I’m Niamh Kathryn Tenison and in 2019 I graduated from the University of Surrey with a degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences. I am now studying for a Masters’ in Law at the University of Law. I am seeking a training contract with an international commercial law firm based in London and hoping to qualify into disputes. So far, I have secured a vacation scheme for summer 2020 and have upcoming assessment centres too.
During my degree, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. My condition resulted in full seizures, memory loss, black outs and sustaining a range of injuries from falls. This impacted my grades substantially and caused me to produce inconsistent results depending on whether there were sufficient resources provided and whether my epilepsy was good or bad at that time.
My experience at Herbert Smith Freehills after winning MyPlus Students’ Club’s Win A Day Campaign gave a rare insight into the daily workings of a prestigious and innovative dispute resolution powerhouse. The day gave me the opportunity to understand the actual work that a trainee and an associate do and how their work sits in a commercial environment. I was also able to see how firms can respond to disability requirements and what can be expected of an employer. As part of my prize, I was also invited to the Herbert Smith Freehills Disputes Open Day. This gave an incredible insight into how the firm works, how dispute resolution works and how diverse dispute resolution can be – it inspired me to focus my Masters’ dissertation on arbitration.
Gaining a more nuanced understanding of how law firms work, their goals and how they view disability has enabled me to be more open about my condition and assess my strengths and weaknesses. I think that this has given me more confidence in my own ability and helped to negate the imposter syndrome that I think most training contract applicants probably suffer from. I definitely felt more certain that I could be an asset to a firm despite my epilepsy and so not to shy away from explaining to a firm exactly why and how my condition has impacted me and why I’m still a candidate that deserves to be seriously considered.
I had to disclose my epilepsy at university due to the health and safety implications and the extent to which it impacted my day-to-day life. The biggest issue I found surrounding my disability at university was a complete lack of understanding. There’s a surprisingly common belief that epilepsy does not really exist and it is commonly mis-characterised as a mental illness. This makes it very difficult to put in place any support or to explain why certain measures are necessary. I was even told that there were certain modules that I couldn’t take because the tutors taking them didn’t want my seizures to distract other students. From what I’ve experienced from firms, and as confirmed on my day at Herbert Smith Freehills, employers are far more receptive to the needs of disabled people than my university was. There’s a genuine understanding that to have disabled people in the firm is an asset and that a condition like epilepsy doesn’t negate the value that you can bring.
As a result of my disability, I have had to learn to be ultra-organised. On the one hand, the issues with my memory mean that I have to make a note of things that I need to do and appointments. This means that I don’t tend to forget things even when I’m busy and stressed. It also means that other people can see when I have a lot on and when I’m free. Equally, not knowing when I could have a seizure or be injured taught me to be pro-active and not to procrastinate. Being unsure whether you’ll be well enough to do a certain job tomorrow makes you far more motivated to get the job done today. These attributes are something that employers definitely look for and, without my disability, I don’t think I’d have them. Every cloud has a silver lining and demonstrating the silver lining of your disability to employers makes both you and them more confident in your abilities.
My key advice to any student in the position that I was during my undergraduate degree would be to not rely on anyone else to determine how your disability impacts you. Universities can be a particularly hostile environment and it’s easy to feel like a burden when you’re asking for help and support. You are not a burden. Your disability has benefits that you may not even be aware of and the right employer for you will recognise those benefits. Equally, you deserve the help and support that you need to succeed and you should not be expected to suffer or languish.
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