Vac Scheme Application Forms: It’s All About The ‘Challenging Situation’ Question

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By OccupyTheInns on

Barrister-to-be OccupyTheInns shares his pupillage hunt wisdom with wannabe solicitors as they prepare to submit their vac scheme application forms before the 31 January deadline.

As I come to the end of an enormously fulfilling period assisting on an international human rights and sustainability project, and find myself looking forward excitedly to taking up pupillage in September, I think often of law students at home struggling to make their way in the world. This is the time, of course, that they must apply for those godforsaken vacation schemes.

I know the challenges facing them all too well having applied for numerous vacation schemes myself – and undertaken one at a very prestigious City law firm – before deciding to follow the path of the barrister. Therefore, I believe that I may be of some assistance…

Before I proceed, let me make clear that my advice assumes the necessary level of academic attainment from the right institutions for candidates to be seriously considered by law firms. I also assume readers will have a robust CV containing many extra-curricular activities and work experience – something else which has long been de rigueur at the Bar, but now is also required at the best law firms, if to a slightly lesser degree.

At the Bar, the key differentiating factor on application forms is the “Why do you want to become a barrister?” question. It penetrates the heart of the issue: are you one of us or are you not?

For the pragmatic solicitors’ profession, priorities are different. Nevertheless, a single question on the vacation scheme or training contract application form stands out from amongst the crowd. It is the “challenging situation” question, which states: “Provide an example a challenging situation you faced. What key obstacles were you presented with and how did you overcome them?”

If I were of the solicitor persuasion, I believe my recent experience in international development would equip me perfectly to deal with this question. I have encountered more challenging situations than you could throw a stick at, with an encounter with a pack of wild dogs and the unwelcome attentions of a lady of the night not even the greatest ones!

But those stories are for another day. In any case, my greatest challenge – and the one that comes to mind if I were completing a vacation scheme application form today – has been being charged with helping a charming (but disorganised) band of locals change the lives of their own community for the better. As my first substantial experience of “management”, it has been both interesting and rewarding.

Although my calling has never been to work in an office environment, this experience has taught me that I possess the ability to organise teams – an absolutely essential attribute for a solicitor at a large law firm. So what key obstacles was I presented with and how did I overcome them?

Principally, they were twofold: achieving successful outcomes despite language difficulties and cultural differences, and confronting a resistance to established scientific views on sustainability. I overcame them through, firstly, education – of myself in the culture of a foreign land, and of its people in my knowledge of sustainability – and leading by example. This saw me gradually win the respect of the team and press forward to complete the project.

One example of how I did this was during the building of an irrigation canal. Despite having very little experience in this area, I was able to overcome the resistance I initially met from the local village people to the planned course of the new canal. Through a series of spontaneous in-the-field demonstrations, where I explained the basic science behind the chosen route of the canal, I won their understanding, respect and loyalty. As I prepare for a well-earned break at a nearby resort, I believe that these factors will ensure the legacy of the project going forward.

Good luck with your applications – and remember that an example of overcoming key obstacles closer to home can also make a powerful impact on application forms.

OccupyTheInns was called to the Bar in July 2011. He will commence pupillage in autumn. There’s more from OccupyTheInns here.