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Impressing law firms on a vacation scheme

Make the most of your law vacation scheme: ten top tips for placement success

A vacation scheme is essential preparation for a solicitor's training contract and making a good impression could lead directly to a graduate job in law. Here’s ten top tips on how you could turn your vac scheme into a training contract.
Be professional – sell yourself and be yourself.

Ten vac scheme tips: 1. Be yourself | 2. Do research | 3. Follow the news | 4. Play the part | 5. Network | 6. Build your skills | 7. Have fun | 8. Reflect and learn | 9. Follow up | 10. Apply for training contracts

Vacation schemes (also known as vacation placements or vac schemes) are your opportunity to ‘test drive’ law firms in preparation for training contract applications. They are a crucial step on the road towards a graduate job as a trainee solicitor, so it’s well worth putting in the effort to make sure you stand out and impress the law firms.

Many law firms use their vacation schemes as opportunities to find graduate trainees – how you perform on your vac scheme will likely affect your chances of securing a training contract with the firm. Helen Cannon, graduate manager at Irwin Mitchell, explains: 'Over the last few years, the majority of our training contract offers have gone to people who have undertaken a placement with us. It’s a chance for them to get to know us, for candidates to showcase their skills in a practical environment and for us to see whether they would be a good fit for our firm.’ She adds that, ‘Getting a legal work placement doesn’t guarantee you a training contract, but it does mean you’re in a positive position.'

Here are some top tips for what you should be doing before, during and after your vacation scheme to ensure you make the best use of this experience and give yourself the best chance of securing a training contract off the back of it.

BEFORE YOUR VACATION SCHEME…

1. Congratulate yourself for getting this far

Places on vacation schemes are competitive; if you’ve managed to secure one, you’ve already proved that you’re the type of student that law firms are looking for. Keep this in mind during your placement. While you want to make a good impression, you should also be yourself. After all, law firms are looking to see that you’ll fit in and enjoy working at their firm.

2. Do your research

Read up on the structure of the firm, its specialisms and recent deals that it has been involved in. If you know where you’ll be based during your placement, look into that specific department and who you’ll be working with.

Have some intelligent questions ready to show that you’re genuinely interested in the firm’s work. You could even prepare questions for specific people if you happen to think a partner or associate’s record of cases is particularly appealing or if their professional/LinkedIn profile catches your eye during your research. Learning about the firm in advance can also help you overcome nerves, break down barriers and connect with your new colleagues. After all, everyone likes to talk about themselves, and asking questions about people’s work is a great conversation starter. 'Don’t feel like you have to go crazy to get noticed at open days or vacation schemes – just be yourself, ask questions and absorb as much as you can,' advises Ben Wilkinson, a partner at White & Case LLP.

3. Stay up to date with the news

Rather than just finding news online or through social media, it’s well worth your time to start reading a newspaper – as this is what your colleagues at law firms will be doing. However, don’t feel under pressure to know everything; reading the Financial Times from cover-to-cover will just take up time and you likely won’t retain everything. Instead, pick out a handful of stories relevant to the work of the firm and follow how these stories develop over the course of your placement.

DURING YOUR VACATION SCHEME…

4. Play the part of a lawyer

You want to show firms that you’re ready to be a lawyer, so you need to act the part of a ready-made lawyer. This isn’t just about whether you’re dressed appropriately or not (though that is a factor), it’s also a question of having the right attitude.

Look like a lawyer

Presentation is important, so make sure you look smart. Some firms operate ‘dress down’ policies, so do check on the dress code, but if in doubt, err on the side of caution: a dark suit and polished shoes should fit the bill. Choose an outfit that is formal, but that you’re also comfortable in. It’s probably not worth it to splash out on designer labels, unless, maybe, you’re going to be working in fashion law.

Be enthusiastic about the work

Don’t expect to only be making cups of tea and coffee, students are considered an integral part of the team from the outset and will have a similar workload to that of trainees. Work can range from undertaking legal research and attending presentations and seminars to organised social events.

Finding yourself in a law firm after student-style living can be something of a culture shock but enthusiasm can help you fit in, get on and impress recruiters and other staff. Say ‘yes’ to tasks that come your way, ask for help if you need it and be receptive to feedback. Lora Froud, a partner at Macfarlanes LLP, told us: ‘Vac scheme students should get out of their comfort zone, seek constructive criticism (and take it graciously when it feels unconstructive!) and learn from it. This attitude gives you access to the best supervisor and work, and makes a lasting positive impression.’

You also need to maintain your enthusiasm for the work across the weeks of your placement and, if you’ve been able to secure more than one, across each vac scheme. 'Be enthusiastic and interested,' continues Ben Wilkinson. ‘The right attitude will get you noticed. It’s arguably the most important factor in determining how you’re perceived by those who are potentially recruiting or supervising you.’

Embrace everything on the vacation scheme

'Be willing to embrace everything the firm offers while you’re on your vacation scheme. Make sure you’ve got nothing planned for the evenings during the two weeks, just in case there’s an event planned or impromptu drinks at the local pub,' advises Ross Buckingham, who undertook a vacation scheme at Mills & Reeve.

The social side of a vac scheme can also be used as an informal barometer of whether you’d fit in with a firm’s culture. Going along to these social events are another valuable opportunity to bond with current trainees and others on your vac scheme. It’s always good to make an impression on your potential future colleagues – so make the effort to go along and join in.

5. Network, network, network!

You can use your vacation scheme to build contacts as well as legal knowledge – after all, relationship management is an essential part of being a solicitor. Social events, lunches and dinners are a great opportunity to network and quiz colleagues. The head of graduate recruitment at the London office of Covington & Burling, told TARGETjobs Law: ‘Use your time with the firm to network and build relationships. Not only will it impress your peers but it will also provide you with an invaluable insight into the firm's culture. This is what vacation schemes are all about.’

Don’t just talk to the people you’re directly working with either. If you’re interested in the work of another department, seek out opportunities to talk to the professionals that work there. You may even be able to speak to partners and other senior lawyers. ‘Our partners enjoy spending time with the students, talking to them in detail about the work and suggesting opportunities on offer at the firm,’ explains Katherine Pirie, legal resourcing manager at RPC. ‘They are always impressed with those students who arrive well prepared with questions as it often leads to lively and interesting discussions.’ It’s also crucial that you’re getting on well with paralegals, legal secretaries and receptionists, after all, you could be working with these people every day – and they can give you their insights into the firm’s culture.

6. Demonstrate the skills needed in law

Aim to come across as reliable and organised and don't be afraid to clarify the urgency of tasks given to you. Find out when the work is needed and meet that deadline. Always remember to take along a pen and paper to meetings. And be aware that certain tasks may require coming in early or staying late. Chris Brown, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, advises: ‘treat vacation schemes as a job interview. Work hard, show interest and be enthusiastic.’

If you are lucky enough to go to a client meeting, remember you are there to observe and wait until after the meeting before offering up your thoughts or questions. Let those around you know when you are going to client meetings or will be out of the office. It’s important that your supervisors know exactly what you’re working on at any given time.

Keep track and make notes

With so much packed into a short vacation scheme it can be difficult to remember everything. Consider keeping a diary or some notes to detail what tasks you were involved in, what skills you developed and who you worked with. That way, when you apply for a training contract you’ll have this information on-hand for applications and interviews.

7. Remember to have fun!

When you’re focusing on making a good impression, learning about the law and developing your skills, it can be easy to forget to enjoy yourself. After all, placements are an opportunity for aspiring solicitors to get a taste of what working at a law firm will be like – if you don’t enjoy the two- or three-week placement, it’s unlikely you’ll feel differently about a full-time career as a solicitor.

AFTER YOUR VACATION SCHEME…

8. Reflect on your placement

After your vacation scheme is over, take a couple of hours while it’s still fresh in your mind to reflect on the past few weeks. What aspects did you particularly enjoy or dislike? Did you find the work interesting? Could you see yourself working at that particular law firm in the long term? Thinking about these factors will help you decide which firms you want to apply to for training contracts.

Consider doing more than one vac scheme

You may decide that you would like more work experience, whether to bolster your skills further, experience the culture at a different firm or to explore a specialism that you were unable to during your vacation scheme. Firms may be expecting that aspiring solicitors to have completed more than one vac scheme before making a decision about training contracts.

If you’ve not got another vac scheme lined up, don’t panic! Some firms will accept vac scheme applications from final-year law students, but make sure to read each individual firm’s requirements carefully to check whether this is the case. You could alternatively apply speculatively for ‘ad hoc’ experience with smaller law firms that do not run formal schemes.

9. Follow up with people you worked with

Sending a quick ‘thank you’ email to your supervisor and the people you worked with during your placement is not only a nice thing to do, it will leave a positive impression that might improve your chances of being invited back for a training contract. After all, law firms want people who are nice to work with. If you feel it’s appropriate, you could even connect with people on LinkedIn to keep in touch with them on a longer-term basis.

10. Start looking for training contracts

Even if you’re not invited to interview for training contracts directly off the back of your vac scheme, that doesn’t mean you’ve wasted a couple of weeks. Vacation schemes are extremely valuable pieces of experience and by completing one, you’ve placed yourself in a more competitive position when it comes to training contract applications. Spend some time updating your CV with the experience you gained over the course of your placement, look back on the notes you’ve made to help you and refer to the tasks you carried out during interviews.

You may also be able to get a foot in the door with law firms in a different way, such as through a paralegal position. Contacts you made through your placement may be able to direct you to any paralegal vacancies that arise at their law firm.

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