Training contracts have always been competitive to attain. But places on vacation schemes are arguably more competitive to secure.
This is because some students are able to accept more than one offer, and many undertake at least two or three schemes during the course of a summer, so a single student can take up multiple vacation scheme places during the summer. In comparison, a student can only take up one training contract.
While the best advice a recruiter can give is to ‘get your applications sent off in good time’, the fact remains that many people will simply not be able to obtain a place on a summer scheme due to the increased competition.
In addition, for many, it is simply not viable to have the luxury of spending nine weeks in London doing the rounds of law firms and paying expensive London rents and associated travel and living costs.
While the top firms provide weekly expenses, for some people – particularly those whose families are on low incomes, who are carers or for whom not working full time during the summer is not an option – the prospect of an expensive period away from home doing work experience could be daunting or simply not achievable.
There is no doubt that those attending a formal vacation scheme during the summer have an incredible opportunity, not only to show what they are capable of, but to assess the work different firms undertake and where they feel they would best fit.
The reality for law firms however, is that if a student is doing three schemes the firm has a one in three chance of recruiting that student, meaning that they are often unable to fill 100 per cent of their trainee intake with vacation students.
Because of this, many firms will offer assessment days in August to people who have not completed a scheme with them. It cannot be denied, however, that there will only be a small number of places on offer. So what can people do?
Open days could be the answer for many students. These allow greater flexibility for those who have less time available during the summer, but who can make time for a day or two away from work, or the people they care for. Expenses are generally paid for those attending the open days and the law firms they visit get a good feel for participants who show potential. Students also gain useful insights and have the opportunity to network and make helpful contacts.
In most organisations there is also increased understanding about the challenges students from less privileged backgrounds face in terms of finding out about careers. For many it is not as simple as asking family friends or contacts for work experience or information.
Increasingly, law firms provide opportunities for pre-university students. The PRIME commitment has been influential in raising awareness of this issue, with law firm signatories committing to providing good quality work experience for students from less privileged backgrounds. The Sutton Trust’s Pathways to Law and Pathways Plus programmes are good examples that fulfil PRIME’s goals for quality work experience.
All these experiences will be advantageous to those who want a career in law and will not only demonstrate engagement and commitment on their CVs, but will also help participants with their applications more generally when it comes to applying for training contracts. Because these relationships are more long term, built up with students from a pre-university stage, they are likely to prove advantageous and another great way to get to know a law firm.
What about the future? It is likely that legal recruitment and training will look very different in five years’ time. As the Solicitors Regulation Authority allows firms to change the way they can provide legal training, we may see apprenticeships becoming more common and the Legal Practice Course forming part of the training contract.
Could this lead to longer-term summer internship programmes? Could the legal profession follow the model of the accountancy profession? And what will be the impact on future summer vacation schemes? These are questions many firms will be asking themselves.
One thing is for sure, change is coming and it may well impact on the current model of three to four-week summer schemes being the primary way of obtaining meaningful legal work experience.
Clare Harris is associate director for legal resourcing at Hogan Lovells