How to get a training contract - part 4

True confessions of a training contract applicant - part 4

The 4th and final instalment of a recurring blog

Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3


With the 31 July training contract deadline now a distant memory, it feels like a very long time since I wrote my last blog post at the end of May. At that point I had just begun my direct training contract applications, very much aware that I wouldn't be able to work on them during my vacation placements in July.


What's in a vac scheme? 

Out of the 12 vac scheme applications I made between October 2013 and January 2014, I succeeded in securing placements with two firms – and both were right at the top of my wish list. Both took place in July over three consecutive weeks, meaning that as far as I was concerned my personal training contract application deadline realistically fell in mid-June. Devoting late May and early June to a lot of work (and very little play) I managed to draft, edit and submit the ten training contract applications I wanted to make. Then I forgot all about them, and used the days I had left before my vac schemes to swot up on my two vac scheme firms.

As anyone who's applying for a training contract knows (or should know), vacation schemes play a big role in many firms' recruitment processes. That makes a lot of sense given the opportunity they offer recruiters to observe and assess potential trainees over a longer period in a professional environment. But what I hadn't fully appreciated until my placements this year is the extent to which firms encourage candidates to assess and analyse themselves too.

I’ve now been on three vac schemes (I did one in 2013 too) and each offered a different experience. The first scheme I undertook was at a large regional firm in a major UK city and lasted two invigorating but shattering weeks. The second, at a City firm, was just as intense and positive but squeezed everything into a single very busy week. On both schemes I was one of around ten students.


Scheme 1: Big Brother is watching you

The two-week scheme I did with a regional firm was one of several run that summer. It took the same form as many law summer placements: I spent a week each in two of the firm's departments, sat in an office with a senior associate (who acted as my supervisor), and undertook a range of tasks supposedly reflective of what real-life trainees do. These tasks were either research based, or relatively administrative: filling in basic forms or proofreading completed documents.

I was kept relatively busy and the work I was given to do was often quite engaging – perhaps because everything I was given was completely new to me. It took me a lot of time to ensure that I had completed things to the highest standard possible. And speaking to other vac schemers and GDL peers, it became clear that there is a lot of luck involved in how much exposure to real work you get. I know that vac schemers in some departments at my firm found themselves with very little to do, or – more frustratingly – were given 'exercises' that had clearly been created simply to keep them busy. The trend was that the more high profile the work undertaken by a department is, the less involved vac schemers tend to be. Timing also counts. I spent my second week in a department that a peer had moaned about because they were given so little to do. Yet when I was there I was offered work by almost every member of the team.

"The more high profile the work undertaken by a department is, the less involved vac schemers tend to be."

Is there anything you can do as a student to improve your vac scheme experience? I definitely found that asking around for work rather than simply relying on the formal work co-ordinator was the best approach. The thought of knocking on partners' doors may seem terrifying but think of it this way: what are you going to achieve sitting quietly in an office twiddling your thumbs? Even if no-one offers you work, partners and associates will tend to remember you, pass things along when they arise, and, crucially, form an impression of you.

The fortnight packed in formal assessments, presentations by representatives of the firm and then the a final training contract interview (eeeek!). It was also obvious from the moment we walked through the door that everything we did was being observed and every piece of work scrutinised. Everyone you come into contact with during a vac scheme is likely to be asked to provide feedback. The result is that at times the experience can feel a touch Orwellian – sometimes I felt so on edge that it was hard to concentrate my work.

Alongside all this work, there were several social events attended by the vac schemers, trainees and graduate recruitment. Ostensibly these were 'an introduction to the city' and a chance to relax (party on!) and get to know each other. However, it was clear that we were still under the HR microscope. After a few drinks, some candid trainees even admitted that they too would be submitting their thoughts on us 'from a personality perspective'. The result was that although the events were enjoyable, they were also exhausting and almost as stressful as office time.


Scheme 2: Not in Kansas anymore 

My second placement could not have been more different. It was more of a rapid tour of the firm than an in-depth experience. I was at the firm for five days: one day was devoted to a general introduction to the firm with seminars and presentations, and then I spent one day each in four different departments.

The whole experience felt more like an extended open day – giving me a taster of the firm – than a programme designed to reflect what it's really like to be a trainee. There were no assessments, formal or otherwise and we were supervised by trainees who were far too busy to be able to take notes on our performance. As a result the whole experience was far less stressful and I felt more comfortable asking questions and approaching people who I hadn't been introduced to. This meant that I managed to gather insights and opinions from a far wider network of people.

Social events were more relaxed – it was clear that the firm reps present were also there to enjoy themselves rather than observe and assess us. Events were also attended by a wider cross-section of the firm and so (with a little Dutch courage) we were able to quiz more senior lawyers, including some partners, to get their thoughts on the firm.


Competition and co-operation 

On both schemes my peers and I arrived very much aware that there were more of us than there were training contract vacancies. To start with I think all of us thought of each other as 'the competition'. However, it's exhausting to keep thinking in this way for an extended period of time, so more collaborative relations soon developed. What's more, while deep down I knew that I was being compared to my peers, I came to realise that the best way to make a good impression was to take the view that if I personally was good enough, I'd get a traineeship regardless of how everyone else performed. Most of the other vac schemers seemed to take this approach too. Sometimes, however, the mask slipped: there were occasions, especially during formal assessments, when it was clear that people were attempting to out-do each other. But I suspect that the sharp elbow brigade didn't make a very good impression on HR, who were following our every move.

Overall, both placements were great experiences. I came away with a much clearer impression of the office environment and working culture at each firm. From meeting trainees and the other vac schemers, I also got a greater sense of what type of person the firm was looking for. And the placements also offered that most basic opportunity: to find out what my potential future colleagues were really like to work alongside. By the time the training contract interviews at the end of each vac scheme came around I felt I knew a lot more about the firm and found it much easier to express and evidence my reasons for applying.


It ain't over till it's over

If you've been following this blog since it started, I'm sure there's one question you'd very much like to know the answer to: did it all pay off in the end? Did I get a training contract?

Well, yes (modest victory dance). Having started the year with low expectations following my perceived failures the previous year, I slowly grew in confidence. I believe that the considered and thoughtful approach which I adopted this year really paid off. I was able to attend far more interviews and assessment days than I ever realistically expected to. I made sure that I took as much as possible from every stage of the recruitment process, especially when I was unsuccessful. At each step I learnt something and used that to inform my next application or interview.


Ultimately it all paid off: I secured a training contract at the second of the two firms I did a vac scheme at and am just about to start the LPC. Provided I pass, this time next year I'll actually be a trainee solicitor, something I honestly had not expected to be able to say when this year started.


This feature originally appeared in our September 2014 newsletter.