Not only are vac schemes prime legal work experience and CV gold, many firms treat them as an integral part of the training contract application process. So if you want to bag a training contract get yourself on a vac scheme. Here's how...
Unsure if you really want to be a lawyer?
Still at uni and unsure if you really want to be a lawyer? If so, then giving up a week or two of your hard-earned holiday during the winter, spring or summer to sample law firm life is a small price to pay. As one training partner told us, vacation schemes are a great opportunity to test the waters, “a chance to gain an insight into life as a lawyer, get feedback on your work and grow from the experience.” And as a trainee recalled of their vacation scheme at a City firm: “It gives you a very good picture of what life as a trainee will be like.”
“It gives you a very good picture of what life as a trainee will be like.
But be under no illusions: you will also be on trial, because in this ever more competitive market most firms (and some more than others) treat the vac scheme almost as a pre-screening exercise when it comes to handing out training contracts. A good example of a firm that relies heavily on its vac scheme is Mishcon de Reya, which recruits all of its trainees from people it sees on its placement. Another is US giant Skadden, which informs us: “We do accept applications from those who haven't done vacation schemes with us, but we really only look at those if something has gone wrong with our placement and it hasn't thrown up enough quality candidates.”
This stance is not (yet) the prevailing recruiting model, and many firms who offer vacation schemes have no hard and fast rules about how many they will aim to recruit from them: some firms have just as many trainees who haven't done one as those who have. But the message is clear: whichever vac scheme you end up doing you'll be assessed, no matter how informally, and you should plan and act accordingly.
How do you get on a vac scheme?
Our Table of vac schemes will tell you exactly what places are available with the firms covered by this guide and when to apply. Timing your application is important: certain schemes are targeted at penultimate-year law grads or final-year non-law grads, which can leave other students frustrated. Suffice to say, law undergrads need to start thinking about their application campaign during the summer after their first year at university.
The application deadlines for the majority of vac schemes come in December and January, but some firms run schemes in the Christmas and Easter holidays and the deadlines for applying to those can be as early as October. Don’t miss out! You’ll generally find full details of exactly how to make your application on firms' recruitment websites.
"We want to feel that candidates have chosen us for a particular reason. We don’t have the number of spaces to just say 'oh, we'll just take a punt on those five'."
What do firms look for when recruiting for the vac scheme? "Same as the training contract really,” one tells us: “Strong academics and an interest in our practice areas." For smaller firms with a more concentrated or specialist array of practice areas, take note of this training principal's advice: "Given the limited spaces that we have, we want to feel that candidates have chosen us for a particular reason. Some applicants have a ‘shotgun’ approach. That doesn’t work for us: we don’t have the number of spaces to just say 'oh, we'll just take a punt on those five'. We really want people who really want us." As competition for training contracts gets more intense, it’s no surprise that competition for vac scheme places is equally so. Obvious conclusion: you’ll need to put as much effort into vac scheme applications as you do into training contract applications. For some tips on how to do this refer to our feature on Making successful applications. On this website we also provide detailed advice on the application procedures for each of the firms covered in the True Picture.
The strongest applicants always manage to secure a clutch of offers, but don’t despair if you can’t secure a place – it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never get a training contract. Try and build your CV up in other ways – say with voluntary work or other legal or commercial experience – and then have another stab at vac scheme applications. Even if you navigate the vac scheme obstacle course perfectly, don’t get complacent. You’ll still need to prepare well for a training contract interview.
What do you do on a vac scheme?
At some firms, vac schemes are structured down to the minute with talks about the firm and its training contract, followed by tasks and social engagements. At others, vac schemers may be tied to a trainee or qualified solicitor and what they do will depend on that individual. Elsewhere, panhandling for work and knocking on doors to find assignments will be the name of the game, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it, as this trainee told us: “It's good because it forces you to engage with people throughout the firm who you might not have otherwise met, but if you're not used to knocking on doors it can be very difficult.”
"I remember doing some very serious assignments – although looking back I probably thought they were more serious than they actually were."
The best vac schemes get students involved in ongoing cases and deals and puts them in the heat of the action – or at least lets them feel that way. “You are expected to contribute to real work,” recalled one ex-vac schemer. “I remember doing some very serious assignments – although looking back I probably thought they were more serious than they actually were.”
For detailed information on each firm’s vacation scheme, read the How to get a training contract at... features alongside each True Picture. You can also read this first-hand account of the experience of being a vac schemer.
Coming for a quick drink?
Bankers, lawyers, doctors and even priests all know how effective alcohol can be when it comes to greasing the wheels. But the trick is to drink the right amount or none at all. Even when firms take vac schemers out to snazzy clubs, recruiters' mental notepads will still be out. So gauge the situation: is the firm boozy or abstemious?
At the end of the day, a law firm is just like any other office workplace in that you'll find all sorts of characters. You'll also find variety within any group of vac schemers. “You get the quiet ones, the loud ones, the ones who say inappropriate things, the ones who’re always smiling.”
What should I look out for?
When on a vac scheme, become an anthropologist. Observe your environment and its inhabitants; figure out the social structures, the hierarchies, the shared values that bond people (if indeed there are any). Watch how the trainees fit in with all of this. Eavesdrop. You’ve got to be on your guard, though, because people will be conscious you’re there, and some of our sources did end up concluding: “It can be an artificial exercise – you see what they want you to see.” Your aim is to peer beyond the mask at the living, breathing, sweating entity behind it.
Try also to get a feel for how different departments work by reading as much as you can. A starting point would be our Solicitors’ practice areas. It’ll help you figure out what sort of work might suit you best and will enable you to ask intelligent questions of your supervisors. Intelligent questions pave the road to success, so lay as many down as possible without becoming annoying.
How will I be assessed?
“The vacation scheme is a great way of meeting prospective trainees and giving them a real taster of what life is like here,” one recruiter explains. But don't forget that “it's also a good way of to see them in action.”
Vac schemers are often given research to do as a way of evaluating their abilities; expect to be given some specifics to look into before reporting back to solicitors with your findings. You might be asked to shadow someone, helping them out with their workload. This is an excellent opportunity for you to find more out about the firm while proving yourself at the same time. You might even get to go to client meetings or visit court. Regardless of the task, attention to detail cannot be underestimated, as minor errors may not go unnoticed and could well come back to haunt you. One recruiter told us: "Sometimes, vac schemers are instructed to copy someone into an email, and they fail to do that; it's a criticism we've raised in the past."
"Sometimes, vac schemers are instructed to copy someone into an email, and they fail to do that; it's a criticism we've raised in the past."
Last, but certainly not least, are the mini-assessment tasks and projects designed to test your ability to present, argue and work as a team. “Don’t be over-assertive, but don’t fade into the background either. Remember to ask other people what their opinions are – you have to look like a team player.” Some projects may require vac schemers to balance their more competitive instincts with their ability to function within a team, as this recruitment contact told us: "We divide the vac schemers into two groups, and they are given a negotiation exercise which they will later have to act out during the final assessment, so there's that element of competition between the groups." Other assessments we heard about involved advertising pitches to faux potential clients, mock mini-transactions and business advice scenarios.
How should I act?
“Those who are successful have the drive, imagination and confidence to see the scheme for the learning opportunity it really is rather than just an assessment centre in which they are competing with other students,” one training partner at a larger outfit advises. “Students become part of the firm when they arrive; many make friendships. And the firm will always make room for excellent candidates it sees on the scheme, whatever the numbers.”
While you’re busy watching everyone else, don’t forget that they’re watching you, watching them, watching you. This recruitment lark is a delicate dance, so attune yourself to the characters around you and follow their lead. More than anything else, people will be trying to see if you ‘share the firm’s core values’.
Ultimately, ‘professionalism’ should be your watchword. This is a job interview, even when you’re eating lunch in the canteen. Don’t be late for work. Switch off your mobile phone when in the office. Don’t bitch or send stupid emails. Thinking about browsing Facebook in a slack moment? Why take the risk?
"You've got to show initiative – that's how you grow and develop and get handed other pieces of work going forward."
Okay, so don’t be an idiot. That much is obvious. But how can you impress? As one recruiter says, it’s all about “marketing yourself well.” Does that sound a little intimidating? It’s really not. After all, you marketed yourself well on paper when you sent your application form in; now you are just doing it in person. Asking well-timed questions and showing an interest is an easy way of doing this. Just remember, “seeking out work and raising your profile without pestering people is a fine line to walk.” It may be a fine line, but it's one worth treading, and being proactive is key, as this partner suggests: “If you get given a piece of work, think about what happens next. Think about that next stage in the transaction, and if you don’t know what it is then go and find out. You've got to show initiative – that's how you grow and develop and get handed other pieces of work going forward.”
Obviously, you’re being assessed on how good a lawyer you’re likely to be, but don’t underestimate how far having a normal, attractive personality will get you.