Vacation placements are an ideal way to find out whether the law is right for you and the type of firm that will suit you best. If reading law at university you should try and secure a scheme during the summer before your final year. If reading other subjects you should apply for a scheme during the summer following your third year.
Most schemes last between two or three weeks, although the size and content will vary depending upon the size of the firm. Most firms will pay you whilst you are on the scheme; this is usually at least £100 per week outside London and at least £200 per week in a City firm.
What are the benefits?
Although a placement can only provide a snapshot of the working environment, it is an opportunity to get a feel for the character of the firm. You’ll get a much better insight than simply attending interviews and open days.
Many firms use the placements as an opportunity to appraise the candidates and are looking for people who will fit into the firm. It is effectively a three-week assessment period, as seeing how candidates interact and develop in a working environment is far more revealing than a paper based application. Attendance on a scheme may well enhance your chances of winning a training contract.
When applying for training contracts most firms will expect you to have undertaken at least one or two placements to show that you are serious about entering the profession.
This will vary depending on the type of firm. However the core of every scheme is work shadowing. Whilst in a particular department you are likely to be asked to do tasks such as drafting, taking minutes at clients meetings, writing letters and undertaking legal research.
Most schemes also include a full social programme where students can get to know each other and other members of the team on a more informal footing.
How many to aim for?
It is good to aim for placements at different sized firms where the level and type of work will be varied. This will allow you to make an informed choice as to the type of firm you would like to train at. Ideally you should aim to secure between one and three placements.
In reality, two schemes will be enough to give you a general overview of working in the law. If you also show that during your summer you have been travelling, or have developed yourself in other ways, this will help to strengthen your application and will show that you are a well-rounded candidate.
When to apply
It is best to plan in advance and start early, as most schemes are extremely competitive. In fact, it is said to be harder to secure a work placement than it is a training contract! Many firms use the same application structure as for training contracts applications, with interviews and assessment days.
The closing dates for firms vary so it is best check with individual firms to ensure you do not miss the all-important deadline.
High street firms have not generally taken up the idea of vacation placements on a formal basis but if you are unable to get a vacation placement with a major firm, you can apply direct to smaller firms.
The Government Legal Service (GLS) also offers vacation placements. You can get to work for departments such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Department of Transport, Ministry of Defence, Treasury Solicitor’s Department etc. Further details can be obtained direct from their website.
If you are unable to get a vacation placement with a law firm, you can apply to other organisations. Commercial banks, investment banks, oil companies and various other large companies run placements in the summer and where possible, you may be able to work shadow in their in house legal department. Many law firms look favourably upon general commercial experience.
Shadowing a judge or undertaking a mini-pupillage is also good experience of the legal world and can help you decide which career path to go down. These placements are generally unpaid but again experience worth having. Most barristers’ chambers now offer minipupillage programmes during the vacation. Full details can be obtained from the UK Bar Council.
If you are unable to secure a placement do not give up. Many firms will run open days for those who have been unsuccessful, with lectures, training sessions and a taste of work shadowing.
Turning your vacation scheme into a training contract
The vacation scheme is a valuable experience. Not only is this a chance for you to see if a career in the law is really all it’s cracked up to be, but you are also embarking on an extended interview. It is a chance for both you and the firm to decide if this is a relationship that should be taken further.
So, how can you make that vacation scheme turn into a training contract? Well - it can be difficult! Not only because you may be one face amongst many, but you also may be given very little responsibility or ’real‘ work to do. If you can’t wow them with your academics, we have a few tried and tested tips for you to stand out from the crowd:
- Ask plenty of questions – of partners, associates, assistants and support staff, and pay attention during any formal presentations
- Take an interest in cases or transactions that the firm is involved with
- Make yourself useful: show willingness to do even the most basic tasks
- Join enthusiastically in any social activities going on, but make sure that you stay on the right side of sobriety!
- Be professional: Look businesslike (ie, ready to make the transition between a student and trainee) and be punctual!
- Pay attention during any formal presentations
The vacation scheme is a perfect chance to show how you would fit into the working life of the particular firm so make the effort to do so. If the experience turns out to have been easy and you leave the placement feeling that you’ve worked there forever it is very likely that this firm (or another like it) would be the sort of environment you would do well in.
If not, and the placement was difficult, painful and a hard-slog - then pat yourself on the back as you’ve clearly found that the firm was not for you. Don’t give up though - there are many different types and formats of law firm. You can just check one off the list!
The best piece of advice is therefore to enjoy your vacation scheme - and make it work for you.
The Training Contract and Pupillage Handbook (published in association with the Law Society) is updated each year and lists those firms which offer placements and the deadline for applications.
Chambers and Partners Student Guide also provides useful information about placement opportunities.
The following websites have a range of information about training and placements: