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You are here:   Ultimate Law Guide > Careers Advice > Vacation schemes and legal work experience

Vacation Schemes and gaining legal work experience

Vacation Schemes

For those dedicated and determined aspiring solicitors, holiday periods should become synonymous with legal work placements, known as vacation schemes. Formal vacation schemes are the best way for students to gain an insight into how a law firm operates, develop an understanding of the firm's dynamic office environment and culture. 

Most City law firms hold vacation schemes during the Christmas, Easter and summer weeks. These schemes usually last two to four weeks and students are paid around £250 per week. Check the deadlines on the websites of law firms, and apply well in advance of the specified deadline.If a summer placement is your aim, apply around December as deadlines are usually in February. Most firms tend to adopt a first-come-first-served approach and will invite you for interview as and when they receive your application, so be organised and apply before the rush which culminates around the impending deadline date. You should be aware that some law firms are in such demand that they fill up places allocated for interviews well before the deadline. Also, check whether the law firm only considers second-year undergraduates and third-year non-law undergraduates for their vacation scheme programme. Some firms have a strict policy on this and you should find out before you spend hours on an application form. Firms usually accept vacation scheme applications until late January/early February.

Formal vacation schemes are notoriously very difficult to obtain because there are fewer places available on these schemes than there are actual training contracts available. Law firms understand how difficult it is to land a vacation scheme and really value any sort of legal and commercial work experience, as it demonstrates you have been proactive and taken the initiative to carefully research your career options and become sufficiently informed about which type of law firm you want to work for. 

Gaining legal work experience should form a vital part of your preparations for a future in law. Legal work placements will help you to; build up your commercial acumen, demonstrate your interest and long-term commitment to working as a solicitor and develop those all-important transferable skills, which include: teamwork skills, analytical skills, communication skills, organisational skills and interpersonal skills.

Case Study: My vacation placement

Whilst some of my friends were partying hard in Miami, I packed my bags and set off for a two-week vacation placement at a city law firm. It was my first time working at an international commercial law firm and I knew this vacation placement presented me with a fantastic opportunity that would help me confirm whether I wanted to become a city lawyer.

I aimed to impress the law firm by showing great enthusiasm, a willingness to work hard and build up a rapport with people at all levels from the firm. Vacation schemes are the "try before you buy process," which form a large part of the training contract selection process and I soon became aware that a successful placement would enhance my prospects of securing a training contract interview and possible subsequent offer from the firm, as long as I made an excellent impression!

During my vacation placement, I shared an office with a solicitor who set me most of my tasks. These tasks included: legal research, delivering legal documents, attending client meetings, contacting other jurisdictions for information and financial documents required for a cross-border transaction, document management (bundling, filing and photocopying), proof-reading contracts and preparing for presentations to the graduate recruitment team. I observed at an early stage that any budding future lawyer must always be sharp; alert, prepared to think on your feet, ready to help colleagues wherever needed and not be afraid to work long hours!

The law firm also held case study sessions, teamwork exercises and various presentations by the graduate recruitment team, trainee solicitors, associates and partners; as well as organising various social events. By the end of the placement, I was not only convinced that I want to become a commercial lawyer, but I am also really keen to apply for a training contract at the firm, and I remain really hopeful that I will be offered an interview for a training contract at the firm. At least I know that this vacation placement provided first-class experience and will prove a really useful highlight on my CV and give me an invaluable pool of information to draw from at future interviews.           James Dixon

Post-vacation placements 

Vacation schemes are a two-way process meaning that by the end of the work experience, the firm will have assessed your ability and, you should have a much better idea of whether the firm is suitable for you. After your vacation placement, if you are still keen to join that particular firm, you might want to follow up and write a thank-you letter or ping an e-mail to your supervisor; thanking them for giving you the opportunity to develop your practical experience, explaining the reasons why you enjoyed your placement and indicating whether or not you will be applying for a training contract with the firm. Although this gesture alone will not land you a training contract; it is courteous and represents good manners to write and thank people for providing you with an opportunity to learn and also serves as a useful indication of your excellent client handling skills. 

Law firms are attracted to students who have a number of vacation schemes on their CV. It shows that those applicants have reached the decision to become a lawyer with their eyes wide open, have carefully planned their legal career and are entering the legal profession with their "eyes wide open" as you understand the realities of the role of commercial lawyer. It also shows those candidates are in great demand from many other law firms and the applicant has built-up their commercial acumen with useful legal experience. The graduate recruitment manager of a leading city law firm recently informed me that the level of work experience can often prove the difference between a good and excellent candidate.

Law firms have structured training contract application / selection procedures; if you are now planning to make an application to a firm, you may want to consider the following non-exhaustive list based on your experience of the firm:

  • the nature of the training programme
  • the overall friendliness of the firm
  • what really interests you and what will give you job satisfaction?
  • the quality of lawyers at the firm
  • the firm's main areas of expertise
  • the firm's overall reputation in the legal world
  • the financial funding offered by the firm for LPC/GDL
  • the trainee retention rate
  • client base
  • the size of the firm
  • the facilities at the firm
  • trainee salaries / assistants' salaries
  • how many of the law firm's partners trained at the firm?
  • foreign travel and language grants
  • opportunities for further training and development

Personally, we do not advise students to spend every single moment of their holiday periods completing work placements; combine your work experience with other interesting activities to demonstrate you are a balanced and well-rounded individual. Graduate recruitment departments are attracted by those who follow interesting pursuits such as travelling; undertaking exciting extra-curricular activities and creative pursuits which may invariably spark an interest in your application from graduate recruiters and generate good conversation at your interview.

 Our advice to anyone wanting to join the legal profession is that gaining legal work experience is of utmost importance to helping you decide whether the job of a lawyer is for you, to gage whether this is something that you can see yourself doing for the rest of your life and for improving your employability prospects. Whether you are applying to city law firms or your local high street practice; it is vital that you have a keen interest in the type of work the firm undertakes, the type of clients the firm works for and the sort of issues that will affect those clients, so that you will be able to relate to clients, think in a business-like way and from a commercial perspective - so once you become a lawyer, you will be to contextualise your advice to the client.  

Alternative opportunities: I am unable to get a Vacation Scheme, what else can I do?

As you know, gaining legal work experience is a vital part of preparing your future legal career. Vacation schemes are notoriously very difficult to secure because there are fewer places available on these schemes than there are actual training contracts. This is compounded by the fact that some of the brightest and most talented applicants accept several vacation placements, during a single summer. Law firms understand how difficult it is to land a vacation scheme, so if you are unable to get legal work experience, do your utmost to gain some work experience elsewhere (whether paid or unpaid), in a legal or commercial environment which will give you a useful insight into the reality of business. 

When it comes to acquiring work experience - anything you do that is supplemental to studying shows you are a well rounded individual who has maximised their time at university efficiently, who has get-up and go and is willing to get involved with new opportunities. This will help you to develop your commercial awareness and transferable skills which are required to become a good lawyer. Graduate recruiters value all sorts of legal and commercial work experience and we suggest you do the following:

  • Attend Open days at law firms: Some law firms also offer a number of alternative opportunities to gain access to law firms. Open Days give you the unique opportunity to look around a firm and gain an insiders view on a firm's practice and its "human face". You will also be able to meet trainees, assistants and partners. Consider making new contacts whenever the opportunity arises; make friends with the trainees you meet, speak to the associates you shadow and keep in touch with your new friends.
  • Apply for skills career workshops and attend employer presentations: This gives you the chance to build up your experience and understanding of the realities of what working for a law firm involves and what kind of skills law firms look for when selecting candidates.
  • Apply to range of law firms for informal work experience:  Our top tip is to be willing to get work experience even if unpaid, as your aim should be to build up your CV by shadowing and observing solicitors at different types of firms. Aim to see the bigger picture because each experience you gain is a worthwhile investment towards plotting your long-term future as a successful legal practitioner.
  • Apply for internships in other professions: Acquiring commercial experience at an investment bank, accountancy practice, the head office of a retail giant or your local estate agents will help you to get a flavour for other areas of business and to increase your business savvy and thus your employability prospects. There are many kinds of work experience law firms will find interesting, as long as you are able to speak cogently about your reasons for undertaking this work experience and market the skills you developed effectively, it will help to boost your commercial acumen, which is fundamentally important to the business of a law firm.
  • Securing work experience in a particular industry sector which relates to the type of work the law firms specialise in. If you manage to secure work experience during your holidays, use this as an opportunity to learn as much as possible about how the commercial enterprise works and the industry. This will help to improve your commerciality and is highly valued by City law firms.  For example, we know a student who gained experience during their summer working in the aviation industry and subsequently secured a training contract with a niche law firm which specialised in aviation law.
  • Part-time holiday jobs offers the opportunity to increase your understanding of the mechanics of business; how a business is organised to function efficiently, working in a pressurised customer-facing environment and the factors which affect the company's profitability and market growth.
  • Paralegal and company secretarial roles: If you have completed your legal education and training, you may also have opportunities to paralegal and/or undertake company secretarial roles. For more information on paralegal roles - visit alternative opportunities in the legal market.