics above, there are others that are even more sensitive that we cannot comment on generally (e.g. sexual assault). We work with candidates and discuss these issues with them (in a safe, supportive and judgment-free way) to make sure it is appropriately reflected on the application form. We focus on explaining the issue without oversharing and ensuring that your privacy is respected with a potential future employer.
As you can see from the above, there is quite a delicate balancing act that goes on when discussing mitigating circumstances in vacation scheme or training contract applications. It is also a topic that most people shy away from. As with other aspects of your application, this part of your application benefits hugely from the help of a qualified lawyer that can help guide you through this difficult process. We guide candidates through this and other difficult questions routinely.
You can learn more about how we can help you secure a training contract here.
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