How to survive: summer vacation schemes

Vacation schemes have become one of the key recruitment tools for law firms, with some wannabe lawyers scrambling to fit in as many as they can. offers some tips on how to make the most of them.

With your exams out of the way and summer fast approaching, it will soon be time to stock up on sun screen, don your flip-flops and prepare for two months of relaxation.

But as law firm summer vacation schemes become an increasingly central part of the trainee recruitment process, more students are gearing up to experience their first taste of life in a law firm.

Essentially, a vacation scheme is paid work experience with a law firm. Schemes can run from two to four weeks, typically paying around 250 per week. However, some US firms, such as Weil Gotshal & Manges, pay a whopping 400 per week.

Nabarro trainee resources manager Jane Drew tells For us the summer vacation schemes are the main way of recruiting future trainees. We usually recruit around 90 per cent of our trainees from the schemes.

Drew says that last year, out of the firms 25 trainees, 21 were recruited directly from its summer vacation schemes.

Nabarro runs three rounds of three-week summer vacation schemes, which take place from mid-June to August every year. Candidates apply for a vacation scheme online, with successful applicants being invited to take part in a half-day assessment session involving activities and an interview.

Successful vacation scheme candidates spend three weeks in the same department, which Drew feels is more beneficial to candidates than having the students rotate between the firms various departments.

If candidates move around theyre just scratching the surface, she explains. By spending three weeks concentrated in one department students have the chance to get to grips with the work. After the scheme they all comment on how much they enjoyed both the work and the level of responsibility they were given.

The competition for places on law firm vacation schemes has become increasingly fierce, due partly to more candidates looking to experience life in the City before they commit to a career in the law, but also to an increasing number of candidates looking to do more than one vacation scheme over the summer.

However, this means that, while one candidate may have been successful in securing a handful of summer vacation schemes, another one may not. Candidates are therefore often left disheartened about the whole recruitment process and end up questioning whether they should apply to a firm for a training contract when they may have been unsuccessful in securing a summer vacation scheme at that particular firm.

I cannot stress strongly enough that they should still apply to us, says Graham White, trainee recruitment partner at Slaughter and May. Work experience can become a treadmill. Some candidates are still chasing for a placement while others do more than one, which soaks up capacity at the firms.

I try to emphasise that candidates shouldnt be put off from applying to us for a training contract just because they may not have secured work experience with us. It just reflects the scarcity of places.

I do think its a waste for students to do three or four vacation schemes with the same type of firm over the summer. Sometimes people become blank and bored and its quite refreshing to meet candidates who choose only to do one scheme, or even none, and who want to do other things with their holidays before they settle down and work.

White says that, in addition to running vacation schemes, Slaughters organises a number of open days for candidates who might not have been successful in securing places on the firms vacation schemes, but who are still interested in learning more about the firm.

Ashurst graduate recruitment manager Stephen Trowbridge explains that his firm also offers guided tours around the firms offices, which are conducted by one of the current trainees.

The competition for vacation schemes is there because some people do more than one scheme, says Trowbridge. We dont interview for placements, so wed strongly advise candidates who are still interested in us to apply, as we may have missed someone.

Drew at Nabarro has a different opinion and says that if someone has applied for a vacation placement at the firm and is not successful, then she advises against applying to Nabarro for a training contract.

Unless somethings changed on their application, its unlikely theyll be successful in applying for a training contract with us, because were looking for the same qualities that those successful vacation scheme candidates have, she says.

Linklaters graduate recruitment adviser Rebecca Aitken disagrees. Wed look at everybodys application again with fresh eyes, she stresses. They might have got better grades at university or have had more work experience than when they first applied. It wouldnt be fair if we didnt have another look at their applications.

Linklaters runs vacation schemes over the summer and Christmas periods. There are three separate summer schemes, which are for penultimate year law students. One summer scheme is two weeks in duration and the remaining two each last four weeks. The Christmas vacation scheme, which is run for final year non-law students, is run once, for two weeks only.

Aitken explains that, for the Christmas scheme, a candidate would sit in one department for both of the two weeks, whereas on the summer scheme candidates have the chance to spend two weeks in two different departments.
Successful applicants also attend a series of lectures throughout the schemes so that the candidates can understand and experience as many as possible of the firms other departments, adds Aitken.

During a vacation scheme, Aitken explains, participants would normally sit with young associates as they are closer in age and experience than partners, so are normally better to sit with, are able to give more useful work and are hopefully more approachable.

Trowbridge explains that, at Ashurst, vacation placement students can choose which departments they want to spend their time in.

We give them a list of departments and ask them to choose which department theyd prefer to sit in. We feel that its better to give people experience in something that theyre genuinely interested in, he says. If they pick cleverly, theyll choose to sit in both key departments, such as corporate or international finance, and a contrasting department, such as employment, incentives or pensions.

Graduate recruitment manager at Weil Jillian Singh says candidates on the firms scheme are also encouraged to choose which departments they would prefer to experience during their placements.

We try to accommodate their choices, she says. If they can, the candidates should spend time in corporate, because its the firms biggest department.

During the vacation placement, Singh says it is important to show keenness and enthusiasm.

A vacation placement is a fantastic experience and an insight into the legal profession, but its basically a two-week job interview, she says. Candidates should try to get involved in the different activities that the firm offers.

Ashursts Trowbridge agrees, saying: The main thing is to be proactive you really have to throw yourself into the scheme to get the most out of it.

If youre not busy enough, walk down the corridor, introduce yourself to other people in the department and see if someone else has something for you to
do. This will let you meet more people in the firm and youll also get a fuller week of work.

Nabarros Drew concurs. Its important to ask questions and not just sit back, she emphasises. Even if youre shy, use the summer scheme to push yourself forward. The corporate world can be quite a tough environment to work in, so you need the confidence to network with other people. Use the scheme and make the most of it.

If youre given a piece of work, give it your best shot. Even if youre asked to photocopy for a meeting, dont just sigh. Show enthusiasm for little things and people will take note of you and ask you to take part more.

White at Slaughters warns that, while its depressing when people are uninterested, participants should not overdo it by being obsequious or overanxious.

He explains that appropriate behaviour on a vacation scheme is all common sense. He adds: Some might think its a statement of the obvious, but little things count, such as dont use your mobile phone or iPod while sitting with your supervisor.

Singh at Weil agrees and says that it is important to be professional during the vacation scheme as participants are still in the recruitment phase. She adds that this applies to all forms of behaviour and communication, including emailing.

Dont put love from or end an email to a member of staff with kisses on it, she says. Youd be surprised by what weve seen.

Aitken at Linklaters says participants who offer to help, have good attention to detail and who ask informed questions would stand out for her.

She says she would also expect candidates who apply for vacation schemes and who take part in them to have done a lot of research into the firm. She adds: Theres so much online now, so wed expect vacation scheme participants to have some commercial awareness.

During the vacation scheme itself firms generally organise a number of social events so that vacation placement participants can get to know other members of the firm and have the chance to socialise with each other. Events might include lunches or dinners in a London restaurant, evening trips to the theatre or walking trips around London. Some firms look even further afield than the City.

In the summer we take everyone to the Brussels or Paris offices for the day. Its quite a jolly, but the rationale behind it is to show that were an international firm and not just London-centric. To see another office in action is useful, says Trowbridge of Ashursts summer vacation scheme.

Weils Singh, however, says she feels vacation scheme participants benefit from not doing too many socials, so that they have more energy to get involved in all the different activities that the firm offers.

The key to making the most out of vacation schemes is not to view them as a competition about who can secure the most vacation placements, but rather as an invaluable opportunity to experience the legal profession, office life and the working culture of law firms before committing ones foreseeable future to a career as a City solicitor.

So although given the choice between sipping cocktails by the pool or spending a few weeks in the City most of us would go for the former, a vacation scheme is nevertheless an essential part of securing that dream job.