A vacation scheme, or vacation placement, is the legal sector’s name for a spring or summer internship at a law firm.
Lasting between one and three/four weeks, a ‘vac scheme’ offers a period of formal work experience, usually aimed at a specific intake of graduates.
It is often accompanied by a programme of social events, and can form part of the recruitment process for training contracts.
The largest firms will offer several different vacation schemes with different eligibility criteria. These are usually aimed at second-year law students or final year non-law students, though this should not preclude you applying as a graduate if you are coming to a legal career later.
It is also worth noting that some firms are starting to offer different kinds of training contracts and vacation schemes that are aimed at STEM or tech-specific backgrounds. You can only apply to one option at a firm; if you have a relevant non-law degree or you have a hobby such as coding, make sure you research your options thoroughly.
Securing a place on a vacation scheme is useful and worthwhile, but it should be remembered that it is not the be-all and end-all when considering a career in law.
A vacation scheme is not the same as a training contract and has no guaranteed outcome; not every successful solicitor, or even trainee, secured a place on a vacation scheme.
So while it is an excellent place to start your legal career, do not despair if it remains elusive.
Reasons to Apply for a Vacation Scheme
Vacation schemes are designed to be informative for both the recruiter and the candidate. They are a good way to find out which of the various careers in law would suit you best.
It also looks great on your CV, as it shows commitment to a legal career, and that another law firm has seen potential in you as a future lawyer.
They are also an excellent way for employers to assess you. The way you interact with other people and use your skills in a working environment can reveal much more about you than a written application.
The firm will be judging you throughout your placement, both in the workplace and socially. Many employers view vacation schemes as a (rather long) interview.
At some firms, it can be hard to acquire a training contract if you have not first taken part in a vacation scheme, as the placement is very much part of the recruitment process.
At others, the vacation schemes are offered alongside a programme of insight evenings and open days, and are not a prerequisite.
Any training contract application will be boosted by having been on a vacation scheme. There will also be candidates who have been on a vacation scheme who do not progress to a training contract at that firm.
How to Choose a Vacation Scheme
Selecting firms to apply to for vacation schemes will require organisation.
You will need to pick according to your circumstances (degree subject and year) as well as interest and location – if you live in Leeds, for example, consider whether you’d be able to get to London and find somewhere to stay for a summer.
The order in which you make the applications will largely depend on closing dates. Particularly when you bear in mind that recruiters will often close the process when they have filled all the places – so early applications are essential.
There are specialist legal websites, such as LawCareers.net, which list all training contract, pupillage and vacation scheme deadlines for the largest firms and chambers. Note that these firms will also receive the largest number of applications.
To truly maximise your experience and to give yourself the widest options, you should try and line up a number of placements at a variety of firms. This should include small and niche firms that may not have their vacation schemes listed in aggregators – you will need to research and make applications direct.
Other options to consider for vacation schemes or work experience (some firms and organisations might not have formal vacation schemes) include:
Government Legal Profession. Placements are available in the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Transport, the Ministry of Defence or the Treasury. You could also consider your local council.
Commercial or investment banks and other large companies. Many run summer placements in their legal departments. You could also contact them to enquire about work shadowing.
Shadowing a barrister or applying for a mini-pupillage can help you to decide which career is right for you, and help you get valuable law experience.
Another option is to apply for a vacation job at a high street law firm. Perhaps more akin in many ways to a paralegal role, this will give you a greater insight into daily life as a lawyer, particularly if you are uncertain about large law firms or wish to specialise in family, residential property or criminal work. You may be able to shadow partners or associates attending meetings with clients, or even take notes at court if the firm you work for has a litigation department.
These other options should not be thought of as second-best – a law career can be fulfilling wherever you work and work experience will help you ascertain what suits you, not what your peers think of as success.
How to Apply for Vacation Schemes
If you are a law undergraduate thinking about a training contract, you will want to start applying for vacation schemes in your second year.
A lot of applications close around 31 January, so use the autumn term to prepare and apply.
If you are a non-law undergraduate, you will want to be doing this in your third year to complete in the summer, before you start the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
You may also already be doing the GDL or LPC when applying for vacation schemes, if you have not already secured a training contract. Again, you will need to use the first term of this course to organise yourself and prepare your applications.
Keep an eye out for any winter placements taking place over the Christmas vacation, as these might have application deadlines as early as October.
The actual applications will vary depending on the firms you are approaching but are usually similar to applying for training contracts. Some will be online forms, others will ask for a CV and cover letter.
You will need to demonstrate strong academic progress (or results) and commercial awareness, so far as you are able.
Make sure to list all your legal experience – this is where days shadowing a solicitor or judge can come in useful.
Some firms may hold interviews for vacation schemes; others will make offers based on the application alone.
If you don’t manage to get a placement straight away, don’t give up and keep on making those applications. It does not automatically follow that your legal career is over before it starts, because you did not secure a place on a vacation scheme.
Here are some tips for your application:
Spend time making sure that your CV is up-to-date.
Consider whether there are any clubs, activities or charities that you could get involved with during the autumn term, to maximise your CV.
Attend law fairs and also keep an eye on events and lectures being run by your law school or law firms/chambers, where you can learn something and network with lawyers at the drinks afterwards. Likewise, attend open days or insight evenings.
Do not write off any potential opportunities. If you need to earn some money, consider finding a part-time job that is related to law and which has the potential to help with your CV. Look for work where you can have exposure to or assist with project management, staff management or boost your commercial awareness.
Are Vacation Schemes Paid?
A vacation scheme is essentially an internship or work experience, and so it will vary from firm to firm whether you receive remuneration and how much.
Typically, most firms offering a formal scheme will make some payment – this may just cover expenses or, at the very largest firms, may be a reasonable amount of money (£200 to £500 per week in London).
Legally, if you are carrying out the role of a worker (you are doing something of benefit to the firm) you should be paid at least minimum wage.
Job shadowing is unlikely to fall under that description, as it is primarily of benefit to you and not the organisation, but it will depend on what you are being asked to do.
During Your Placement
Most vacation schemes require you to do some work for the firm, although most of your time will be spent work shadowing.
You may do basic tasks such as drafting, taking minutes at client meetings, writing letters and undertaking legal research.
At smaller firms, you may do a mix of practice work (for example, you might be given the same task as a trainee solicitor – such as research or drafting a document – and then will discuss the work in comparison with theirs), as well as more administrative or secretarial tasks.
These can be very helpful in learning the basics of how law firms and case management systems work (or even paper files, depending on the firm).
To get the most out of your placement, you will need to be a self-starter and be able to create opportunities. Show an interest in what people are working on, start up conversations with people in the kitchen, and ask if you can be involved in any way.
Do not waste this hard-won opportunity by spending your time sitting around waiting for someone to remember you are there and find you something to do.
Equally, do not pester people who are busy or who have made it clear that they do not have anything for you. You should be allocated a buddy or contact, so revert to them if needed.
At larger firms with more formal vacation schemes, there will almost certainly be a social side to the placement. There will also be opportunities to meet other members of staff such as current trainees, HR and partners.
You should use these opportunities to build relationships and contacts, and not just to take advantage of free drinks. Remember you will be assessed, even during the social aspect.
If there are no formal social opportunities, consider inviting trainees or even more senior staff for a coffee or a drink, to hear more about their career and work so far.
Showing an interest and an appetite to learn can take you far.
After Your Placement
Once the vacation scheme has come to an end, you may have a review with the firm to discuss how it went or what you learnt.
If at all possible, seek a list of what you carried out and for whom. This may be from the firm but, if not, you should keep a record yourself, including noting down the names of the people you met.
You may wish to refer back to this in due course, and it is always easier to record things at the time. You should then use this to update your CV.
Where appropriate, and this will vary according to who you met and where you carried out your placement, you should seek out the contacts you met on LinkedIn.
The longer-term outcomes of the placement will also vary:
You may realise that while a career in law is still for you, the firm in question is not. If this is your conclusion, it will not have been a wasted effort – as you now know better what you do want.
You may also have decided that a career in law is not for you. This is hard to tell from one placement, and it is more likely that a different sort of legal career is better for you.
If you are still interested in law, and the firm, your next step will be securing a training contract.
You might be interested in the firm but are not offered a training contract with that particular firm at the end of your placement.
If you are unsuccessful in being offered a training contract after your placement, try not to be disheartened.
Seek feedback if you can – it can be hard to ask and hear, but if you are to become a successful lawyer, understanding and refining your approach based on constructive feedback is a critical skill.
This may lead to you undertaking more successful placements (and a training contract) in the future. Remember that you did secure the placement in the first place, so you obviously have strong attributes and just need to find the right firm for you.
Some firms offer training contracts straight from vacation schemes and if so, you would expect to hear fairly soon afterwards.
At other firms, the process takes a little longer and will involve training contract interviews:
Some firms automatically grant interviews for training contracts to everyone who completed the vacation scheme.
At other firms, it may be that no-one gets a fast-track place and everyone is expected to make an application for a training contract.
Either way, you would expect the firm to be in touch very soon after the placement ends to set out the next steps.
As a candidate who secured a place on a vacation scheme, you should feel confident when preparing for the interviews, but check out our article on How to Get a Training Contract for more tips.
The road to becoming a solicitor is a long one that can take many forms. There are lots of different versions of what a successful legal career looks like; only you will know what that truly is.
Vacation schemes allow you to try out ideas and can also form an essential part of a law firm’s recruitment process. You may think you wish to be a corporate lawyer in a global firm, or you may aspire to make a difference to real people every day by becoming a criminal or immigration specialist.
This is your chance to experience these types of career first-hand, so make the most of your opportunities.
You may be successful on your first attempt – and if so, congratulations – but you may not.
You may never secure a place on a vacation scheme, as competition can be more fierce than for a training contract. You should not let that put you off a genuine desire to work in law.
There is usually another way or another opportunity, so keep persevering and be tenacious. Remember that what you learn from unsuccessful experiences can be the key to future applications.