Law firms recruiting exclusively from vac schemes — worrying trend or sensible step?

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The legal profession may become even harder to break into, argues one rookie City solicitor

Law is undoubtedly an extremely difficult profession to break into. After school comes years of hard work at university, followed by the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC), the Professional Skills Course and applications for training contracts.

In addition to all of this, students are now expected by many law firms to undertake a vacation scheme to prove their commitment to a career in law. These highly competitive work placements are now rarely viewed as just work experience. There is a growing trend of vacation schemes being used by law firms as the exclusive gateway to those elusive training contracts.

Focusing on the Legal Cheek Firms Most List, the following only recruit trainees from vacation schemes: Clyde & Co, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Dechert, Gateley, Gowling WLG, Herbert Smith Freehills, Jones Day, Mishcon de Reya, Ropes and Gray, Shearman & Sterling and Taylor Wessing.

What can we learn from this grouping? Firstly, there is no obvious single characteristic that unites these firms. Secondly, this is not an overwhelmingly large number of firms. In fact, the majority of firms continue to allow for direct training contract applications.

However, we must consider firms such as Skadden and Simmons & Simmons, both of which acknowledge that the “majority” of their trainees are recruited from the vac scheme. Indeed, you can find phrases like these on many law recruitment websites.

For example, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher says that “almost all of our trainees have been recruited from our summer vacation scheme”. Debevoise & Plimpton “recruits predominantly” from its vac schemers.

The 2020 Legal Cheek Firms Most List

Then there are the firms that recruit on a rolling basis, such as Sidley Austin. You can see how all of a firm’s TC spaces could be offered and accepted before direct applications are even looked at, if the candidates are good enough.

Why are more firms adopting this policy?

The most obvious advantage of the exclusive vac scheme policy is that it allows both firm and applicant to see if they are a good fit for each other. The law firm can treat the whole scheme as an interview. Mischon de Reya explains the rationale on their website: they “really want to get to know students… over a couple of weeks to ensure they are the right fit…” They have also found that they “hire almost all” of their trainees from the vac scheme. This unfortunately means for direct applicants there are “very few spots to offer”.

Back in 2014, one graduate recruitment advisor highlighted that “it is a gamble to join a firm when you have only experienced an assessment day” compared to weeks spent on a vacation scheme. While this may hold some truth, for some candidates, this gamble is their only chance.

Recruiting solely through vacation schemes would exclude candidates who cannot participate due to other commitments, such as being unable to get time off work. Many vacation schemes in summer now run for three weeks, making it practically impossible to participate if you have graduated and have a job.

Secondly, it can preclude those from a less wealthy socio-economic background from gaining a training contract. Firms pay their vacation scheme students in arrears, so if you don’t have enough money to pay for a hotel to stay in during your scheme, you may struggle to do one, as you won’t be paid the money to cover your food and accommodation until after you have completed the scheme. Even if a firm does pay upfront, whilst not ungenerous, the salary for vac schemes is simply not enough to cover travel, accommodation and food, particularly in London.

A worrying trend?

There is a danger if more and more firms adopt the exclusive vac scheme policy. If you secure a three-week summer scheme, that is practically your only chance that year of getting a training contract. If you’re a finalist and want to focus on exams, you better apply for a winter vac scheme which generally tend to be only a week long. If you have graduated and work full time, you better quit your job if you get a vac scheme offer. In my opinion, these are high risk gambles.

You don’t have to do a vac scheme to get a training contract, but the firms adopting this policy are sending the message that this is the only way to get one.

The whole purpose of a vacation scheme is to get a feel for what working at a firm will be like. But if this trend continues, the legal profession may become even harder to break into.

City Rookie (pseudonym) is a trainee solicitor in London office of an international law firm.

The 2020 Legal Cheek Firms Most List

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