How to survive… vacation schemes

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

With competition for training contracts still as intensive as ever, it’s very important to spend every summer holiday constructively.

If you’re in your penultimate year at university then you should be gearing up to take a place on a vacation scheme. And if you think that such placements are just about boozing and pulling your trainee mentor, you’d better think again. A growing number of trainees are now recruited straight out of vacation schemes so mess up and you might miss out on that elusive training contract offer.

What is a vacation scheme?

A vacation scheme is legal speak for paid work experience with a law firm. Schemes run from two to four weeks and typically pay upwards of £250 per week. Indeed, at some US firms you could pocket a whopping £400 per week.

Some law firms also offer placements during the Easter and Christmas breaks, although some of these may only be open to non-law students.

Although it’s helpful to undertake more than one placement we would strongly advise against spending your entire summer doing schemes. The key point is to see a range of firms, magic circle, large regional and high street in order to feel you can make a properly informed choice when you eventually apply for a training contract.

The selection process

Try and tear yourself away from your smartphone during your vac scheme

For most firms the selection process for a vacation scheme is just as rigorous as for a training contract. Some will require candidates to complete an application form, an online verbal reasoning test, written exercise and a competency-based interview. That said, many firms also offer places based on an online application alone.

If you do not manage to secure a vacation placement the key is not to feel too disheartened. Although some firms discourage students who have not won a place on their vacation schemes from applying for a training contract, plenty do allow you to reapply. That’s because competition for a place on a vacation is perhaps more fierce because unlike with a training contract many candidates will accept places on more than one scheme.

What to expect

As illustrated by this cheesy stock photo, don’t watch the clock. Rushing out the door on the stroke of 5pm won’t impress

The structure of vacation schemes varies from firm to firm but essentially you will share an office with a junior associate or trainee. 
Although some firms will give you some choice over which department you sit in they may not be able to accommodate everyone’s wishes, so try to be flexible.

Given the complexity of the work handled by commercial law firms and the amount of time you will get to spend in a department it is unlikely that you will get a significant amount of ‘real work’.Typical tasks may include legal research, note-taking at a client meeting, proof-reading or even photocopying.

Firms will supplement this with seminars designed to give you a better insight into the type of work they handle, along with skills workshops to help with your training contract applications.

As is the case with all other work experience, the type of work you handle and the level of responsibility you are given will depend on your willingness to learn and the quality of your output. If you tackle every task, even the more mundane ones, with enthusiasm and to the best of your ability, then you are more likely to be trusted with the more interesting and challenging jobs. And don’t forget that lawyers are obsessed with attention to detail, so check your work carefully before handing it in to your supervisor. A draft letter or agreement containing spelling mistakes will create the wrong impression and could even put your supervisor off from giving you more work. The key is to inspire confidence.

Another top tip is to ensure you carry a pen and notepad with you at all times, and if you do not understand an instruction come clean and ask your supervisor to go through it again. Also, listen and watch to see how the qualified lawyers handle telephone calls and interact with clients and colleagues.

If you do find yourself without enough work then it’s important to tell your mentor or someone else in your department or the graduate recruitment team. You could always ask to read through old files and see if there are any mock tasks you could do such as draft a standard letter. Under no circumstances spend the day on any social networking sites or sending personal emails.

Not all work

It’s common knowledge that vacation schemes are not just about work. Firms generally organise social events so that participants can get to know members of the firm in a less formal environment. Events might include lunches or dinners in top restaurants, trips to the theatre or walking trips. The recession may result in some of these activities being curbed – if that’s the case then demonstrate some tact and do not make inappropriate remarks about the quality of the food, wine or venue.

The social side of vacation schemes can be very enjoyable, but where alcohol is concerned you should exercise some restraint, especially if food is not being served. Throwing up at the end of the evening or making a move on a member of the graduate recruitment team will create completely the wrong impression.

That said, try to relax and do not talk shop all evening. And remember, if you do decide to appoint yourself as the social secretary, get the entire group involved and do not deliberately leave people out. You will only end up being unpopular in the long-run.

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

Top tips on surviving a vacation scheme

  • Tackle every task, however mundane, with enthusiasm and to the best of your ability.
  • Get involved in the office as well as the social events.
  • Don’t act smug – no one is ever impressed with the student who boasts about how many other vacation placements they’ve secured.
  • Ask lots of questions and show a willingness to learn.
  • Be yourself.
  • Be proactive – if you don’t have enough to do then tell someone.
  • Be respectful to your fellow schemers and don’t brag about the number of placements you are planning to do over the summer.
  • Always carry a pen and notepad.
  • If you don’t understand instructions ask your supervisor to go through them again.
  • Be punctual and do not go in with a hangover.
  • Don’t race out of the door at 5.30pm every day.
  • Dress appropriately – stick to business attire during the day, while on a night out avoid wearing something that’s too revealing.
  • Although vacation schemes are essentially a two-week interview you’re not on The Apprentice so don’t be overly competitive.
  • Watch your behaviour on social outings – don’t get too drunk and definitely avoid pulling your fellow schemers, members of the graduate recruitment team or trainees.
  • Do not assume that people in HR (or any other support service) are stupid.
  • Do not make carping remarks about the ‘quality’ of the food, venue or wine you’re being treated to.
  • Don’t send personal emails or make too many personal phonecalls and avoid Facebook or any other social networking site.
  • Don’t use your mobile phone or iPod while sitting with your supervisor.
  • Don’t end your email with ‘love and kisses’ – sign off using ‘kind regards’ and always ­remember to say thank you. And if you are forwarding an email then make sure it doesn’t include anything inappropriate.
  • Remember to mention Lawyer 2B because that’s where you got all these top tips from.
  • Buy some chocolates/biscuits for the team on your last day and remember to thank everyone for having you and for their help (although don’t overdo it – nobody likes a brown noser).

Turning a vacation scheme into a training contract


I haven’t managed to secure a single vacation scheme despite making loads of applications. How else can I spend my summer holiday?

If you haven’t got a vacation placement over the summer, don’t panic. There are plenty of other ways of gaining relevant work experience.

  • Attend a law firm open day without delay – most firms simply require you to send a CV and covering letter and some hold open days specifically for first-year students (check websites for details).
  • Secure some work experience at a smaller firm – unlike large commercial firms that operate strict timetables most will accept ad hoc applications.
  • Get involved in pro bono or community-related work. An increasing number of undergraduate law schools now run pro bono clinics and if yours doesn’t then why not earn extra Brownie points by setting one up.
  • Remember that work experience outside the legal sector can be just as valuable.
  • Visit the courts – most have public galleries – and remember there’s no harm in furthering your hobbies and interests.