Oct 18, 2021

Written By Emily Buckley

What’s the difference between legal work experience & a vacation scheme?

Oct 18, 2021

Written By Emily Buckley

So, you’ve examined your CV and decided it needs a boost. Beyond academic qualifications like a law degree or Graduate Diploma in Law, legal work experience is a great way to do this. It lets you explore different practice areas of law, see how the industry operates first-hand, and demonstrate your interest in the legal world. Vacation schemes are often seen as the essential ingredient to kickstart a legal career, but other forms of work experience are just as useful, and may better suit your requirements.  

Vacation schemes

Vac schemes are structured work placements in a law firm that generally take place in the spring, summer and winter, lasting from one to four weeks.

During this time, you will shadow trainee solicitors while undertaking similar tasks yourself; your performance is then evaluated by a partner or an associate. These errands range from carrying out legal research, taking minutes of meetings, proofreading, to drafting and modifying legal documents. There are also group exercises and projects simulating common professional scenarios, such as negotiations, to showcase your investigative, presentation and teamwork skills. 

As well as all this, vac schemes offer invaluable networking opportunities: programmes have built-in social events to meet other students and the firm’s employees. A salary or reimbursement for travel expenses could be included too.

If you have a particular firm in mind, this is a fantastic way of testing the waters to learn about their legal practice specialisms, clientele and company culture. In turn, it allows the firm to detect new talent: if recruiters like what they see, they can fast-track your career by offering a coveted training contract. Some firms, like Mishcon de Reya and Nabarro, even have a policy of securing their trainee intake through this channel alone.

While these programmes are open to law and non-law students, do check whether your favoured firm has a seasonal preference regarding your degree subject – sometimes the summer option is reserved for law undergraduates, for example. As these programmes are well advertised, each firm should make any caveats clear. The application process is pretty full-on and tends to run on a rolling basis, so applying early before all the places have been allocated is advantageous. It usually encompasses a written application, a test of your verbal reasoning and an assessment centre phase; the need to invest plenty of hours into the procedure means that research and strategy is vital. Quality over quantity should prevail!



Why might other legal work experiences be better?

Vac schemes’ popularity means that bagging a spot is extremely competitive. If your submissions are unsuccessful, you will need another way to demonstrate your dedication to this career and figure out which practice areas interest you.

Timing and finances are also key  factors. Those with other responsibilities – like employment or caregiving roles, or even geographical barriers – that remuneration will not resolve, may not have the resources to spend up to a month away from home on a vac scheme. In particular, aspiring lawyers that are also career changers may struggle. Those in this position might find that shorter, more hands-on, more local work experience suits better.


Insight days

As the name suggests, law firms take one day to show off their work and culture to potential trainees through office tours, staff presentations, trainee shadowing and workshops. These open days bring you face-to-face with the people best placed to advise on the firm’s vac schemes or training contract application processes, and can also be used by employees to scout students.

Insight days take place throughout the year and are accessible to all aspiring solicitors. They are a great alternative to vac schemes because they too require a thorough application process that delves into your traits, knowledge about the firm and commercial awareness. If you can attend a handful of these, potential employers will know that you are suited to the career without the need to give up weeks of your time.


Pro bono work

This voluntary route entails the provision of free legal advice or representation for those seriously in need, such as charities, and timeframes will vary on a case-by-case basis. 

Rather than spending time on simulated case studies, you will be exposed to real-life legal projects. Pro bono work can require client contact and takes the form of advice sessions, preparing documents, international legal work and research and interviewing and networking with non-for-profit organisations. 

If this is relevant to the area of law you’d like to practice, such as immigration, it should certainly be an avenue to research – the University of Law (ULaw) offers over 3,700 opportunities each year alone! 


Internships & shadowing

Speculative applications to local businesses’ legal departments or high street firms, for internships or work shadowing, could prove fruitful. This is a “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” approach – not everyone will respond with open arms, or be able to offer payment, but you might have pushed yourself to the front of the queue by approaching them first. 

This unstructured experience will also give you a realistic idea of the solicitor’s workload and could result in a position in the firm during the holidays or upon the completion of your studies. Well worth the speculative application!



Legal Work Experience