Everything you need to know about law vacation schemes and open days

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Recently, we've been fielding a few questions from you on law vacation schemes. Everything from what they are, when you should do them, how you can prepare and so on.

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And we fully understand your questions because, to be honest, it's not hugely clear or obvious. So, to help make sense of the whole thing we've pulled together this quick guide with the seven things to know about the what, when, how and why of law vacation schemes. 

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Open Days

Open days provide an in-depth insight into the real work of a firm's legal practice, working environment and career opportunities. Involving a range of work shadowing, networking and presentations, such events give you the chance to meet, listen to and question partners, associates and trainees across a variety of departments.

They also give you a formal training session on the skills you will need to excel at to win a vacation scheme and ultimately a training contract from that firm.  

Open days run throughout the year and are open to graduates and undergraduates from all degree disciplines. It is worth noting, however, that many firms also run specific open days in the summer just for first-year undergraduates who are keen to gain experience at an earlier stage. Attending an early open day is an incredibly powerful way to show your ambition from the outset.

Tips for making the most of a law open day

1. Do your research

It may just be a day, but that can feel very long if you suddenly realise you have no interest in anything this firm does. Open days are a chance to find out the facts about a firm that Google can’t tell you, so don’t just pick one at random. Pick one that appeals to you, find out everything you can beforehand and then decide what you will seek to learn on the day.

These mini-interviews provide a great opportunity to impress potential employers without the high-pressure environment of an assessment centre, whilst also carrying out valuable research. Try to learn some of the key names and faces beforehand: look out for the recruiters and the partners. These are the ones that you want to remember for the right reasons, so even if you’re not going to seek them out, you can make sure you don’t do anything too stupid in front of them. But you really should seek them out too…

2. Ask questions

Firms are trying to sell themselves to you on an open day, but you should take the chance to do the same. Firms receive thousands of applications for their vacations schemes and training contracts; you will have a much better chance of snaring a place if they already know your name. 

If there are presentations on the day, then make sure you take notes, which you can then use to start a conversation later. This is how you show your enthusiasm, both for law in general and specifically for this firm. Firms really want you to want to work there, so prove that you do.

This is also a chance to find out about the company culture, the clients they work with, the style of work and other considerations that will help you decide if this firm is for you.  Look out for application tips and titbits of information you can use in your application too. Don’t just seek out the higher-ups though, because you can learn a lot if you…

3. Talk to the trainees

Every impression you make matters, whether you are talking to a partner or to a trainee, you are showing how you would fit into this workspace. Many firms are quite tight knit, so you need to look like someone they could work with. Also, those nearer your position have useful perspectives to offer.

If you are looking to apply to this firm for a training contract, no one will have more recent memories of the process than current trainees. These are the ones who have recently done the thing that you will be going through soon. They can offer valuable tips on what to include, what to avoid and generally what to expect on the road ahead.

Find out too about what work they are doing now, as that could be you in future. If their typical day sounds like hell, maybe this firm isn’t for you?

4. Once the day is over, don’t forget it

After making it through the day as the ideal, charming potential trainee, you get to really make the most of it. Mentioning it on your application shows your sustained enthusiasm for the firm, especially if you manage to be more specific. If you can relate your enthusiasm to a particular person you spoke to or to a presentation you heard, then that is even better. This not only shows that you paid attention, but also that you have genuinely good reasons for wanting to work there, rather than the usual prestige/ Magic Circle/ money.

You don’t have to wait until the application to bring it up either, if you have a professional Twitter profile then use it as a chance to open a dialogue. Tweet the firm to say what you liked about the day, or if there was a particular presentation you enjoyed, tell the speaker what you liked about it.  There is huge value in making sure they know your name before you apply. This may seem like a lot to squeeze into a day, but a well-used open day can really help your future applications. Even if you don’t go for that particular firm, you can use what you learnt about what you didn’t like to help explain to another firm your informed choice.

If you were given a business card or email address by an exhibitor, it might be worth sending them an email a few days after the fair telling them how nice it was to meet them or following up on a question you had. You may even want to add them on LinkedIn.

Top tips for networking with law firms

  • Have a plan: Come armed with notes and pre-prepared questions if you can. Alternatively, if you're not yet sure which aspect of commercial law or particular firm appeals to you, make it your objective to talk to at least one person from a range of firms in very different areas, thereby giving you a greater insight into the breadth of careers available to you.
  • Be interested: There is a huge difference between being interested and in trying to be interesting. When you are interested in learning about someone and their work entirely for the sake of learning about the other person, you will leave a lasting impression as someone who genuinely cares.
  • Listen with focus: When someone is speaking with you, give that person your entire focus. Even though it is really easy to be distracted at large events by the conversation going on next to you or behind you, make sure you really listen to what the person is saying to you.
  • Be specific: Most networking will be opened by questions such as 'which university are you from?' or 'what do you work on?'. You should try to break away from such openers which can often fall flat after a few minutes. If you have researched someone's interests, challenge them about their work. If you are looking for specific help, ask straight away.
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Law vacation schemes

A law vacation scheme is a one or two-week internship or work experience placement with a law firm, usually taking place in either the Spring, Summer or Winter. Vacation schemes are used by law firms to seek out new talent. So, if you're interested in applying to a particular firm, completing a vacation scheme is a great way to test them out as well as to get yourself noticed and fast-tracked onto a training contract.

On all vacation schemes, you can expect to shadow a solicitor in their working day and to support with a number of different activities. You'll be given on the job training and guidance to try and help you get a feel for the role, as well as to demonstrate your potential. You'll also likely have some group work with your vacation scheme peers - usually a project designed to develop and test your research and presentation skills, as well as your ability to work in a team.

So, whether you are dead set on a career in law or just beginning to consider it - a vacation scheme is a great way to assess your fit for law and also for a specific firm. Just don't forget - the firm is assessing you too!

Why should I do a law vacation scheme?

There are lots of reasons to undertake a vacation scheme if you are considering a career in law:

  • Fantastic exposure to legal activities, clients and ways of working in order to better understand whether law and indeed a particular firm is for you.
  • Get yourself noticed by a top firm and secure a training contract ahead of your peers.
  • Build some industry contacts and develop your network in the legal sector which will be invaluable if and when it comes to applying for training contracts.
  • Opportunity to demonstrate your motivation and interest in law. In this highly competitive industry, showing that you have tried to get ahead through a vacation scheme really counts.
  • Try out different practice areas and get a feel for which area of law you are most interested in.
  • Earn good money - vacation schemes can pay up to several hundred pounds a week to help cover the costs of your travel and rent (and a bit besides...)

Who is eligible to undertake a law vacation scheme?

Vacation schemes are open to both law and non-law students. Each firm's policy varies slightly, however, in general, summer schemes tend to prioritise applications from law students whilst winter schemes are open to law and non-law students alike.

When should I complete a vacation scheme?

Law students should ideally aim to complete a vacation scheme in the summer of their penultimate year, i.e., just before going into their final year of university. However, many firms also accept law students in their final year. Successful vacation scheme applicants are typically offered a training contract for two years' time.

When should I apply?

Applications for spring and summer vacation schemes open in October and close at the end of January. Applications are often screened on a rolling basis so there is a real advantage to getting your application in early.

Applications for winter vacation schemes open in October and close in November so there is a shorter window to get your application completed.

Clearly, opening and closing dates vary by firm so do make sure you research an individual firm's details as part of your planning and preparation.

Read how to turn your vacation scheme into a training contract.

How many should I do?

As with all experience, the more you can get the more informed you're likely to be about your career options. However, given the competitive nature of securing a vacation scheme, many applicants just complete one vacation scheme before moving on to a training contract with that firm.

If you do want to gain additional experience, then it's worth considering insight days which are single-day law firm introductions offered to first and second-year students. These can be a great way to meet a cross-section of the team from a firm and to ask some questions about practice areas, priorities and culture.

How to secure a vacation scheme

A law firm is looking for two key things: genuine interest in the law and demonstrable experience of the relevant skills required to be a successful lawyer. Therefore, make sure your CV includes any events or insight days you have attended as well as any relevant journals you read. Try also to highlight skills from your extra-curricular activities which are relevant to law, such as research, presentations, teamwork, attention to detail and so on.

Learn from Simmons & Simmons Associate Minesh Tanna on what he's learned over his career reviewing vacation scheme applications and Bright Network members Farisha Khan, a future trainee at Allen & Overy, and Jonathan Andrews, a future trainee at Reed Smith in the below video.

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Finally, if you have the opportunity to meet with law firm recruiters ahead of an application this can be a great way to help your name ring bells when your form is submitted. Make sure you introduce yourself clearly to recruiters and lawyers that you meet at careers fairs and events and follow up on introductions with an email to say thanks for their time. 

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