How to make the most of your law vacation placement
A vacation placement (also known as a vacation scheme, but not an internship) is a test drive for a training contract, both for you and the firm, so it’s well worth putting in the effort, as it could lead directly to a graduate job as a trainee solicitor. Whatever the outcome, you’ll find your legal work experience helps you sell yourself in your graduate job applications.
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.
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, a dark suit and polished shoes should fit the bill. As Chris Brown, partner at Norton Rose Fulbright told TARGETjobs Law: 'Treat vacation schemes as a job interview. Work hard, show interest and enthusiasm.'
Research the law firm beforehand
A little knowledge goes a long way. If you’ve read up on the firm and have some intelligent questions ready you’ll be able to show you’re genuinely interested in its work. It’ll also help you connect with your new colleagues.
‘Our partners enjoy spending time with the students, talking to them in detail about the work and opportunities on offer at the firm,’ says Reynolds Porter Chamberlain HR officer Katherine Pirie. ‘They are always impressed with those students who arrive well prepared with questions as it often leads to lively and interesting discussions!’
Learning about the firm in advance can also help you overcome nerves and break down barriers. After all, everyone likes to talk about themselves, and asking questions about people’s work is a great conversation opener.
Network on your vacation placement
You can use your vacation placement 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. Do be careful not to drink too much, though.
Emma Cheshire, head of graduate recruitment at the London office of Covington & Burling, comments: ‘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, and this is what vacation schemes are all about.’
A placement also gives you the chance to practise working with groups of people you might not have come across before and explore how best to work with them. This is the kind of skill that could give you the edge at future interviews, for example when answering questions such as ‘Can you give an example of how you dealt with an unfamiliar situation?’ or ‘Tell us about when you worked with a difficult person’.
Natalie Zschokke, graduate recruitment manager at Jones Day, advises making sure that you talk to as many trainees, associates and partners as possible. Trainees are particularly well placed to give you the lowdown on training opportunities and culture within the firm. Natalie says, ‘Experiencing life in a law firm can be invaluable for answering that training contract killer question – ‘Why do you want to be a lawyer?’ Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially work-related ones.’
Get stuck in
Finding yourself in a law firm after student-style living can be something of a culture shock but enthusiasm can help you fit in and get on. It’ll also help you impress recruiters and other staff. ‘One of the most important things that you can do to stand out is to be enthusiastic and engaged,’ says Victoria Edwards, recruitment manager at Olswang. ‘Remember that while your one or two weeks is a great opportunity for you to get a good look at a firm, the firm will also be taking a good look at you.’
Prioritise your vacation placement workload
You need to come across as reliable and organised. Natalie Zschokke advises clarifying the urgency of tasks given to you by fee-earners. ‘Find out when the work is needed by 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.’
Be a legal professional
Ruth Edwards, the graduate recruitment manager with Norton Rose Fulbright, suggests that you use your initiative and ask members of the team for work if you're not very busy. 'Not only will it demonstrate enthusiasm and an understanding of the importance of fee-earning work, it will also give you the opportunity to get to know everyone,' she says. Beware of personal tasks infringing on work time, such as personal phone calls, personal e-mails, cigarette breaks and long lunches.
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. 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 a record of your legal work experience
With so much packed into a short vacation placement it can be difficult to remember everything. Consider keeping a diary or some notes if certain aspects of your time with a firm grab your attention. That way, if you decide to apply for a training contract with the firm you’ll have some ready information for your application form and interview.
Remember that firms make offers on the back of vacation scheme performance
How you perform on your vac scheme is likely to affect your chances of securing a training contract with that firm, as 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. There is no formal assessment process throughout the placement itself, but there is a partner interview at the end. It’s important to impress throughout the scheme: it’s about showing enthusiasm, being diligent, having attention to detail and building relationships with the teams in which you are placed. Getting a legal work placement doesn’t guarantee you a training contract, but it does mean you’re in a positive position.'