Summer in the City
5 October 2004
Competition for summer vacation scheme places at law firms is now greater than for traineeships. Gemma Charles investigates this crucial step towards a career as a lawyer
Vacations are for holidaying, relaxation, frolics in the sun and general gallivanting right? Wrong. Well, partly anyway. As well as the above, during Easter,summerandChristmas vacations, law firms across the land open up their doors and let students loose in their firms to undertake vacation schemes.
If you are trying to delay putting on a suit, dragging yourself into an office and working nine to five for as long as possible, then a summer vacation scheme may seem about as fun as well putting on a suit, dragging yourself into an office etc.
But the importance of having a vacation scheme placement or two under your belt, shining proudly from the CV, cannot be underestimated.
For many firms the vacation scheme is effectively the first interview, with many taking part being snapped up for training contracts there and then. Doing one, then, can have a very direct impact on your future as a lawyer. As well as being a marketing exercise (for both law firm and student), for firms they are arguably the most powerful graduate recruitment tool. Given that the big City firms pay around 250 a week to hundreds of students, plus all the time, effort and funding for excursions and socials during the scheme, it is no surprise that they desire a measurable return.
Completing a vacation scheme with any firm is a very important step to a training contract, says Shaun Savory, graduate recruitment manager at Norton Rose. Some firms recruit 80 per cent of trainees from their vacation schemes and make a show of this, whereas here its only about 50 per cent.
You can do a lot of things to get data on an individual, and while these are all quite valuable they can be open to question. By far the most reliable interaction is the three weeks they spend with a firm.
Changes to the Law Societys code on recruitment, which became effective this year, have also increased the importance of the summer vacation scheme. The Voluntary Code to Good Practice in the Recruitment of Trainee Solicitors has changed the timing of interviews and offers, as there were complaints that some firms were cherry-picking the best applicants by recruiting very early and putting students under pressure to accept offers.
Offers cannot now be made before 1 September in the students penultimate year of undergraduate study, but for the first time interviews can be held before this date, meaning that summer vacation schemers can, and in some cases are, securing an automatic interview immediately upon conclusion.
The downside is that, although firms, if they follow the code (which is voluntary), can interview students, they cannot make training contract offers until 1 September. So the student who has a summer vacation at the beginning of the summer and an interview will be left hanging until the autumn.
The issue has split law firms, with some deciding to keep the vacation schemes separate from the training contract application process and conducting all the interviews at the same time. Others have embraced the idea of interviewing their vacation schemers while they are still fresh in their minds.
Its shifted the focus, as now summer vacs schemes can be much more of a precursor to getting a training contract, says Graham Stoddart, graduate recruitment officer at Macfarlanes.
Participating in a vacation scheme, though, can also be a precursor to deciding whether you actually want to pursue a legal career. It will certainly help you decide on the type of firm you would like to practise at and the area of law in which you would like to specialise.
Lucie Powell, a law student from the University of East Anglia, was about to embark on her first vacation scheme when she spoke to Lawyer 2B and was hoping it would give her a clear pointer.
I havent applied for my LPC yet, so I want to know whether Id like it in an office environment, because studying it is a lot different from practising it, she says. I want to see what its like, then make my decision.
Living the commercial law firm experience for real can be invaluable for that training contract killer question: why City law?
An issue we have with candidates is that they dont always actually know what a City solicitor does, comments Savory. Why City law? tends to be one of the first questions that a firm asks. If youve got some experience from a summer vacation scheme you can say better why its for you.
Cambridge law student Chris Williams, who completed three vacation schemes this summer, backs this up. When I went to my first firm I didnt know what to expect. It initially knocked me for six, but as I got into the swim of it I found that I absolutely enjoyed it and feel that its definitely what I want to end up doing.
Unfortunately, vacation schemes are actually tougher to get than training contracts, with 1,000-plus people applying to the big City law firms for just a few places.
Here, probably more than when applying for a training contract, the academic record of a candidate is key, as some firms recruit for their vacation schemes purely from CVs.
If you can fight your way onto one run by a top City firm, a whirlwind of work, lectures from the different practice areas, trips and social events await you.
Work undertaken during vacation schemes should be as close to the work undertaken by trainees as possible, such as drafting letters, research, attending client meetings with your principal plus a bit of the dreaded photocopying.
Generally, the days at one firm will be fairly similar to the next, although there may be some differences from firm to firm that break the mould slightly and it is worth finding these out.
For example, most firms use a mini-seat rotation model for the three weeks, whereas Norton Rose prefers to place trainees in one department for the entire scheme. And because of the firms advanced moves into the solicitor-advocate field, there is a chance at some advocacy training.
US firm Weil Gotshal & Manges summer vacation scheme has only been running for the last five years, and because the firm recruits less trainees than its big City counterparts, it takes on just 12 people, who take the scheme in groups of four. Weil graduate recruitment manager Jillian Singh says: Theyre treated as a trainee and get real work. The general feedback from the students who do this vacs scheme is that they get a lot out of it.
Although the firm has organised a champagne limousine ride around London for the last two years, the focus is more on work. Some law firms put far too much emphasis on the drinks and social side and I think thats a shame, because theyre second-year law students who want the chance to make an informed choice about the firm, explains Singh.
Stoddart says that Macfarlanes has cut back on the trips in recent years to try to give a more realistic impression of what working in a City law firm is all about. We say to them, youll get the most benefit out of it if you do some real work. If you get the opportunity to go to a client meeting, do that instead of a trip. If it means finishing off a piece of work and getting to the pub 10 minutes late, you do it, he says. We want to make it fun, but I think that the students realise they want to get something tangible out of it.
Another way to make the vacation scheme work, says Stoddart, is not to do too many. If you go to a law firm for two weeks, getting up at 9.30am every day which for a student is tough enough plus all the evening social events, if you do four of these back-to-back, its going to be of no benefit to you, because youll be so tired and of no benefit to the firm youre going to because youll have lost your enthusiasm, he says.
Savory agrees. Students get hung up about doing four or five, but Id say its only necessary to do one or two, he insists.
Not only do vacation schemer crammers lose their enthusiasm,
but they start spreading it to their fellow schemers, causing a recruiters nightmare.
They dont bother going on trips and all they do is talk about being at other firms. Apathy is a bit infectious, as students all want to be cool and start acting blas?o fit in, says one aggrieved recruiter.
However, students like the idea of doing a number of vacation schemes and use them as a way to judge whether they want to work at a particular firm.
Bristol University law student Eliza Dunn says: I applied to a lot and got them all. I thought, well Ill just do one, but then I thought this is a real chance to learn something about the firms and it would be crazy to turn them down.
All the big firms have got the same facilities and they all do big work, adds Williams, but its the actual atmosphere and the people that you work with that is crucial. You can only get that from a vacation scheme, I think.
|Firm||No of places||For summer apply by|
|Clifford Chance||80||31 January|
|Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer||100||14 February|
|Allen & Overy||75||31 January|
|Slaughter and May||100||See website|
|Herbert Smith||115||31 January|
|Norton Rose||60||See website|
|Simmons & Simmons||30-40||February|
|Denton Wilde Sapte||40-50||27 February|
|CMS Cameron McKenna||65||See website|
|Addleshaw Goddard||75||11 February|
|Berwin Leighton Paisner||50||28 February|
|SJ Berwin||60||31 January|
|Clyde & Co||12||27 February|
|Source: Lawyer 2B|
|Behind the scenes at a vacation scheme|
Ashurst kindly let Lawyer 2B sneak a peak at its vacation scheme and talk to a few schemers.
The first day had a freshers’ week feeling, only the questions were not “What A-levels did you do?” or “What course are you on?”, but “What other schemes have you done?” and “What university are you at?” As this scheme was run later in the summer, many of the students knew each other from earlier summer placements at other firms and chatted animatedly over mini croissants.
Ashurst graduate recruitment partner David Carter ran the first part of the morning. Carter engaged the students by recounting a few self-deprecating stories, one of which involved falling asleep in his kitchen with nothing on but an oven glove. He also introduced the trainees who would be helping run events with the students and mentoring them.
With the ice-breaking out of the way, he then urged the students to ask themselves whether Ashurst was the place for them and whether they wanted to become lawyers at all. He asked students over the next three weeks to participate, ask questions, make constructive criticism and, crucially, to decide if the law is for them.
Then it was the turn of the students to take centre-stage, standing up one by one and revealing their most embarrassing moments. Most revolved around bad driving, random nakedness and drunkenness but in the main were understandably pretty tame.
After an operational talk from graduate recruitment manager Stephen Trowbridge, which covered nuts and bolts stuff such as seats, dress code, conduct and computer systems, a talk from a few trainees, the obligatory tour of the building and lunch, the students went off to start their three-week placements.
Lawyer 2B caught up with some of them afterwards to find out how it had gone.
The highlight of the vacation scheme for many of the students was a day trip to Brussels via the Eurostar to see the European Parliament and Ashurst’s office in the city.
Cambridge law student Chris Williams said: “I love politics, so the chance to go around the European Parliament was great for me.”
For Emily Gunn, though, who is studying law with European legal studies at King’s College, London, the chance to return to Brussels where she had studied for a year provided a great chance to “have some more Belgian beer”.
Bristol University law student Eliza Dunn questioned whether the trip to Brussels was a “valid expenditure of money”, saying it seemed “a bit flashy”. She added, though, that it was good fun and provided another medium through which to meet trainees and get a real picture of the firm.
The vacation schemers enthused about the social side and the friendliness of the firm. As well as the organised excursions, a trainee held an impromptu drinks party at his house to which a number of vacation schemers and trainees went along.
On the work side, Gunn hopes to become a competition lawyer “because of the European aspects”, and really enjoyed the time she spent in this department. “Sitting there in competition with the associates on the phone to Milan speaking Italian and knowing that there are all these things going on was great,” she enthuses.
Bristol law student Greg Kennaugh said his seats had allowed him to get a taste of the different environments within the firm. “The corporate one was very fast-moving and quite stressful, the real estate was more laid-back and litigation seemed a balance between the two,” he said.
Williams was pleased that he was given mundane stuff to do as well as the more dynamic tasks, as it would have been “an artificial experience” without them.
All the students were adamant that they had had a real taste of working in a City law firm, despite all the non-work-related activities.
“We’ve had suppers, drinks and talks half-way through the day, so anyone should be able to see that this three weeks is not going to be like it is when you’re working,” says Kennaugh. “It’s obviously been geared to be fun and enjoyable, but I think we’ve definitely seen the true side.”