Why and when to apply for vacation schemes in law firms

Find out how a vacation placement can help you get a training contract and use our term-by-term planner to apply at the right time.
You can use any experience as a means of justifying why you do or do not want to work for a particular sort of firm.

Law firms rely on summer, winter and spring vacation schemes as part of the wider recruitment process for training contracts. Otherwise known as vacation placements (it's worth noting that the law sector doesn't tend to refer to them as internships), they are formal periods of work experience within a law firm lasting between one and three weeks – with the added bonus of a pay cheque of up to £300 per week. Most firms offer vacation placements to second-year law students and final-year non-law students, but there are some exceptions to this – insight days for first-year law students have become a popular offering by big commercial law firms over the last three or four years.

How your legal vacation placement will help you get a job

Recruiters are interested in a training contract applicant's motivation for a legal career. Completing a vac scheme or two will help you show that motivation on your CV and some consistency in your career planning. Crucially, firms often interview vacation scheme students for training contract positions towards the end of their placement with the firm. ‘A lot of our vacation scheme students will go on to the training contract assessment centre: we recruit around 50% of our future trainees from the summer vacation scheme,’ says Samantha Hope, graduate recruitment manager at Shoosmiths. ‘I think students often look at vacation schemes as work experience where they can find out a bit about law and do something that looks good on their CV, but that’s not the way we view it. We see it as though they’re coming in for a long interview. We show-off the firm and they should be out to impress us. Once we see students in a working environment it’s much easier to see how they would interact as a trainee.’

So, impress on your vac scheme and your chances of securing a training contract are greatly increased. 'Vacation schemers who go on to get a training contract offer have shown enthusiasm and interest in the work at every opportunity during their time at the firm – they are able to gauge a situation well and actively seek out work,' says Jane Croft-Baker, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance. 'They show the potential to be business advisers as well as lawyers. We would like them to show that they can take the initiative, be personable and show that they are driven and motivated.'

Shoosmiths isn't the only firm to recruit trainee solicitors from its vacation scheme intake. 'Those candidates who have shown promise on the vac scheme are fast-tracked to the assessment centre – in 2012 for instance, 20 out of 24 vac schemers went through to the training contract assessment day,' explains the recruitment officer at Shearman & Sterling. 'Promising vacation placement students enjoy getting involved with different people and different types of work – they are interested and engaged for the whole two weeks.'

Even if you don’t get offered a training contract with the firm, the experience you take away is an invaluable chance to gain an insight into the profession and demonstrate to other firms your commitment to a career in law. Vac schemes are highly regarded by recruiters, so never think of it as a wasted experience. ‘You can never have too much work experience,’ suggests Joanna Black, legal recruitment advisor at Ince & Co. ‘Legal work placements are great to have on your CV and even if they have nothing to do with our practice areas, they still show you’re committed to a legal career and that you’ve thought about your future. You can use any experience as a means of justifying why you do or do not want to work for a particular sort of firm.'

When to apply for a law vacation placement: our term-by-term planner

You'll notice that 31 January is the most popular deadline used by law firms for summer scheme applications so using the autumn term to get organised is important.

Things to do in the autumn term to help get you a vacation scheme

  • Research which firms offer vacation placements. Check out our employer hubs for information on firm’s requirements and application procedures.
  • Some firms offer winter vacation placements (usually to finalists or graduates) and these have application deadlines, varying from firm to firm, between 31 October and mid-November. If eligible, research those deadlines and submit applicaitions. 
  • Attend careers service events about the legal profession, including workshops on campus by law firm representatives.
  • Draft a CV and get it checked by a careers adviser. Make reference to any legal experience or skills transferable to a legal environment.
  • Attend law fairs (September to February) on campus to talk with recruiters and current trainees about their firms and your career aspirations.
  • Get involved in university clubs and societies. Recruiters will look for positions of responsibility, interests and activities in your application as evidence of an ability to juggle priorities and a rounded personality. They want to recruit future trainee solicitors who have something to talk about with clients rather than simply a legal brain.

Things to do during the Christmas break and spring term to help get you a vacation scheme

  • Apply for summer vacation placements – and apply early as many firms offer places on vacation schemes before their deadline has closed. The most popular closing date is 31 January (apart from a few magic circle firms, who want to hear from you by 15 January). If you miss that, a few firms accept applications in February and March.
  • Investigate the possibility of attending open days – they are another opportunity to show your commitment to law. Don’t write them off as a poor relation to vacations schemes: they’re not.
  • Sign up to recruiter events on campus, such as the TARGETjobs Law How to Get Hired events in January, February and March. These events are an excellent chance to network with recruiters and glean their best advice.
  • Look at building up your work experience portfolio. When we meet law recruiters at events such as the annual TARGETjobs Law Recruiters’ Forum, they are always keen to stress how part-time work in retail or bar work can help you to prove you have the skills to be a lawyer – make the most of it on your CV.

Things to do in the summer term to help get you a vacation scheme

  • Apply for vacation placements with smaller firms.
  • Knuckle down and work hard for your exams. Recruiters will also look closely at your academic achievements – they want to see consistently high exam results at A level and evidence that you’re on course for a good 2.1. It’s difficult to secure a training contract without a strong academic record.

Things to do in the summer break to help get you a vacation scheme

  • Vacation placement time! If you haven’t had any luck in securing one, try a less formal placement at your local, high-street solicitor’s firm or start enquiring about Christmas placements at the big commercial firms.

Other work experience or extra curricular activities that impress on a law CV

It's worth keeping in perspective that vacation schemes are useful but aren't the be-all and end-all to launching your law career. Relevant work experience will strengthen your hand, whether in the legal sector or in the commercial business world. ‘I’m keen for students to know that, while vacation schemes are important, they are not all we look for in training contract applications,’ emphasises Jane Croft-Baker, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance. ‘Graduate recruiters appreciate that some students have to work to support themselves through university and any experience that demonstrates commercial knowledge is interesting to us. Law recruiters put a lot of time and effort into vacation schemes but there are a myriad of ways to prove you have the right transferable skills to be a solicitor, such as your part-time job at university.’