Vacation schemes: What they are and why they are worth pursuing

As pre-training contract legal experience goes, vacation schemes are the big one. Now well-established and ubiquitous in the industry, vacation schemes are a great way to experience first-hand life at a law firm, and to see if the employer, and career, matches your interests. It’s also an opportunity to impress and enhance your prospects, with several vac schemes also offering training contract interviews at the end of the placement. All that said, it still requires giving up two weeks’ precious holidays, during which you will have other commitments including, perhaps ironically, working hard towards securing the impressive academic grades so valued by law firms! So in signing up for a vacation scheme, what exactly are you getting in return?

The legal job market is highly competitive and these days it is not enough to simply have a solid academic background. Recruiters are looking for much more than a 2(1) and AAB at A-level, and with so many applicants to choose from, students face an incredible amount of pressure to impress in the search for training contracts. This has resulted in an increase in the number of students taking part in vacation schemes, meaning it can be as difficult to get a vacation placement as it is to bag a training contract!

Nowadays it is seen as the norm for law students to give up at least two weeks of their holidays to gain work experience, with some students taking part in as many as four vacation schemes over the summer. Is this really necessary? The answer has to be yes – in moderation. It is beneficial to you in helping you choose the type of firm which suits you, and it will look good on your application form – showing employers that you are serious about a career in the law and willing to put yourself out during the precious holidays. Firms take vac schemes very seriously too, and guaranteed training contract interviews at the end of these schemes are now increasingly common. Some firms are also moving towards recruiting their trainees solely through their vac scheme pools. “Don’t underestimate the value that firms place on these schemes”, says one recruitment head, “and make sure that you do your research, you’re clear about why you want the vacation scheme, you’ve demonstrated the skills that they’re looking for and your application is free from typos. But also remember that this is a great opportunity for you to find out more about your shortlisted firms, their cultures and values, and importantly whether they are the right fit for you.”

The benefits of work experience for any job are obvious, but it is particularly important for a legal career where there are so many different types of law firm and practice areas to choose from, and where so much time and money goes into training. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a real estate lawyer, but do you know what a real estate lawyer actually does? Maybe the thought of criminal law entices you, but you may be a fortnight’s work experience away from falling in love with M&A. Many vacation schemes allow you to spend time in the departments in which you have an interest, so you can find out if you’re going to hate it after the first week, before it’s too late.

So what do the vac schemers themselves say? Firstly, take a look at the ‘why did you choose this firm over any others?’ question in our trainee survey, and see for yourself how many trainees cite their vacation scheme as an important reason for making their training contract choice. One person who completed a vac scheme and will soon train at the same firm says that “many firms treat vacation schemes as extended interviews to determine if candidates can complement their businesses. Although this may sound intimidating, to the contrary, a scheme is the perfect opportunity to showcase your abilities, personality and enthusiasm. Remember too, firms do actually wish to attract the best candidates! It’s likely by being selected for a vacation scheme you’re already in contention, so have confidence and enjoy yourself!” Wise words worth remembering on your first day.

And what if you haven’t managed to get yourself on any vacation scheme? Don’t give up – you could always try offering your services to firms for free (even for a couple of days at a time) – or approach your local law centre where you’ll witness real legal problems and advice administered first-hand. These approaches show potential employers that you have imagination and are serious about a career in the law. If all else fails, head off for some voluntary work (at home or abroad) and gain some real-life experience, while learning more about yourself at the same time. It will also give you something different to talk about at your interview.