Knowing me, knowing you
5 December 2012 | By Christian Metcalfe
12 June 2013
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30 January 2013
Vacation schemes are not only a chance to get noticed by a law firm, but provide the perfect opportunity for you to decide where you want to work
Vacation schemes are not only a great way to sample life in a law firm, they can be a two-week interview for a training contract. Lawyer 2B canvased the opinions of both recent and not-so-recent vacation schemers and a careers expert to gauge the importance of vacation schemes and find out what to do and what not to do if you are lucky enough to find yourself on one.
How do you make vacation scheme applications stand out?
Jack Deung, LLB student, Surrey University and Nabarro summer 2012 vac schemer: I think it is very important to demonstrate your motivation and enthusiasm for a career in the law and to give sound reasons for making your application to the firm. In addition, making a real effort to meet people from the firm you are applying to helps to differentiate yourself from the pack and allows you to sell yourself in person.
Lawrence Horner, head of careers research and resources, College of Law: Vacation schemes are your opportunity to find out what a firm is like from the inside, and work out if it’s the place where you would want to train and work. But you need to know enough about the firm beforehand to make a good application. Find those firms you really are interested in and focus your attention on them.
You also need to ensure that the recruiter will be interested in you. By the time you start sending off your applications you should have that well-rounded CV that recruiters often mention: excellent academic results, employment experience and an involvement in extra-curricular activities. Together these will give you the experience and evidence to demonstrate that you have what it takes to make it.
Finally, take your time on each application. Vacation schemes can be fought over as fiercely as training contracts, perhaps more so. Make sure you sell yourself well on your form. A good applicant can be let down by a poor form, and a good form can be ruined by a silly mistake such as putting down the wrong name - it happens.
Kate Meadows, trainee, Osborne Clarke: One approach is to draw up a list of all your recent, relevant experiences and think about which skills they have developed. This makes it much easier when you have to tackle the skills-focused questions and helps avoid repetition. I would also make sure you get someone to proof-read your application for spelling and grammar errors as mistakes will make your application stand out for all the wrong reasons. It can be hard to see these when you have spent so much time looking at the application.
Laura Boddington, associate, Simmons & Simmons financial markets group: Unfortunately I don’t have a magic formula for making applications stand out from the crowd. I think applying to a firm is a lot like choosing which university to go to - you want the best training but also a place where you can see yourself. Use your application to show why you would be a good fit for the firm and remember the golden rules - keep your answers concise, make sure your spelling and punctuation is correct and answer the question that is on the form, not the one that you want to be asked.
Jack Bradley-Seddon, LPC student, BPP Law School, and future Freshfields trainee: There are three basic criteria for a successful application. First, academics: they want someone who is intelligent enough to understand the work. Second, commercial awareness. You need to understand a bit about the business of law. Third, personality. Law firms are looking for well-rounded people who get along easily with others.
Emma Matebalavu, Clifford Chance graduate recruitment partner: The best way to make an application stand out is to take time over it, relating your answers to the firm you are applying to, making sure that you demonstrate the competencies the firm is looking for clearly and, last but not least, making sure that your grammar and spelling is correct.
How do you choose which vacation schemes to go on?
JD: It is really important to consider previous interactions with the firm and its people when deciding which vacation schemes to apply for. I went on schemes at firms whose staff I had met previously and been impressed by. The vacation scheme provides a fantastic insight into the practices and culture of the firm. As all law firms purport to offer similar work, training and experiences, it is the culture that will set the firm apart from the others. Therefore, make sure you go on vacations schemes where you think you want to work during your training contract.
LH: First, look at the role the vacation scheme plays in the recruitment process. If the firm you want to work for tends to recruit its trainees from vacation scheme participants, then applying for the scheme may be essential.
However, vacation schemes are an opportunity for you to experience what it’s like to be a lawyer. If you’re not yet sure where you want to work, use the vacation scheme as an opportunity to find out and apply to different types of firm. If you have narrowed your focus to a few similar firms then vacation schemes can give you an insight you can’t get from the websites or from talking to representatives at a law fair and will help you choose between firms when it comes to training contracts.
KM: My approach was to choose different types of law firms. This gave good variety to my experience of the legal world, and equipped me well for the rigours of the training contract interview. It gives you the opportunity to draw on lots of different professional experiences and helps you to be more precise in why it is that you want to train with that particular firm.
I think it is important to consider the type of work that the firm carries out, the size of the teams, the firm’s approach to training, and the firm’s ‘culture’ - it’s important to think about whether these things match the training experience that you are looking for.
LB: This is your career, so the first place to start when deciding which vacation schemes to apply for is with yourself. What type of lawyer do you want to be and what type of firm do you want to work in? Once you have a good idea of where you want to be in the future, you can begin looking at firms to see which of them fits with your criteria. Attend the events that firms put on at your university, check out legal publications and the firms’ websites and talk to other people who have already gone through the process.
JB-S: Go for the ones that ‘feel’ right. By this I mean the ones where you liked the people and where you could see yourself working.
If you’re still undecided, take the following into account:
First, the length of the vacation scheme. It is better to do two schemes for two weeks than one for four. You’ll get two different experiences - plus if you don’t like it you won’t be there for very long.
Second, go for the firm with the best reputation. You might not get an offer, but you’ll be more likely to get an offer from another firm if you worked for a bastion of legal excellence. It operates as an insurance policy.
EM: Think about the kind of firm you want to work for and the different kinds of vacation scheme. Are you particularly keen to learn about international opportunities? Do you want to spend time across a range of practice areas? Work alongside lawyers and be part of a client team? Be involved with community affairs? Or attend social and networking events? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you to make the right decision.
What type of work do you get on the vacation scheme?
JD: During my three-week vacation scheme with Nabarro, I sat with the commercial dispute resolution department and became fully immersed in their work. I was handed assignments typically given to trainees, such as the creation of bundles for court and research assignments ranging from investigating legal queries to examining the experience and successes of several QCs prior to instructions being allocated. I always felt excited and energised by the fact that my work made a real contribution to the matters in hand.
As well as departmental work, a team assignment, ‘Project Nabarro’, provided the opportunity to demonstrate different skill sets, although never at the expense of ‘real work’, which always took priority.
LH: This will vary from firm to firm. Typically you’ll sit with a solicitor, which gives you a great opportunity to observe how lawyers work. You will usually get involved, in a small way, in the real work of the department and so could be asked to undertake some legal research, draft documents or attend client meetings. Depending on the firm, you could spend your placement in one or two departments, or experience a new department every day.
Firms may also run activities designed to give you a broader understanding of the firm’s work, such as seminars on their core practice areas. And, of course, there will be a range of social activities too.
KM: Vacation scheme students can expect to be involved in all of the tasks that a trainee routinely undertakes. There will be some document management, together with research into detailed legal questions. Fee-earners often need research carried out into non-legal questions, such as building up a profile of a company. If the opportunity arises, vacation schemers will get to attend client meetings, after which they will need to produce detailed attendance notes. If an applicant shows willingness, there are also opportunities to have a first draft of client contracts and/or advice. It should prove to be a well-rounded insight into the daily workings of a training contract.
LB: The work you undertake on a vacation scheme is very similar to what you do as a trainee. This can involve drafting contracts, letters or other documents, attending meetings or conference calls with other team members, taking file notes or assisting with signings and closings on transactions. The work can be varied and you will have different experiences depending on which department you sit in.
JB-S: The short answer is ‘anything and everything’. You’ll be expected to muck in and help out with whatever needs doing. But there are a few things that crop up again and again.
First, research. Interns are often given small research tasks. As an example, I have been asked to research everything from how to delist companies from the London Stock Exchange to how to change the legal structure of a charity.
Second, general tasks. In this category I would include things like proof-reading, helping to put pitches together for new work, helping to prepare bundles for litigation, keeping document racks up to date in corporate, listening to phone calls and writing notes on what was said, and going to meetings - this usually involves being polite, sitting quietly, and taking notes.
EM: Our vacation students are all assigned a lawyer as a supervisor and a current trainee as a buddy during their time at the firm. They will ensure that the student is able to get involved with current deals, learn about their department and practice area and introduce them to others who work alongside them. They will also participate in a variety of training exercises, attended pro bono legal sessions, and social and networking events.
Any tips on how to make a good impression?
JD: In my experience, to create a good impression you must demonstrate real enthusiasm and commitment in your application, during interviews and, of course, during the vacation scheme. If you find that you haven’t got enough work while on the scheme, walk around and introduce yourself -find the work. Try to get involved in everything that’s going on, from networking events to going to the pub with the team. Enjoy yourself, but remember to be professional and courteous the entire time.
LH: All the common sense stuff, which shouldn’t need to be said: turn up on time, dress appropriately, be polite to everyone, and so on.
In addition to this, show your interest and try to see the worth in everything you are asked to do, even if it is the photocopying. Try to treat everything as a learning opportunity. If you are given a task, make sure you understand what you are required to do, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. When carrying out work, do it to the highest standard you can.
It is also wise to assume you are being watched at all times, so be on your best behaviour even while enjoying the social activities laid on for you. However, you also need to relax and try to enjoy the experience as recruiters want to get an idea of what you are like and how you work within the firm.
KM: Enthusiasm and a willingness to get involved in work that your team is doing are key attributes for any vacation schemer. How you would potentially fit into that team as an employee is what is really being assessed. Enthusiasm is more than just working long hours, it’s asking insightful questions or doing something above and beyond the instructions you’ve received. Attention to detail is also a key point, be sure to double check all of the work that you get given. Besides the work, make sure that you attend the after-work social events. These evenings provide a great opportunity to pick up useful information about life at the firm from the people who work there.
Cakes or baked treats always go down well at the end of the week too.
LB: Be polite, be enthusiastic and try to be yourself - it is quite hard for people to form an opinion of you if you don’t give them a chance to find out who you are as an individual. The vacation scheme is the firm’s chance to see if you are genuinely interested in learning how to become a lawyer and if you are the type of person that they can work with every day.
JB-S: Do the basics well, show an interest and be yourself.
First, doing the basics well means things like turning up on time, being well-dressed, and always having a pen and paper with you everywhere you go to note down instructions.
Second, show an interest and ask questions. Realise that people love to talk about themselves. There is no substitute for genuine enthusiasm.
Finally, be yourself. At the end of the day the firm wants to get to know you and you want to get to know the firm. This isn’t possible if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not.
EM: We are looking for candidates who clearly demonstrate the firm’s competencies, both academically and commercially, and we assess this based on the feedback from their supervisors during the scheme. My top tips for your time on the vacation scheme would be:
Demonstrate interest, commitment and drive for the work assigned. We want students to be enthusiastic and keen to learn, so don’t be afraid to ask questions to show your involvement.
Use the opportunity to get to know people at the firm as well as the other students on the vacation scheme. Working as a lawyer means being part of a team, so we are interested in potential recruits’ ability to network and build relationships within the practice area and firm as a whole, not to mention clients.
It helps to have general business awareness. We need students who are commercially aware and have the intellectual ability to apply that knowledge to help the client with legal issues.
Show an interest in international work. Most firms are international and want to employ trainees who are of that mindset.
Sponsor’s comment: Jane Drew, trainee resources manager, Nabarro
I have worked in graduate recruitment for more than 20 years, in the accountancy and legal professions, and the graduate market has seen huge change during that time. Now more than ever vacation schemes are a vitally important part of the recruitment process, as gaining a training contract - and, for a firm, attracting the best graduates - becomes increasingly competitive.
If you have secured a vacation scheme that is fantastic. All the hard work put into the application forms and the initial assessment process has paid off. But there’s no time to rest on your laurels - think of your work experience as an extended job interview, your chance to really show what you can do, as well as your opportunity to see if the firm meets your expectations and is somewhere you want to start your legal career.
Think about what you can do before the scheme begins. Find out how the scheme will be structured and which legal team you will be based in. During our assessment day, we ask candidates if they have a preference and will try and accommodate any requests, especially as our students spend the three weeks in one department. Do further background reading on the firm and the specific legal team you will be based in so that you can ask well-informed questions when you arrive.
During the scheme take every opportunity to get involved and talk to as many people as possible, both within your department and the wider firm. As well as raising your profile, it will help you form an opinion about the working life and culture at that firm and whether you can see yourself as a trainee there. Take note of the panel’s tips on how to make a good impression - it is all sound advice. As well as the common sense stuff, firms want to know that you are serious about a career in law and that you are genuinely interested in them. Grab every opportunity, be proactive and ask questions.
Once the scheme is over, you will have a chance to reflect on your experience and the skills you have gained. Ask for feedback on your overall performance if the firm doesn’t provide it automatically. By attending vacation schemes you will be in a far better position to make an informed decision about where you would like to undertake your training contract. And, if you are not successful initially, you have still acquired valuable knowledge and experience which you can use when making further applications or completing subsequent schemes.