Law firm vacation schemes: what you need to know

Law firm vacation scheme advice for your application, your assessment day and your first day in the office
Vacation schemes

Vacation schemes at law firms essentially function as internships, offering students the chance to spend part of their summer experiencing what it's like to work at a City law firm. As with most internships, a vacation scheme is an essential stepping stone on the path to obtaining a job, with many commercial law firms recruiting directly from their vacation scheme.

As a result it's vital you impress and stand out from the crowd at every stage of the process. To help you do this, we asked a group of trainee lawyers to share their vacation scheme experiences and the lessons the experience taught them.

5 things to know before applying

Research is important

Don't apply to any law firm without having familiarised yourself with their key practice areas and general history.

This information should inform aspects of your application and enable you to specify which practice area you'd like to go into on the scheme.

Keep things personal

While an application should always go through a few drafts before it's considered finished, it should never be polished to the extent your individuality disappears completely.

You're competing for a vacation scheme place against hundreds of identically-qualified graduates from similarly good universities so it's important your personality comes across on paper, particularly as law is a "people" business.

Clichés should be avoided

Hyperbole and clichés do not belong on a vacation scheme application. Don't, for example, claim law "has always interested you"; it's not true, the assessors know it's not true, and your application will be viewed in a negative light as a result.

Anyone who gushes in their application about how much they love law and that they have "always dreamed of working at [insert law firm name here]" has misjudged the tone of this industry.

Your degree subject isn't important

If you're not a law student, you might feel your application should address the "elephant in the room" and provide a justification for why you're not studying law.

Don't bother. The people who read your application understand not everyone will be a law student and won't expect your legal knowledge to be extensive. To keep things fair, the selection process is designed to focus on other aspects such as commercial awareness.

Expect a range of application methods

The varying culture of law firms means each has a slight difference in how their application process operates. If you're applying for several law firms be prepared to approach each application differently.

Don't get lazy and assume what's good for one firm will be okay for another. Also, be aware that most firms will require you to clear more than one hurdle before inviting you to interview, usually a combination of online tests and personal statement.

5 things to know before your interview

Each interview will have a different focus

Assessment days usually consist of a couple of interviews and in some cases a written test. In almost all cases, each interview will be focused on a different aspect of your application.

For example, one might focus on your personal statement and reasons for applying, while a second might test your commercial knowledge by asking you to analyse a recent news story from a legal perspective. You might even find your interview has no structure at all - on occasion partners have been known to just talk with candidates about whatever they feel like.

It shouldn't be intimidating

When everyone you know is also going for interviews, it often becomes a regular part of conversation to swap urban legends about nightmare interviews.

Ignore these and the stress that accompanies them. The interview process isn't designed to be stressful and intimidating, and it's worth remembering your interviewers are merely humans. Be relaxed and treat the interview as a conversation rather than an interrogation.

Know your interviewers

The internet is a wonderful thing, full of information on practically everything, including the people who will be sitting on the other side of the desk at your interview. Learning what your interviewers do and the areas of law they work in can be done by visiting the firm's website so there are no excuses for being ignorant.

Nothing will leave a negative impression quicker than claiming you have no interest in the area of law in which your interviewers practice.

Commercial awareness is crucial

Knowing where to start with commercial awareness can be tricky but a great first step (besides from reading The Gateway of course) is to look up any recent cases in which the firm has acted and to read around those subjects.

Not only will this show you've done more than simply read through the firm's website, but it should also give you a feel for the types of work they specialise in. Other worthwhile sources of information include The Lawyer, Legal Week, and the legal sections of the Times and the Guardian.

Don't panic and cram

Resist the temptation to read through every lecture note and textbook as preparation for your interview with the intention of becoming a "law savant" overnight.

Not only will this not work but it will distract you from focusing on the more essential things (see above).

5 things to know before your first day as an intern

Use your buddy

Some firms will assign you a trainee lawyer as a "buddy" to offer you support during the vacation scheme. Before your first day, they'll usually reach out to introduce themselves and answer any questions or concerns you might have about the weeks ahead.

Use them as a resource to find out information about what you can expect - after all, they were in your shoes not so very long ago!

Talk, talk, talk

On your first day, talk to as many people as possible. Not only will it help with your first-day butterflies, doing so will help create a positive first impression.

Supervisors are more likely to give work to people who come to work with a smile on their face and who wish them a good morning.

Be consistently brilliant

Everyone on a vacation scheme does their best to impress senior members of the firm, but people often forget they need to make an equally positive impression on everyone else at the firm too, even the secretaries who are often extremely well-regarded and highly influential.

When deciding whether to offer you a training contract, the firm will speak to everyone you've worked with so it's important to get on well with them all and not feel you can put less effort in when you think nobody important is looking.

It's not a competition

With only a certain number of training contracts available, it can be tempting to treat the vacation scheme as a competition between yourself and the other students.

However, doing so is an unappealing trait which will reflect poorly on you. Instead, make the effort to get on with the other vacation schemers - after all, they could be your future co-workers!

Nothing wrong with saying no

Vacation schemes allow you to trial an employer as much as it allows the employer to trial you. Should you feel the firm isn't for you, there's nothing wrong with deciding not to pursue a training contract there.

Thankfully, every law firm is different and your experience will stand you in good stead when it comes to applying for training contracts.