Get ahead, get a decent vac scheme

Vacation schemes used to be such simple affairs. 

Students would go through a basic application process and, if successful, spend a fairly relaxed week or two getting to know the firm and shadowing its trainees – at work and down the pub. Hopefully they’d be of decent quality, and like enough of what they saw to put in a training contract application to the firm a year later.

Then some bright spark worked out that this was a rather haphazard way of recruiting the trainees of the future. A better method would be to make the vacation scheme incredibly tough to get on to in the first place and treat it as an extended job interview, offering training contracts at the end of it. That way, you instantly get higher calibre, more dedicated candidates on the scheme.

This may all seem rather obvious, but it took firms a surprisingly long time to catch on. For a number of years, you’d hear tales from students about two sorts of vac schemes: genially shambolic ones of the old school where the firm dumped you with the trainees and left you to it; and super-organised ones where you got “real work”, assessed exercises, presentations from partners, time in several departments and some classy wining and dining (though UK firms never went as far as US firms in the swag department – Mayer Brown’s New York summer associates once got customised Nike running shoes, while successful applicants to Perkins Coie had a tree planted in their honour).

Students naturally favoured the organised, assessed vac schemes. Though a few disorganised ones do remain at smaller outfits, most vac schemes are now pretty tightly run and firms are recruiting a higher proportion of their trainees from them. At the upper end, the likes of Nabarro and Skadden recruit almost all of their trainees from their programmes.

That’s still relatively unusual. Recruiting exclusively from vac schemes is impractical for firms with larger intakes, nor is it necessarily desirable.

”While vacation schemes are paid, for students from less advantaged backgrounds it is not always viable to give up a full time job, or spend time away from home,” Hogan Lovells’ assistant graduate recruitment manager Catherine Griffiths points out. “There is an opportunity for people to still secure a training contract, even if they have not had a vacation scheme with us.”

Nevertheless, the trend among firms is definitely to take a higher percentage of trainees from their vac schemers. Hogan Lovells, which took 21 per cent of its 2013 trainee intake and 24 per cent of its 2014 intake from vac schemes, is at the lower end of the scale and is looking to take more.

“Clearly we would like to recruit as many of our vacation scheme students as possible,” says Griffiths. The firm now runs vacaction placements in spring, winter and summer, as opposed to just a summer scheme three years ago.

The results have been tangible: 55 per cent of Hogan Lovells’ 2015 intake have done its vac scheme. Recruitment for 2016 is still ongoing, but so far 66 per cent of those accepted have completed work experience at the firm. 


With firms fighting harder for second and third-year undergrads on vac schemes, the battleground has shifted. Firms are turning their attention to first-year students. They’ve been largely overlooked until now; again, this may seem surprising, but until very recently first-years wandering round law fairs would be frustrated by the number of firms whose only message was ’have a free pen and come back next year’.

That’s changed. Simmons & Simmons and Hogan Lovells are among the firms running first-year-specific vac schemes this Easter. A dozen others run first-year open days with a variety of fancy names: Allen & Overy’s A&O First, LinklatersPathfinder scheme and Slaughter and May’s, er, First Year Open Day.

Shearman & Sterling’s Headstart is one such programme. Running for the first time in 2014, it offers 40 first-year undergrads a day at the firm. As well as an introduction to the profession and workshops on the application process, private equity and personal branding from the trainees and recruitment team, Shearman rolled out the big guns, with private equity partner Mark Soundy talking about the life of a partner, and other partners joining him for at the end-of-day networking drinks.

”Students really appreciate the partners taking the time to share their knowledge and experience at events,” says the firm. Wooing students is serious business. 

The next step? Sixth formers, obviously.

Once again, a handful of firms are pioneers here. Slaughters, for example, was among those in attendence at Lawyer 2B’s most recent Year 12 Careers Day, which saw students from 20 London state schools attend. But most haven’t yet cottoned on to the fact that, in today’s war for talent, their rivals have stolen a march.