You might be in the depths of winter at the moment, but it's already time to start thinking about next summer—specifically, securing yourself a vacation scheme.
It's well-known that vacation schemes are highly competitive. A vacation-scheme student will, at the very least, be considered for the firm's training contract. At the most, vacation schemers might have an exit interview that lands them a training-contract place. As a standalone piece of work experience, vacation schemes are premium: you have first-hand experience doing real work at a top law firm, in just your second year of university.
Once you've decided that a vacation scheme is a good idea, the next stage is applying. For summer schemes, applications tend to open in October and close in January—but firms do differ in their opening and closing dates, so make sure you double-check everything.
It all starts online
"We ask candidates to write a covering letter to support their application," explains Danielle White, graduate recruitment and development manager at Mayer Brown. It's usually in the longer sections with heftier word counts that you'll be expected to prove your commercial awareness, key competencies, and understanding of the firm. You need to go above and beyond for this: simply stating "I am commercially aware," or "I understand the firm's culture" won't impress graduate recruiters. "At this stage, we want to see evidence of motivation and drive for a career in law," explains White, who expects candidates to demonstrate that they have “researched the firm, have a good level of commercial awareness and have taken time in writing the application”.
The research process
With this in mind, you need to do your research before you start to write your application form. The firm websites are where you should start—many firms have dedicated careers websites, where you can find details of vacation schemes and training opportunities. You’ll be able to see if the training principles at the firm match your ambitions, as well as gain an understanding into the culture of the firm as a whole.
But you should also pay a visit to the main website of the law firm. Mayer Brown has its own perspectives section, with podcasts, webinars and articles about the different areas of practice and jurisdictions it operates across. Not only is this a great way to broaden your commercial awareness, but it’s also a good chance to explore the cases, transactions and clients the firm has been involved with recently.
However, if you really want to impress the graduate recruiters, your research shouldn’t stop there. “It’s great when people can demonstrate what differentiates us from other firms, as this has usually involved making contact with people in the firm and making the effort to really understand our culture,” said White. Whether it’s by sending a trainee a LinkedIn message, or approaching firm representatives at a university networking event, there are plenty of ways to go above and beyond in your research.
Commercial awareness is important in all careers, but particularly so in law—after all, you’ll need to know your clients’ market inside out in order to advise them as best you can. At the application stage, White says, “knowing about Mayer Brown as a business, the services we provide and the market in which we operate is important”, as is “being able to articulate why you want to work for us and who our competitors are”.
The best way to get a sense of the commercial world in which law sits is by reading the major industry publications, as well as the more general business and finance newspapers, such as the FT and The Economist. It will help you to map issues out over time and understand how those issues might affect law firms and their clients.
Understanding is the first element—the second is being able to talk about commercial matters eloquently. “At the telephone interview and assessment day stages [of the vacation scheme], you’ll be expected to demonstrate a greater level of commercial awareness,” says White. If you know your stuff, but aren’t confident talking about it, the best advice is to practise. Getting involved in debating society, or even just having commercially-focused conversations with friends, is the best way to build your confidence ahead of the interview or assessment centre.
As mentioned, there is space on the Mayer Brown application form to discuss your work experience. White advises that it’s not just about legal work experience, saying: “If a candidate hasn’t been able to gain legal work experience, they need to think about the skills and competencies they have developed through non-legal work experience or extracurricular activities.”
With this in mind, it’s worth shifting your focus slightly when writing about work experience. Instead of thinking solely in terms of what you did, you need to identify exactly what you gained from that experience. Did your part-time job in a coffee shop help you to manage your time more effectively? Or when volunteering at your local Citizens Advice, did you learn how to communicate with a wide variety of people in a professional manner? “It’s important for a candidate to be able to demonstrate how the skills and competencies they have developed (through any means) can be applied to the role of a trainee solicitor”.
It’s worth making a list of all of your experiences and then writing down the competency gained from that experience, before filling out your application form.
Mayer Brown's top three tips for the application process
Ensure that your application is grammatically perfect. “Spelling, grammar and attention to detail are very important,” says White. Give your application a thorough proofread and take your time to complete each section.
Tailor your application to the firm. Graduate recruiters can tell if you’ve copied and pasted elements of your application. “You wouldn’t believe the number of applications we receive that have information about why a candidate wants to apply for a firm that isn’t Mayer Brown,” says White. The research process is crucial and not a step to be skipped!
Identify what makes you stand out from the crowd. There’s no need to hold back when describing your achievements, academics and what you’ve overcome. “So many candidates impress me with their personal stories of hard work, resilience and commitment,” says White. “Some candidates’ academics and level of studies are in themselves impressive, whereas others’ ability to juggle multiple commitments and overcome personal obstacles are also commendable.” Now is the time to sell yourself and figure out what makes you stand out from the rest.