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How to nail a vacation scheme

24 June 2014 

How to nail a vac scheme

With exams now a not-so-distant memory, law students' attention is turning to work experience. Already vacation schemes have begun at several top City law firms – and are set to continue throughout this month and July. Here are FLN's top tips on how to perform well and use the placement as a springboard to a training contract.

1. Don't be intimidated

Magic Circle firm Linklaters kicked off its vacation scheme last week by having none other than its Managing Partner, Simon Davies, talk to small groups of summer students.

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While not all vac schemers will get to meet the boss of the firm they are at, it's common for them to be given access to high profile individuals. As much as possible, they should treat them as they would a lecturer or other person in a senior position they are used to dealing with, and certainly not shy away from asking questions.

Jillian Dent, Trainee Recruitment Advisor at Norton Rose Fulbright, advises students to go for it in such situations. ‘Students on our vac scheme get a lot of contact with senior people over what is a very concentrated two week period,’ she says. ‘Often, it takes place through semi-formal events, such as a breakfast briefing on a particular practice area, after which questions are asked. It’s normal to be nervous in these situations, addressing partners while being observed by your peers, but it pays off to take a risk and ask a question. Do it once, and you set the tone for the whole vac scheme. Next time, it will be so much easier to put your hand up.’

2. While walking with kings, don't lose the common touch

Having enjoyed the company of a law firm's senior partners, there is a risk that vac schemers get carried away and perhaps neglect to treat lowlier staff members with the respect they deserve. Big mistake. Such omissions have a way of reaching the graduate recruitment teams whose job it is to assess vac schemers.

The de Burgh Group's Luan de Burgh, who has a long history of working with law firms as a presentation coach, provides a useful insight into the workings of big law firms for vac schemers. Writing in Lawyer 2B, he explains:

‘Treat everyone the same, especially secretaries and paralegals. All your colleagues will contribute to your performance reviews, and to the work that you are given, and if you think that you are above people they are hardly likely to rave about you when asked.  Remember, some people have been in firms for many years and although their actual ‘job description’ may not be that of partner, their influence and opinion is underestimated at peril. Law firms are small communities and like all small communities people talk – treating everyone the same reduces the chance of poor feedback’.

3. There are different ways to make an impression

A frequent concern of vac schemers is how to be remembered in a positive way - and thus place themselves at the front of the queue for training contracts. Usually, the best way to achieve this is by behaving consistently through the two to three week placement experience with a mixture of politeness, charm and confidence. Still, it helps to go beyond this and prove a high level of engagement with the life of the firm.

For example, students on the Reynolds Porter Chamberlain vac scheme who have taken the time to find the firm's graduate Twitter account – @LifeInALawFirm – will be aware of the firm's trainees' enthusiasm for the Panini Fifa 2014 World Cup Brazil Sticker Album. On Friday @LifeInALawFirm issued a desperate plea for spare stickers to swap. 

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What better way to forge some connections at the start of a vac scheme?

4. It's OK to wear the same suit everyday - but beware of 'dress down Friday'

It's important that students are sufficiently sharply-suited to fit in comfortably at the City law firms where they are spending the summer. Which means, at the very least, shiny clean shoes, matching socks and a recently-dry cleaned suit. Bear in mind that many City firms really are as slick as their graduate recruitment brochures suggest.

But, contrary to the view held by some students, a wardrobe of designer suits is not necessary. ‘Wearing the same suit to a vac scheme every day is fine,’ says Mayer Brown trainee solicitor Zsolt Vertessy, ‘as long as you vary the shirts and ties’. More tricky is how to negotiate the 'dress down Friday' policies which many firms follow. Vertessy advises students to ‘avoid jeans’ and opt instead for ‘smart trousers and a shirt (or a skirt and blouse for women)’. 

5. Don't try to read the FT from cover to cover every day

Rather, look to focus on several relevant wider business stories and, over the course of the summer, go into depth on them. That's how lawyers read the Financial Times, says Norton Rose Fulbright's Dent: ‘If you try to read the newspaper from cover to cover in an attempt to be an expert on everything you won't take anything in,’ she comments. ‘Instead, pick a story in an area that interests you and is relevant to the firm where you are, then read about developments in that area every day. Taking this approach will enable you to hopefully have a really good conversation with a partner and impress him or her with your knowledge.’

6. Use the treats to help keep you smiling during more testing times

Vac schemers enjoy some great perks. This year, for example, Simmons & Simmons is taking its summer placement students up to the top of the Shard, while Mayer Brown will be whisking its group off on the Eurostar for a day at its Brussels office.

Savour these glamour moments, because there will be more testing times, too. Law firms' penchant for submitting vac schemers to karaoke is long-running, but earlier this month US firm Vinson & Elkins went one step farther and had its vac schemers star – alongside its lawyers – in their own video of Pharrell Williams hit 'Happy'. The results were awkward. It is at times like these that vac schemers need to keep smiling. As Hogan Lovells trainee-to-be Madeline Hirschfield puts it: ‘It’s important to show commitment and involvement in all aspects of the life of the firm.’

7. Is that selfie really a good idea?

The ill-advised vac scheme selfie can be a sure fire way of scuppering your training contract chances. With websites like Legal Cheek documenting the best vac scheme and mini-pupillage selfies of the summer, these photos have a high chance of being discovered by law firms' graduate recruitment teams. Accordingly, think very carefully about what you share with the world, advises Legal Cheek's editor Alex Aldridge:

‘While I wouldn't advise forgoing selfies altogether – it is nice, after all, to be able to show your friends how you're spending the summer – it's probably not a good idea to mention the name of the law firm where you are completing the vac scheme. And I'd definitely advise against including the name of the firm in a hashtag, which are, of course, easily searchable,’ he says.

Good luck to everyone!

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