The ultimate aim for many aspiring solicitors is often to secure a training contract. Technically speaking, a training contract is a period of work experience with a law firm lasting two years and cycling through numerous ‘seats’ (different practice areas), thus satisfying the new SQE (Solicitors Qualifying Examination) route’s requirement for QWE (Qualifying Work Experience) – or the requirements for the old LPC route.
After two years, those aspiring lawyers on a training contract may be offered an associate position at the firm – as a fully qualified lawyer. However, many training contracts actually combine this promise of work experience/training with a scholarship through law school – major law firms will often pay the tuition fees for their future trainees on the GDL/PGDL, LPC, SQE, etc, and additionally offer a free maintenance grant to support living costs during that period.
Securing a training contract is clearly a great achievement – but to get to that stage, aspiring solicitors will usually need to complete a vacation scheme at a firm. There are exceptions that allow direct training contract applications, such as those who already have legal work experience so it’s always best to check with your target firms directly about this.
It’s important to note that not everyone on a vacation scheme will be offered a training contract at the end which is the ultimate goal of the entire experience for many. However, the percentage of vacation scheme participants that are offered a training contract varies widely between firms. Firms rarely provide these statistics publicly, but, anecdotally speaking, it can range from anywhere between 90% to less than half.
It’s crucial to make sure you prepare in order to ensure that you’re in the percentage that secures the exit offer. This article deals with the bridge between these two big moments in an aspiring lawyer’s career – in other words, how to convert your vacation scheme into a training contract.
This is a simple action you can take throughout your scheme which will prove invaluable once you approach your exit interviews at the end of the placement. The key reason for doing this is to make it easier to remember individual tasks throughout your vacation scheme which can be incorporated into your answers at exit interviews. The only real differentiating factor between exit interviews and the interviews you took to secure a vacation scheme in the first place is, after all, the fact that you’ve now had some tangible experience at the firm. So, when the inevitable ‘tell me what you got up to during the scheme’ comes up, you’ll have looked over your diary the night before, and have plenty of tangible examples to draw upon.
This should be obvious to most, but the work you receive in your practice area (or practice areas if it’s a longer scheme) needs to be completed to the best of your ability. Your supervisors will often be asked at the end of the scheme to comment upon your practice area work to the hiring team (e.g. graduate recruitment), so it’s essential that you put your best foot forward throughout the time that you’re there. Try your best to complete everything on time, to a high standard, and even make the effort to go above and beyond occasionally. Equally, if anything is confusing or doesn’t make sense, don’t stress at all – just ask your supervisor for further clarification.
Most vacation schemes test your work ability on two fronts – first, via the practice area work, and second, via some kind of group task you have running along in the background throughout the scheme. It can be easy to neglect this project in favour of focusing all of your attention on the work your supervisor is setting, but it’s really important to still put in the effort here. The recruitment team will be looking to see you demonstrate the ability to co-ordinate yourselves and work effectively as a team via this task (which is often in the form of a presentation delivered towards the end of the scheme). This is your opportunity showcase some crucial ‘soft skills’ for a lawyer.
While academic excellence is obviously extremely useful, one of the most underdiscussed traits required in a lawyer is interpersonal skills – how you can communicate (and just generally ‘get on’) with both clients and colleagues. Ensuring that you come across as personable throughout the scheme is really useful – allow your personality to shine through. While you naturally need to remain professional in your interactions, it also does help to be warm and friendly in your discussions throughout the scheme.
Building on the idea of showing personality, it’s important to demonstrate some enthusiasm towards the vacation scheme. Of course, no one is expecting you to start jumping for joy each time you’re assigned a piece of legal research – but asking interesting questions and approaching problems with a sense of curiosity can be a great way to impress supervisors. In short, try to become genuinely engaged in your work – it comes across more than you might think.
If you’re looking to demonstrate your enthusiasm, a great way to do so is by being proactive in seeking out work in other places. If you’re supervisor is particularly busy during the scheme, for example, and you’ve finished the work they’ve set you with plenty of time to spare, it could be a good idea to ask around and see if anyone else in that team wants a helping hand with anything. This is the approach a lot of elite US firms take to work allocation throughout their daily operation and it really highlights your enthusiasm further.
If you’ve followed all of the steps above (and kept a diary throughout logging all of these activities), you’ll have plenty to discuss at your exit interviews. As already mentioned, the same kind of questions you faced when applying to a vacation scheme will likely resurface (e.g. ‘why law’, ‘why this firm’, ‘why you’, etc.), but the key difference this time is being able to incorporate your vacation scheme activities into your answers. For example, you could think of a particular piece of completed work you’d like to briefly discuss (if asked whether you had any particularly interesting experiences on the scheme). You also want to ensure your answers throughout this interview emphasise the qualities already highlighted – for example enthusiasm, a good work ethic, great teamwork skills, or a proactive approach to work.
A final point to note is that you can now incorporate things into your answers which were previously impossible before applying to vacation schemes – the most notable example probably being the culture of the firm, which only now have you encountered first-hand.
Linking to this idea of seeking work out elsewhere if you’ve got time, it can be really useful to spend some of your scheme networking with staff across the firm. Your supervisor might introduce you to some other lawyers in their practice area at the beginning of the scheme – this is a great way to start making contacts. Or perhaps you have a particular interest in IP but you’re in a Banking seat for the vacation scheme – why not visit the IP team and ask one of the junior associates there if they’d have time to fit you in for a quick coffee one day so that you can ask them about their practice area and work? These kind of informally (and proactively) arranged ‘coffee chats’ have become a almost compulsory element of the modern vacation scheme landscape. Again, this is great material to discuss at your exit interview.
Many vacation scheme participants will make the mistake of only bothering to network and get to know staff already at the firm. In reality, the recruitment team are looking at the cohort of vacation schemers as the next potential cohort of trainees, and so they’ll be looking to see that there’s some decent chemistry between you all, too. The group project is the easiest way to demonstrate this. Many vacation schemes also offer a handful of social events after work (organised by the firm) – ensuring that you’re engaged at these is really useful as well. Producing the best work in your practice area of any vacation schemer means very little if you demonstrate a serious disinterest in interacting with anyone at your own level.
Securing a vacation scheme is always a huge achievement for an aspiring solicitor. However, it’s important not to take your eye off the ball at this stage, and ensure that you’re able to convert your scheme into a coveted training contract. By demonstrating the qualities highlighted above (both throughout your scheme and at your exit interview), you’ll be in a great position to ensure the conversion is successful.
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