Innovative training: vacation schemes & training contracts at Olswang

We caught up with Erena Pillitteri, Graduate Recruitment and Development Specialist at Olswang, to learn more about the firm's vacation schemes and training contracts, tailored to fit each trainee's individual needs. 

  • Last updated Feb 10, 2018 5:07:22 PM
  • By Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutLaw.co.uk
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Image courtesy of Olswang

The application deadline for Olwang's fantastic vacation scheme is 15 January;  make sure you don't miss it.

How is the vacation scheme at Olswang structured? What do you feel sets it apart from others?

The vacation scheme lasts two weeks, during which students sit in two seats. They’re assigned a mentor – an associate – who’s responsible for them during their time in that seat.

Mentors give students work but we also encourage them to be pro-active and get to know others in the department, and get work from them.

Students are assigned a buddy – a firm trainee – who’s on-hand to help and provide support. Students often have lunch or coffee with their buddies, who are encouraged to introduce them to other trainees.

A number of interactive workshops and skills sessions give students a well-rounded view of the firm: sessions are specific to the firm’s practice areas, or are skill-specific, focusing on things like negotiation and debating.

We also organise social events for students and trainees; it’s a great way for students to meet Olswang trainees in an informal environment.

Students take written assessments during each seat. We also look at students’ performances during their time with us and get feedback from people they’ve worked with.

Taking all these elements into consideration gives us a strong indication of a student’s capability and suitability for the firm.

The scheme is personal and tailored to give students a real sense of what it’s like to work at Olswang. Our distinctive culture sets us apart from other firms; we have an ‘open door’ culture here which encourages students to mix with all levels of staff, from partners to business services.

All of this makes students feel very included while they’re with us, and feedback from vacation scheme students consistently references the friendliness and down-to-earth, inclusive nature of the firm.

Likewise, how is the training contract at Olswang unique?

As our intake of trainees is relatively small (12 a year), we dedicate lots of time and attention to each individual, working closely with them to help achieve their goals.

We want trainees take on early responsibility, so we get them involved in a very broad range of work.

Of course, trainees can’t escape typical “trainee” tasks like bundling, but we try to balance that with higher-level work where they can really get involved in a case.

Like our vacation schemes, we encourage trainees to get to know others in the department and seek work from other associates and partners.

We think this early exposure to senior stakeholders helps them grow and develop, as not only does it build confidence early in their career but helps them understand what senior solicitors are working on.

How are your scheme introductions structured? What sets Olswang apart from other firms?

We encourage vacation scheme students to get involved early on; and our scheme introductions are structured in the same way.

We have a morning of introductions and training on the first day of the scheme, but then students spend the latter part of the day in practice.  

Over the two weeks we hold a number of introductory sessions for each practice group, so students get a taste for each practice area. We like to keep these interactive rather than a lecture-type session; this engagement really helps them understand a department.

How much emphasis is placed on technical, skills-based learning in relation to hands-on work? For instance, are trainees given responsibilities with projects early on?

At the start of every seat, trainees undertake a training programme to teach them the technical skills they need for that seat.   We also have skills-based learning throughout the training contract.

This formal training complements the hands-on experience trainees have, and allows them to grow as lawyers. Our small intake means we can give our trainees early responsibility.

How are seat rotations managed? How do you handle a trainee’s integration into a new seat after they have spent months in another?

Trainees have a chat with HR to get seat move preferences for each trainee before we start looking at rotations.

We do our very best to match trainees to the seats they want, and trainees are mostly very happy with their allocations. We also offer trainees a ‘hot seat’: this is their priority seat that we guarantee they will sit in during their training contract.

When trainees change seats they handover with the trainee who was in that seat previously, to ensure a smooth transition.

We encourage trainees to stay connected following the seat move so they can ask their predecessor any questions they have in the early days of the new seat. This also helps develop relationships among trainees.

Trainees have departmental training that teaches them the technical skills they need for that seat. These are vital, equipping them with the knowledge they need to progress through the seat. 

Trainees are encouraged to keep close contact with HR throughout their training contract and speak to them if they ever have any concerns or problems.

Are there support systems in place for trainees, both professional and personal?

Trainees are assigned a partner mentor on joining the firm. This relationship is important for the trainee and their development, as the mentor provides them with consistent support throughout the training contract.

We also have a Trainee Liaison Committee; a forum for trainees to voice any concerns they have during their training contract. The TLC meets with HR and our Trainee Committee where we discuss concerns and decide action points.

On a personal level, we have an Employee Assistance Programme, offering confidential counselling to all employees. We also have HR support, to help trainees and staff through a wide range of issues.

How do international or client secondments work at Olswang, and where are the places that a secondee can find themselves working?

We’re very proud to offer a number of client secondments to our trainees, which are very popular as we offer positions with some key clients.

Secondment opportunities vary year on year but in the past we’ve placed trainees at the BBC, ITV, BP, Dentsu Aegis and Tesco. Secondments are a great way to get to know a client and they help with trainees’ development as a solicitor, as they get the chance to really understand a business and the pressures faced by them.

We ask all trainees during each seat move chat if they’re interested in client secondments, and once we have an idea of their preferences can work from there.

Although our international secondments are not as frequent as client secondments, we are able to offer these and do consider requests on an ad hoc basis. We recently had a trainee return from our Paris office on a six-month secondment, for example.

What are the benefits to undertaking an international or client secondment (e.g. both for employers and for employees)?

We very much encourage secondments, as they’re beneficial for both the firm and the trainee.  Client secondments are good for developing business relationships and international secondments help develop relationships between offices.

Similarly, for trainees, having exposure at client or international secondments gives them confidence and increased commercial awareness, as well as understanding clients’ businesses.

What is your main piece of advice for students looking to apply for opportunities at Olswang?

Do your research and make sure you know the basics: practice areas, culture, size and competitors. This will give you a good understanding of Olswang and help you decide if the firm’s right for you.

When applying think about the reasons you want to be a lawyer, and why you want to come to Olswang.  So many applicants write  ‘obvious’ answers and aren’t very convincing.

I would always encourage applicants to be genuine; we’d much rather read this and it’s much more convincing, particularly at interview stage.

The application deadline for Olwang's vacation scheme is 15 January.

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