Vacation Schemes: A guide to the seemingly disheartening process of application

Guest post by Sue-Jade Coukan,
Second-year student, Double Degree French and English Law Programme
University of Essex (UK)/Université de Nanterre (France)

As a second-year law student and aspiring solicitor in London, I am expected to secure a training contract in a law firm. Securing a training contract is a long and demanding process that requires determination and resilience. Usually, you would start your application two years before the expected starting date, which means that if you want to begin a training contract right after you finish your degree, you should apply during your second year.

Sue-Jade Coukan

Some larger law firms only recruit trainees after the completion of a vacation scheme, which targets graduates and students in their penultimate or final year at university. During a vacation scheme, students are allowed to network with the firm’s associates, partners and trainees and get hands-on experience with real clients. They get to participate in workshops and presentations, and, at the end of their scheme, they are guaranteed an interview for a training contract. On top of that, most firms offer students a competitive weekly salary for completing a scheme. All in all, even if they are not retained for a training contract in that firm, they certainly gain valuable legal experience and get a taste of the life of a solicitor that will help them attract future opportunities in the legal sector.

It is important to note, however, that a training contract is extremely difficult to secure, especially as a second-year student, and that only a very limited number of students manage to even get into a vacation scheme. That should not discourage you from trying, as you would at least familiarise yourself with the process of applying to a very competitive sector and you will thus build your resilience and self-confidence.

This year, I tried to apply to vacation schemes and, in this article, I want to share my experience with other determined students by breaking down the sometimes-daunting process of application.

How do you find a vacation scheme?
The starting point for any law student looking for a vacation scheme in the UK is to know where and what to look for.

I would personally recommend you start from websites such as Lawcareers.net, Allaboutlaw.co.uk, or Thelawyerportal.com. They contain very helpful articles explaining the difference between types of law firms, and how a vacation scheme works. They also list vacation schemes opportunities for which you could apply, their deadlines, how to apply to them, and where to apply for them.

What do you have to keep in mind when choosing where to apply?
Before starting the application process, you need to know what type of law firm you are looking for. You need to assess, depending on your personality and personal preferences, what lifestyle you aspire to live. Indeed, the experience you will get from a Magic Circle firm based in London will be drastically different from a High Street firm in Colchester. For example, Magic Circle firms will be commercially oriented with big clients, and a large amount of money is at stake, which means the working hours will be longer and more demanding, but the work might be more varied and exciting. High Street firms, on the other hand, tend to offer advice to more “regular” people, office hours are more similar to those of a “9 to 5” job, making it easier to balance personal and professional life.

Thankfully, these are only two ends of a spectrum, and a variety of different types of firms exist, which might be more tailored to your needs, location and personality.

Once you have done your research on what type of firm suits you the best, I would recommend that you draft a list of firms that might interest you before doing some research on them, and make a selection of firms you would like to apply for.

What firms did I apply for and why did I choose those firms?
Choosing a firm is a very personal choice. As I stated above, you have to reflect on your needs and the type of solicitor you want to be before selecting firms that might interest you.  This introspection might be slightly difficult to make as a Second-year student with limited experience, especially in the legal world. How do you know what type of lawyer you want to be when you don’t know what their lives are like?

A vacation scheme aims at discovering the work environment of solicitors in the firm. No one expects you to choose a firm you will spend the rest of your career working for so soon. By researching firms and introspecting, you should be able to get a general idea of what interests you the most and what would suit you the less. You can decide to go for the most prestigious firms first and see if you enjoy this lifestyle and go down from there to more accessible firms. Or you could already have a precise idea of what you are looking for and apply directly for that firm.

Either way, the most important thing is to try.

I tried to apply for different firms as I was very indecisive about what I was most attracted to. I tried applying for one Magic Circle firm, a Silver Circle and a US-based firm and then aimed at less prestigious firms when I was not accepted.

I chose these firms because of their attractivity. They held a few workshops I attended during the first semester. All in all, they seemed exciting at first sight as they offered international placements, exciting casework and very competitive salaries. I knew, however, that such a commercial approach and the lifestyle coming along with it would not fit me in the long term. I do prefer working closely with clients and building a relationship with them, working with them throughout the outcome of their case. I would also prefer having the opportunity to balance my professional and personal life when I get older, and this is sadly one of the very few luxuries a Magic Circle firm cannot offer their solicitors.

What are the different steps of an application?
Application processes are not the same in every firm.

However, if you want to apply for a large firm, most of them will require you to complete an application form. Similarly to a CV, you will be detailing your contact details, previous and current academic records, your work history, referees, interests and your activities. You will also have to prove your motivation by answering a few questions (generally two or three) that will differ from firm to firm.

Once you have completed the application form, you will sometimes have to take an online personality test to assess your compatibility with the firm’s values and skills. At that time, you should have done your research on what that particular firm is looking for in a trainee, as they can be quite specific. If you do not pass that test, they will not review your application form. If you succeed, the recruitment team will look at it and decide whether you qualify for the next step. If you do, you will be asked to join an “assessment day” at the firm, where three lawyers will interview you. You will be interviewed on a case-study, a real-life scenario, and on your motivation and competency.

If you decide to apply to smaller firms, sometimes all they will ask is a CV and a cover letter stating your motivation to work at the firm. This will usually be followed by an interview with a solicitor. Some firms will also use the application form format but will not require you to take an online test.

You will only be able to join the vacation scheme if you successfully pass those steps, and if you do not, you will have to try again next year.

How many applications should you send?
I believe that you should prioritise the firms that interest you the most. You want to make sure that you provide quality applications instead of attempting to apply for as many firms as possible where you would not have enough time to perfect your application. I decided to apply to approximately three firms last semester, to be sure to make a strong application without jeopardising my studies aside. I will send about the same number of applications this semester for the same reasons.

What are the main deadlines to keep in mind?
The deadlines to keep in mind depend entirely on the type of firm you want to apply for. Usually, the largest firms will have a deadline to apply for a vacation scheme in December or early January during the same academic year the scheme takes place.

If you want to apply to mid-size firms (national or regional) the deadlines will likely be in February. If you decide to apply for High Street firms, the deadlines will vary from firm to firm, but they will mostly be in March.

How much time does one application take?
An application to a vacation scheme is not light work. It requires research, determination and meticulous attention to detail. You have to be able to talk about the firm, its history, its values, its work and its people. You have to know precisely what they are looking for and be able to display that you possess those skills in your application. You have to draft perfect answers to their questions, which means you have to proof-read your application several times. You might want to ask native speakers to proof-read your work as well, to make sure that your English is perfect, as any spelling or grammar mistake will disqualify you immediately. You should not hesitate to ask your referees for help as well. You cannot use the same answers for all the firms you want to apply for as they will not ask you the same questions.

Thus, all this work, research, reflection, drafting and several proof-readings require a large amount of time for each application. It is a hugely competitive sector, and as recruiters receive a tremendously large number of applications each year, they try to select the best possible candidates.

What are firms really looking for?
Recruiters will mainly look at your academic record. Most big firms require candidates to have a consistent or a predicted 2:1 degree, at minimum. It means you will have to show near-perfect academic results to even have a chance at applying. Some smaller firms can be less demanding. You have to be careful at that requirement when you do your research on the firm that interests you.

They will then look at your professional experience. Any experience counts, but recruiters will usually require their candidates to have at least some experience. You have to demonstrate what those experiences brought to you in terms of skills and attributes and how they help ‘build the lawyer’ that they are looking for.

Finally, they scrutinise your motivations. You have to show them why you chose to apply to that firm in particular and why in this area of law. It is your chance to prove that you have done some research on them and that you know their history, what type of advice they provide and how they provide it. You can then argue that the values they advocate match your own. They are looking for a perfect fit, someone they know they can count on to work as part of their team. 

Where am I now in my application process?
I already applied to three different firms (Herbert Smith Freehills, Shearman & Sterling and Linklaters). They were all big, international firms which means that the competition was tough. I was not successful for any of them. I passed the personality test for Herbert Smith Freehills, but sadly my application did not go any further.

This rejection was a setback for me. It made me completely question my own expectations and desires. Did I truly want to work with them? Was I tailored for this lifestyle? Or was it just a big ideal and an assumption people have of successful lawyers?

I am now considering applying for mid-size firms and High Street firms. I do believe that closer contact with clients will keep me engaged and motivated to succeed, and I feel that the work will be more rewarding in a more human-size firm.

Overall, how did I find this experience?
When I reflect on this experience, even if I did not get into the schemes I wanted and worked hard for, I feel like hope is not lost yet. The path to become a solicitor is tough and I have to build my resilience on the feedback I received and learn from it to try my best again this semester or next year, and this time, even better.

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