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The Oracle

Including extenuating circumstances in applications

updated on 21 November 2016

Dear Oracle

I was diagnosed with depression during my second year at university, and my studies and grades were adversely affected during this period. Will firms penalise me for this when I apply for training contracts or will they take into account my extenuating circumstances?

The Oracle replies

All kinds of unfortunate things beyond our control can happen to put normal life on hold. Mental and/or physical illness, bereavement, family problems – all are likely to affect every one of us at some point. Shit happens, to put it bluntly, yet all too often it can seem that the pressures of daily life make very little allowance for this. When the worst happens for someone on the intensely demanding and competitive path to a career in law, it can badly affect their studies and results, as well as prevent them from pursuing work experience opportunities, all of which are of course serious disadvantages when applying for a training contract – or pupillage.

Many firms and chambers provide sections in their application forms for detailing any genuine extenuating circumstances which may have affected a candidate’s grades. You should always support your explanation of mitigating circumstances with evidence, such as a note from your university, school or doctor – in your case, a doctor’s note will be more than sufficient. Spurious submissions will not be considered – sleeping through an exam because your alarm didn’t go off, for example. It is also advisable to contact the recruiters at a firm or set of chambers directly before applying to explain your mitigating circumstances and receive advice on how to present your case in the application.

As a general rule for how to approach this difficult subject, the key is to remain professional. You don’t have to disclose every last detail of an illness or family trauma – revealing extenuating circumstances does not need to pry into your privacy. You should also be prepared for reactions to differ from employer to employer; some might not be very interested, but others will help you as far as they can – and you probably wouldn’t want to work for a law firm with the former attitude anyway.

It will also be important to demonstrate that in otherwise ‘normal’ circumstances, you achieve good grades and are the kind of bright, keen person whom a law firm would love to hire – extenuating circumstances can explain a bad exam or even a bad year, but the usual rules apply in that firms are only interested in intelligent, savvy people who they think will make good lawyers.