Vacation schemes and work experience

Why and when to apply for vacation schemes in law firms

24 Mar 2023, 17:46

It is possible to get a training contract without experiencing a vacation scheme first but a vac placement is one of the easiest ways to show your commitment to law and that you've done your research before applying.

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While legal work experience is imperative in determining that law is for you, life skills gained in non-legal jobs, positions of responsibility or volunteer work are equally fundamental.

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 somewhere in the region of £250–£450 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.

‘A vacation scheme is a valuable insight into the day-to-day life of a trainee solicitor. Undertaking a vac scheme should give you a real idea of what a training contract could be like at a particular firm and therefore confirm whether or not that firm is the one for you and, in fact, whether a career as a solicitor is for you,’ says Lara Machnicki, graduate recruitment manager at Dechert. ‘ Undertaking a training contract with any firm is an important decision to make, and a two-week vacation scheme will give you a much clearer idea of what you’re getting into, compared with a one hour interview or short assessment day.’

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. 'Vac schemes are a fantastic way for law firms to recruit future trainees,' explains the interim head of graduate recruitment and graduate development at CMS UK. 'Over the course of the vacation scheme, law firms really get to know the students, test their ability and potential, and gain an understanding of how they might fit into 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. They show the potential to be business advisers as well as lawyers. Firms like candidates to show that they can take the initiative, be personable and demonstrate that they are driven and motivated.

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.

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 law vacation scheme

  • Research which firms offer vacation placements. Check out the firms' organisation hubs on targetjobs 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 late October and mid-November. If eligible, research those deadlines and submit applications.
  • 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 winter break and spring term to help get you a law 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 still 31 January, although many law firms now want to hear from you earlier. If you miss the December and Janaury deadlines, a few firms accept applications in February and March. See our list of vacation scheme deadlines article listed below.
  • 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 and then list them on your CV. These events are an excellent chance to network with recruiters and glean their best advice.
  • Look at building up your work experience portfolio. Law recruiters are always keen to stress to us 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 law 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 law 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, the commercial business world or in a part-time job. Graduate recruiters appreciate that some students have to work to support themselves through university and any experience that demonstrates commercial knowledge is interesting to them. 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.

Thinking about the skills you’ve gained throughout your time at university so far and matching them to those that recruiters look for will help you market yourself and build your work experience portfolio. ‘I interview lots of potential trainees. I am impressed by those with a range of experience, legal and non-legal,’ explains Lora Froud, partner at Macfarlanes LLP. ‘While legal work experience is imperative in determining that law is for you, I am a passionate believer that the life skills gained in non-legal jobs, positions of responsibility or volunteer work are equally fundamental. These roles give you direct experience of dealing with and managing people, often in stressful situations. You can be the best technical lawyer but if you cannot effectively and empathetically communicate with clients and colleagues while under pressure, building a successful practice will be challenging.’

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