What's a vacation [scheme]?
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
It’s that time of the year again when social media feeds become saturated with holiday photos. Over the past fortnight I’ve scrolled passed bikini-clad tanners, backpackers in South-America, amblers in the Lake District, surfers in Cornwall, adventurers in Kenya, a multitude of family holidays and several North American road trips. Daily there are swarms of children and families everywhere, slowing me down but (mostly) making me smile as they picnic or play, running around with more energy than I think I’ve ever possessed in my life.
For corporate keen-beans, however, there’s more to summer than vitamin D and ice cream, because ‘vacation’ becomes instinctively associated with ‘vacation schemes.’
What are vacation schemes?
Vacations schemes are a two-to-four-week placement (depending on the firm you apply to) in which a group of university students, usually in their second or third year, work in a law firm. I use the term ‘work’ loosely. Students can make only minimal contributions to any corporate team, and the main aim of a vacation scheme is to watch, learn, try, and improve. These are the same motions a trainee (a baby lawyer who’s finished all their law school steps but who needs to work under this title for two years rotating around different practice areas before they can officially be registered as a ‘solicitor’) goes through throughout their training contract (the two-year process of going from baby lawyer to fully-qualified lawyer). Vac schemers engage in a process of ascertaining whether the kind of law they’re experiencing is for them, and whether the firm they’re with is a place they’d like to apply to for a training contract. There are lots of questions which might bubble to the surface when vacations schemes are mentioned, I’ll try and cover a few below but this is by no means an exhaustive guide to vacation scheming.
Why should you apply?
There are three central reasons to do a vacation scheme in my mind:
a) to get to know a firm and type of law you’re interested in;
b) to improve your skills in a profession you’re interested in; and
c) to better your chances of getting a training contract.
A vacation scheme is one of the best ways to get to know a firm you’re thinking about applying to and to get a flavour of a specific kind of legal practice. What does day-to-day work look like in the firm? What are the people like? Is the firm an environment you could work in? Usually by the time you get to vacation scheme, you’ll have a fairly accurate idea of the kind of work a firm does, but you never really know until you try. I only completed a vacation scheme with one firm but friends did up to three and saw small but significant differences in attitudes to working. This is firm culture. It’s a buzzword and comprises of almost everything you won’t find simply on a website search. The closest you’ll come online is by looking at a firm’s principles or values, but even that doesn’t always give a fair indication of what it’s really like to work somewhere. Finding out the cultureof a firm is one of the hardest, but best, approaches to applications, because it gives students a firm leg to stand on when the inevitable ‘Why are you applying to our firm?’ comes along in some form in an interview situation.
A vacation scheme is also a great way to improve your skill set. It requires you to be diligent, listen well, communicate clearly and work quickly. It requires that you have the confidence to ask questions when necessary and have a go when appropriate. Time in a department will inevitably mean you have to improve your corporate knowledge and commercial awareness, and you’ll be amazed how much you can come along in understanding over only a matter of weeks.
Statistically, there is a much higher chance of getting a training contract with a firm you’ve done a vacation scheme with and, in reality, this is one of the main reasons people apply. Any vacation scheme ends in an interview process for a training contract and most students do manage to convert their summer experience into the more permanent training contract. Given the above, by the end of a vacation scheme your awareness of whether you’d like to work in the profession and at a particular firm, as well as your basic skills, have improved. If the experience has confirmed your enthusiasm for a particular kind of law, if you’ve demonstrated that you’re ‘teachable,’ to put it bluntly, and reasonably well-equipped to take on a role at the firm, that you can work well with others and aren’t a terror to spend all day in the same office with… you stand a very good chance of success.
What happens when you get there?
We’re going to discuss applications at a later stage, but for now let’s say you’ve jumped all the hurdles to get a coveted spot on a vacation scheme – well done! You’ve done your research; your spell-check and you’re trying to keep up to date with the FT over your breakfast every morning. But what about when you get to the firm?
You’ll arrive suited and booted. However long the scheme is, you can guarantee you’ll be in the office at least 09:00-17:00. These are insanely better hours than your supervisors so make sure not to complain or yawn, and to offer help before you leave, there’s nothing worse than a clock-watcher who leaves at exactly 17:00!
There are usually at least these three spheres to take note of on any vacation scheme: in-seat experience, seminar-based experience, social experience. Throughout most schemes, you’ll be placed in at least one practice area (‘seat’) where you’ll have a trainee buddy and an associate supervisor who will give you instructions, work and advice throughout your time with the team. Whilst you’re not in your seat, there will likely be events run by graduate recruitment, such as talks from the different practice areas, ongoing independent work, and different skills workshops (e.g. mediation, interviewing, negotiating etc.), and evening socials.
What should you do when you get there?
Any google search is going to spew out the basic tips. You know them already and I don’t see much value in spending much time on them here. Master your handshake. Be punctual. Be polite. Speak to everyone. Dress appropriately. These are easy skills to master.
Less common on existing blogs is how to deal with the feeling that you’ve won a place on some kind of corporate Big Brother, or strange version of The Apprentice. It’s quite easy to feel like all eyes are on you, that one wrong move will send you packing, and that the others on your vacation scheme are bitter rivals you have to beat. For the most part, none of these things are true!
Firms often have enough space to accommodate all on their vacation scheme, so there’s no need to let any competitive streak get the better of you. No-one is watching and waiting for you to put a foot wrong. For the most part, your work comes quite far down the list of priorities for your supervisors, who don’t have time to psychoanalyse every word, facial expression or piece of work you produce. Of course, be careful and sensible in what you do and say, but be yourself and be confident. If you can demonstrate that you can have a decent go at the work they give you and competently complete tasks, that you could work well in office conditions, and are a nice enough person to share an office with… you’re probably on the right track. We’ll all make mistakes along the way, just apologise if necessary, and work out how to fix them.
Some of the simplest advice is to enjoy yourself and be yourself. Now I appreciate that this looks like something plastered in neon colours onto some teenager’s pencil case, and it’s so cliché it makes me wince, but it’s true. I’d like you to try and reorientate your thinking for all of two minutes, so that vacation schemes no longer seem solely a way in which to exhibit yourself in a winner-takes-all competition, but a way to genuinely grow in your knowledge, enthusiasm and skill for legal practice.
If you’re on a vacation scheme you’ve gained access to a whole host of experts doing a job you’re thinking of doing. Use that network! During my four-week vacation scheme I chatted to at least three partners, five associates and three trainees over coffee. These conversations were mostly follow-ups from networking events, or names passed on as people who might be interesting to chat through my questions with. Topics varied from FinTech (one of my favourite corporate topics, which I’m sure there will be future blogs on!), to secondment opportunities, using languages in practice and doing a part-time masters alongside work. Perhaps none of these areas interest you. If not, I’m certainly not encouraging you to go off and ask anyone and everyone about these things, but find something you areinterested in, something you have questions about, and find people who might be able to provide some answers. Maybe it’s balancing having a family and working or opportunities to move in house (that is, working for an organisation like a company or a bank as part of their legal team, dealing solely with the legal issues for that entity). Have a think before you go, and review yourself and questions as you go along; the last thing you want to do is leave with unanswered questions and a series of missed opportunities replaying over in your mind.
You’ll also have had some element of control over which seats you’re in. These areas should be of interest to you, keep up to date with what’s happening in the news, especially in relation to those areas of law, and discuss matters in the office. Ask questions as much as is politely practicable. Answers may come from conversations, or from digital searches, but you’ll now have more relevant information at your disposal than ever before to track down good information, through databases and internal resources available to you. Fintech, as mentioned, is an area of especial interest to me. During my corporate seat I walked in on my supervisor dialling into a seminar on specific blockchain-related issues. I listened in and he gave me some ideas about other relevant materials I could find on the firm’s intranet. Whilst the materials available to me never left the office, they did further my knowledge and enthusiasm, much to the delight of my family and friends, I’m sure, who have endured me harping on about blockchain ever since.
A vacation scheme offers a prime position to improve the necessary skills to be a successful lawyer, albeit at beginner level. You’ll be given tasks and projects, either by graduate recruitment as part of an assessment which will feed into any ultimate decision as to whether or not you’re offered a training contract, or whilst in your seat, or (most likely) both. Tasks might typically include research, checking documents, perhaps drafting a letter or document or updating documents for the team. These are a good opportunity to watch, learn and improve. Watch how the professionals do it and essentially mimic them. Remember, you’re a baby lawyer. You’re supposed to be a sponge that’s taking in everything around you, choosing the best of it and growing. You’re supposed to be curious, you’re allowed to stumble and push yourself until you learn to walk.
For those about to embark on a vacation scheme, best of luck! Enjoy yourselves and make the most of the opportunities you have. For those looking into law, be encouraged to try a vacation scheme when possible. More information on applications and deadlines will be available on this blog in late September/early October when applications for training contracts and vacation schemes for large firms begin to open. Use the summer to research what area of law you may be interested in and to get a handle on the corporate news - resources like the Financial Times are hard to beat in this respect but consider blogs run by law firms on specific areas, such as FinTech. Perhaps you’d say I’m biased, but Linklaters offer what I have found to be one of the clearest FinTech blogs on UK and US trends, Cleary Gottlieb offer a great US FinTech update on their website too.
Best of luck with any experience over the summer, try and squeeze in some rest and relaxation along the way too!