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How to approach a vacation scheme application form

With vacation scheme deadlines at most top City of London firms falling on 31 January – and some earlier this month – FLN shares its key tips for application form success.

By Editorial Team. Published 14 January 2015. Last updated 01 March 2022.

1. Be realistic about how many applications you can do

The consensus among law firm graduate recruiters is that students should be spending at least a day and a half on vacation scheme application forms. With January tending to be a busy month at most universities and law schools, that only leaves time for one, or at most two, applications per week. So while you might end up not applying to as many firms as you had originally planned, at least they will be receiving your best work – which is exactly what is required to stand out.

2. Do your research

Putting some time into research means you will give yourself the best shot. According to University of Law (ULaw) careers manager Joanne Rourke, "not taking time to consider what sort of firm is right for you makes it hard to sell yourself properly." Rourke adds that it is students who've failed to put in the necessary preliminary graft "who tend to come to see you later on feeling down having faced lots of rejections".

3. Build answers around a specific deal or case

It's the long, open questions over which students lose most sleep. Where do you start with something like 'Why do you want to become a corporate lawyer with this firm'?  The trick to handling these questions is to build your answer around a recent case or deal in which the firm you're applying to has been involved.

Choose a deal or case  that allows you to highlight the key points about the firm which attract you. Does the deal involve lawyers from lots of different international offices? Is it particularly high value? Were the stakes higher than for normal cases? Did it generate lots of publicity in the press? From this starting point you can proceed to put forward a compelling explanation about why you want to join that firm and work in corporate law by getting experience via a vacation scheme.

4. Don't underestimate the importance of extra-curricular activities

Firms attach more weight to the 'extra-curricular activities and interests' section than students often realise. An ability to do lots of interesting things while also obtaining a strong degree result is a good indicator of someone who is well-organised and can handle stress – key qualities for a corporate lawyer. But it's not just about what you do, it's about how you do it. As has been repeatedly pointed out on Twitter under the #TCapps hashtag, law firm graduate recruiters are especially keen on candidates who demonstrate leadership. So give priority to activities where you have held a central, organisational role.

5. Demonstrate commercial awareness

Law students can sometimes view commercial awareness as a mystical concept which no one can define but every law firm insists is crucial to working for them.  In reality it's just a reasonable understanding of the basics of the business world – particularly the practice areas in which you want to work – allied to a practical ability to operate in a commercial environment.

To gain this you need to follow the financial press regularly over a period of 3-6 months and consider how the (not necessarily law-related) work experience you have done has equipped you for working in a commercial context. Then you need to show evidence of your understanding of commercial awareness on your vac scheme application form – both directly through any long questions relating to commercial insight and indirectly through the work experience section.

Note that a non-law job can be angled to a candidate's advantage. As Pinsent Masons graduate recruitment manager Edward Walker explains: "Let's not forget that companies like Sainsbury's are law firms' core clients. Understanding how their business works from the bottom up is very useful."

If you want to reinforce your understanding of the concept, check out this  Legal Cheek podcast with ULaw’s Business Development Director.

6. Don't worry too much about bad GCSE results

Degree results are crucial to law firms, A-level results slightly less important and GCSE results bordering on the irrelevant if you performed well in the former two categories. Oxford-educated journalist and lawyer David Allen Green, who began his legal career at Baker & McKenzie and Herbert Smith Freehills before going on to establish himself as a top legal journalist, got into City law despite achieving only 5 Cs, 2 Ds and an E at O-Level. He pointed out on Twitter that, "though that was very good for my school ... My A-levels and degree compensated!”

7. Apply as early as possible

Although they don't publicise it, many firms recruit for vacation schemes and training contracts on a semi-rolling basis, with some places filling up before the advertised deadlines. Accordingly, you're at an advantage if you don't leave it until the last minute. To that end, if you're still submitting applications, consider skipping firms with mid-January deadlines in order to target firms with deadlines at the end of the month. A full list of firms' vac scheme application deadlines is here.

Good Luck.