Vacation schemes—key questions
So…what is a vacation scheme?
A vacation scheme is a period of work experience at a law firm, designed for anyone seriously considering a career as a solicitor. If your idea of work experience involves making hot drinks for employees or photocopying your way through the summer hols, think again. On a vacation scheme you’ll do real law work, network with everyone from partners to trainees, attend seminars and workshops designed to introduce you to life at the firm, and even travel to international offices in some cases.
Will I get paid?
Yes, you will get paid. Vacation-scheme salaries tend to be about £350-£450 per week, depending on the firm.
How many vacation schemes should I apply to?
Although you can technically apply to every vacation scheme you come across, we’d recommend keeping it to four or five applications in total. Any more, and you won’t be giving each application the time and research it deserves. Any less, and you risk putting all your eggs in one or two baskets.
Which firms offer vacation schemes?
A wide variety of firms offer vacation schemes: US, City and international firms, as well as the larger regional firms, should be your first port of call. Allaboutlaw.co.uk/law-jobs/vacation-schemes is a good place to start—you can narrow firms down by their location and type.
When will it take place—and for how long?
As the word “vacation” suggests, vacation schemes are held in the winter, spring and summer breaks for universities. Winter and spring vacation schemes tend to be less popular and have earlier application deadlines, from mid-autumn onwards. The more-popular vacation schemes are the ones held in summer: deadlines tend to be in January, although some fall earlier or later. You can expect your vacation scheme to last one or two weeks.
The vacation-scheme application form
The exact content of the application form will vary from firm to firm: graduate recruiters have put time and effort into ensuring that the application form tests you against the key values, competencies and commercial awareness relevant to their firm. However, in the interest of getting the right information together well in advance, here are some common sections to expect:
Personal details: The really obvious stuff, like your name, address, contact details and documents indicating your right to work in the UK.
Academic details and extenuating circumstances: This could include your GCSEs, A-levels, degree results so far and any predicted results. There will also be a section to explain any extenuating circumstances if you feel that your grades are not the best reflection of your ability.
Language abilities: In this fairly short section, the firm will collect information on the languages you speak.
Interests, activities and achievements: Some firms include a dedicated section for you to talk about these. It could include anything from society and committee positions to your mountain-eering expeditions. Be sure to communicate your personality!
Work experience: Here, you’ll be expected to list your previous work experience up to the time of applying. Include things like part-time jobs, internships and work shadowing. Remember, it can be law and non-law related, but try to think about how the competencies you gained by doing non-law work can be applied to a law career.
Law/commercial awareness questions: This section will include some specific questions to test your commercial awareness, and your awareness of the law firm. They won’t just be one-word-answer jobs: now’s the time to start thinking and construct your most impressive answers.
Equal opportunity: This part of the form is where you’re free to disclose details about your gender, race, and any disabilities you might have.
The questions you encounter on your law application form may be unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before. As daunting as commercial awareness, competency-based questions can seem at first glance, half of the challenge is figuring out exactly what the questions are asking of you. Here are some example questions on a hypothetical application form, to get you thinking.
Questions about you:
“What do you get up to in your spare time?” (150 words)
“What are you most proud of accomplishing to date?” (125 words)
“Talk about a recent challenge, and how you overcame it”. (150 words)
With these types of questions, it’s important to realise that recruiters are looking for competencies, not just experiences—they already know your work experience and activities from the earlier sections in the application form. This is your chance to expand, and really convey what you’ve gained from those experiences and activities. It’s important to make the connections between what you’ve done, and how that experience gave you the skills needed for a career in law.
For example, if you’re a talented piano player who has moved through several music grades, you might choose to talk about that in one of the above questions. You might know that playing the piano has made you an excellent time manager and kept you dedicated to a cause for years, eventually making you an integral part of an orchestra. Your future employer doesn’t. It’s up to you to do the work—look at the experiences you’ve had and lift the competencies you’ve gained from them.
When writing about your achievements and experiences in competency-based questions, think about the role you played and who you worked with in this particular instance. Put some thought into what went well and what you might do differently in future. Try to identify the competencies you showed.
Ultimately, there’s no standard way to communicate these things in an application form. You should carefully consider all of the different aspects of the question, and apply your own flair and personality to answering it.
Questions about the firm and about commercial awareness:
“How will technology have an impact on this firm in the next ten years?” (250 words)
“Tell us about a recent news article and why it intrigued you” (250 words)
Choose a legal issue and talk about how it affects the current market” (300 words)
It’s tempting to separate these questions into questions about the firm and questions about commercial awareness. In reality, a question about commercial awareness is also about the law firm, and a question about the law firm is prompting you to display some commercial awareness in the answer. Think about the areas in which the firm you’re applying to specialises, the locations where it’s based and how current events have an impact on these factors.
It’s important to think about the law firm in a business sense. How does it gain (and potentially lose) value? How could it add value better? What does it need to know about its competitors? What external issues are affecting it? This means carefully researching the firms that you’ll be applying to, so you’re fully aware of their values, culture and areas of specialty.
When you’ve finished answering the various questions on the application form, run through this checklist:
Have you demonstrated commercial awareness?
Have you talked about several of your key competencies, using examples?
Have you spoken about the firm: the type of work in which it specialises and its values? Have you slotted yourself in and shown how you’d work well in this environment?
Once you’ve done that, all that remains is to give it a good proof-read and hit send.