Step 1: Lay the groundwork
First year is an ideal time to start laying the foundations for your vacation-scheme application. Start with being proactive in university life (for instance, through extra-curricular activities or volunteering) and working hard to get decent grades in your first-year modules. You can also start putting out feelers to law firms: apply to attend insight days and open days at as many firms as you can. Not only is this a great way to enter the sector, it’s also good practice for vacation-scheme applications.
Put that long summer holiday to good use by doing work experience, holding down a temporary job, volunteering or similar. It’s also of paramount importance that you build your commercial awareness, so you have a good idea of what's going on for the legal sector and for its clients.
This may all seem irrelevant, but what you’re doing here is building upon the experiences and competencies that will later fill out your vacation-scheme application form.
Step 2: Do your research
Come autumn term in your second year, you’ll be polishing your shoes and swotting up on your law-firm research as you attend career events and law fairs. They provide excellent chances to meet representatives of law firms and ask them questions about their law firm and the vacation scheme.
Think about where you want to do your vacation scheme. What areas of practice are you interested in? What size of law firm? You can browse our law-firm profiles for information on all of the major firms, as well as the practice areas.
Researching the firm will make it much easier to make a strong application. Law firms are keen for you to link your answers back to the firm… and to do that, you’ll need to have a good understanding of it!
Step 3: Check those deadlines…
Through careful research and speaking to the contacts you’ve met through on-campus careers events, you should have established a wish list of law firms you want to work for. What’s left now is to send off that online application. But first… check the deadlines!
The deadlines for summer vacation schemes fall throughout January, with many falling on January 31. Some are earlier, others are later: never just assume the deadline of your firm of choice. For winter and spring vacation schemes, the deadlines fall earlier: in October or November for winter schemes and slightly later than that for spring schemes. Whichever scheme you’re going for, it’s a good idea to get your application in early, as law firms recruit on a rolling basis.
Step 4: The application itself
These days, most firms will expect you to fill out an online application form. Make sure you’ve got all your key details ready to go: that means grades, national insurance number and all your correct contact information.
You can expect a mix of questions on your past experiences, key competencies, as well as specific commercial-awareness questions. Now is the time to use all of those great career-building experiences you took part in as a first-year—make it explicit how these helped you and what areas of law they got you interested in.
Vacation-scheme applications ask a set of response-based questions, such as, "When choosing vacation schemes to apply to, what criteria did you use and why do you believe our law firm meets those criteria?" If you’re planning to respond to the application questions with standardised answers, please let us stop you there.
Standardised responses stick out like a sore thumb and recruiters won’t even bother to read through a generic application. Additionally, never, ever, ever copy and paste answers you found on the internet.
Use the word counts provided. There’s nothing worse than a ten-word response to a 500-word essay question. Remember always to link it back to the firm, and why you specifically would be a good fit for that firm.
Step 5: Psychometric tests
Some firms will require you to complete psychometric tests as part of your vacation-scheme application, such as a verbal-reasoning test. You might do this online as part of the application-form stage, or you might do it slightly later at the assessment-centre stage. Depending on the test you have to complete, it’s a good idea to do some practice tests so you can get to grips with the format.
Step 6: Interview or assessment centre
If your application is successful, then you’ll probably be invited to an interview or even an assessment centre. For both of these, a keen awareness of what the firm does (and how it functions as a business) and your own strengths and weaknesses will really stand you in good stead.
Be prepared for questions such as, “Why a career in law?” and “Why a vacation scheme with this firm?” Additionally, you should know your CV and cover letter back-to-front, upside-down, left-to-right, right-to-left and any other way possible, for when you’re asked about the experiences you mentioned.
Also, with competency-based questions (so questions such as, “Tell us about a time you handled a difficult situation”), don’t be afraid to mention experiences from a part-time or weekend job.
Not everything has to be related to legal work experience and, rest assured, the people asking the question would have had part-time or weekend jobs too—it’s a part of working life! It will still show your hardworking nature and how you deal with difficult situations.
Read back over your application form, keep reading the news and finance publications to keep on top of your commercial awareness, and do some extra research into the firm.
Step 7: Receive your response
Do well at the interview and/or assessment centre and, come summer, you’ll find yourself suited and booted, ready to start your vacation scheme with a law firm. If so, congratulations! It might not be as smooth sailing as instant acceptance: vacation schemes remain competitive at every stage, so if you get rejected at this stage, don’t panic. Ask for feedback (the law firm is much more likely to offer this to an interviewee rather than at the application-form stage) and use what you learn to build on your technique for next time.
Next article: How to write a vacation-scheme CV