How to make the most of a vacation scheme and turn it into a training contract
If you are interested in pursuing a career in law, you have probably heard of a vacation scheme. But what exactly is it, why is it so important, and what can you do to succeed on one?
What is a vacation scheme?
In the UK, a vacation scheme is a structured work experience programme offered by law firms to students in their penultimate or final year of study. It is a great way to get your foot in the door, especially as many firms solely recruit from their vacation schemes, and they typically last for one or two weeks, entailing a mix of training sessions, workshops, and hands-on work. During the scheme, participants have the opportunity to work on real deals/transactions, attend client meetings and network with lawyers and other professionals within the firm, to learn about different practice areas. Completing a vacation scheme is therefore an excellent opportunity to gain insight into what being a trainee at a law firm is actually like, but also to showcase your abilities to a potential employer. It can be a challenging and competitive experience, but with the right approach and attitude, you can succeed and impress!
How to make the most of your vacation scheme
Below are some tips to help you make the most of your vacation scheme:
1. Be prepared for the tasks you will be given and manage your time effectively.
Typical tasks you will be given on a vacation scheme can include legal research, preparing legal notes and drafting documents. It is important to be prepared to tackle these tasks to the best of your ability. Be proactive, make sure you are familiar with the law firms practice areas as this will help you understand the context of the work you’ll be doing and allow you to demonstrate your knowledge during your time at the firm.
In terms of the tasks, it is also incredibly important to clearly understand what is expected of you given you are likely to be assessed on anything you submit. When being set tasks, ask clarificatory questions and take notes, repeating back any instructions at the end, ensure you confirm the deadline, and most importantly, do not take on too much work if you feel as though you will not have the capacity to get it back to whoever set it on time. Say for instance, your trainee buddy or supervisor asks you to prepare a legal note on an area of law relevant to a transaction, I would suggest asking what format they wanted it to be in (they may have a particular house-style), whether they want a list of source references included, and what length it needs to be. When approaching tasks like this, practical law is a great source and often used by lawyers on a daily basis.
Whenever I submitted work on my vacation scheme, I tried to ensure that it was presented in a clean and easy to read manner, and I also included a summary at the top every time. One thing that should be stressed is also proofreading! You can submit an excellent piece of work, but if it is scattered with spelling and grammatical mistakes, the quality of the work is redundant. So ensure you at the very least run a spell-check before emailing it off.
To keep on top of work, it is helpful to keep a diary for any deadlines and a daily to do list. However, if you feel as though a task is taking longer than anticipated or you get stuck, give it a good go first, but be honest and go back to your supervisor or trainee buddy for advice as to how to manage your tasks or how to approach it – communication is key, and you need to strike a balance between taking initiative and not being spoon-fed.
In turn, if you find yourself with no work to do, be proactive! Pop into offices and seek out work. If your department is quiet, there is no harm is offering yourself up to other departments you are interested in. But as mentioned above, time management is important, do not overload yourself as it may jeopardise the quality of the work you deliver overall.
In saying this though, the social component of the vacation scheme is important too. Don’t disregard the socials as a waste of time as they provide a great opportunity to get to know people currently at the firm and graduate recruitment in a casual environment, but also meet your fellow vac-schemers and potential future co-workers! At the end of the day, the firm wants trainees who want to get involved in all aspects of the firm, and you should want to see if life at the firm is for you, so take every opportunity presented to you!
2. Reach out to lawyers within the firm and network and ask the right questions.
Vacation schemes present an invaluable opportunity to meet lawyers and find out about a firm, the work they do, and their cultures; this can help you decide if a career in law at that specific firm is for you.
If, for instance, you have a workshop or a talk with an associate or a partner about their practice area, and it is something particularly interesting to you, there is no harm in reaching out and asking to set up a quick call or to grab coffee. Ensure that you prepare questions prior to meeting them, but don’t treat it like an interview, take an active interest in that person, their journey into the law and their work and you should be able to get more focused answers. Equally, if you are sitting in one seat, but interested in a different practise area, there is no harm in reaching out to trainees or associates sitting in those practices! They may even offer you some work so you can get a taste for it.
At the end of the day, whilst you are being assessed on the vacation scheme to see if you would be the right candidate for a training contract, it is very much a two-way process. The firm needs to be a good fit for you too. Therefore, make the most of your time by asking questions that will help you gain a better understanding of the firm and its practices. Some questions I definitely asked, and you could ask include:
What is the firm’s approach to training and development?
Is there the scope for trainees to get involved with pro bono initiatives and internal committees?
What advice would you give to someone starting their career in law?
If they trained at the firm, what has kept them here?
How does the firm approach diversity and inclusion?
Are their opportunities for international secondments?
Ask about interesting transactions they have worked on.
3. Do well at the exit interview and internal assessment.
It is important to note that the whole vacation scheme, from start to finish, is technically an assessment – therefore treat it like a one weeklong interview. Nevertheless, most vacation schemes also involve some kind of formal assessment, be it a group presentation, pitch or a negotiation and a final exit interview.
For the group assessment, collaboration is key. Allocate tasks and be inclusive – don’t look at the assessment as though it’s a competition for a training contract, just treat it as a task in which you are working collectively towards a goal. When preparing for it, ensure everyone is engaging and puts forward their perspective. If it is negotiation, ensure you take a commercial approach – understand the typical things a client may demand to make the transaction more attractive to them and vice versa and use this when rationalising your decisions.
For the exit interview, when I completed my vacation scheme during second year, I kept a log from day one. I wrote down everything I did i.e. what the tasks involved, who was the client, what technical aspects of law did I learn about? Similarly, if I had arranged chats with lawyers, I noted down what I took from those conversations, as I wanted to be able to draw on them in the final exit interview in terms of what I have learnt and why I wanted to train at the firm. Doing this allows you to be reflective, which comes across extremely well in an interview.
4. Be authentic.
Whilst this may sound like cliché advice, graduate recruitment are not looking for legal robots, they are looking for potential trainees who are bright, but also authentic. It is extremely evident when someone is trying too hard, so just treat it as a learning experience, and try to relax and enjoy the experience!
A vacation scheme is an excellent opportunity to gain valuable experience and insight into the legal industry. Even if you don’t manage to secure a training contract offer, it is a great way to improve your employability, and you will be able to demonstrate practical experience, skills, and a genuine interest in the profession to potential employers. By taking the time to prepare, ask questions and seek feedback, you will be well on your way to succeeding and securing a training contract offer. Good luck!