As work experience season gets underway, a law student, a trainee and a City firm graduate recruiter share their experiences of vac schemes at Hogan Lovells, Mayer Brown and Norton Rose Fulbright.
Cambridge University student Madeline Hirschfield, who is set to join Hogan Lovells in 2015 after completing a vac scheme at the firm last year, advises City law hopefuls to prepare to receive and process as much information about their surroundings as possible.
“Be perceptive,” she urges. “Take note of the people around you and decide whether this is somewhere you would be happy to come to everyday. Although large City law firms all look very much the same from the perspective of an undergraduate, they have very different atmospheres on the inside. Take note of the way the colleagues interact with each other and decide whether the character and personality of the firm is right for you.”
Mayer Brown trainee solicitor Zsolt Vertessy is similarly keen to stress that vac schemes are a “two way street”.
“You should be looking at the firm,” he says. “Could you see the yourself at that firm? I did two vac schemes, one of which was at the firm I am now training at. In the end I didn’t apply to the other one. From my experience I found that the culture and mentality of law firms can be very different. So, to an extent, you are assessing them. Of course, they are also assessing you. Ideally, a vac scheme should be a balance of both these processes.”
Jillian Dent, trainee recruitment advisor at Norton Rose Fulbright, encourages students to look at a vac scheme as one long opportunity to impress.
“It’s important to go in with the right psychological mindset,” she says. “Every task students receive is an opportunity to impress. Partners will often send us emails highlighting students who they have been impressed with, which obviously can play a part in the training contract selection process.”
2. ASK QUESTIONS
Hogan Lovells’ Hirschfield encourages vac schemers to ask lots of questions, while being thoughtful about who they are directed at.
“What is it like to work here? What departments have they enjoyed the most and why? Think about what level of employee in the firm is best placed to answer particular questions; a partner, a trainee, a senior associate? You are likely to be applying to many law firms for training contracts: ask the trainees (who are likely to have friends in other firms) how they feel that this particular firm differentiates itself from the best,” she says.
Recalling how he missed out on an intellectual property seat that he had fancied, Mayer Brown’s Vertessy urges vac schemers not to be afraid to pro-actively seek out individuals whose experience might be helpful to them:
“My seats were in corporate and competition law, but I also wanted to know more about IP, so I chatted informally to a trainee sitting in the IP department. It was just a case of going over to him at an informal drinks event and introducing myself. Vac schemes throw up these sorts of opportunities, and it is worth taking them.” he says.
While all interactions are important, stresses Norton Rose Fulbright’s Dent, those between students and partners can define a vac scheme. Accordingly, be bold.
“Students on our vac scheme get a lot of contact with senior people over what is a very concentrated two week period,” she explains. “Often, it takes place through semi-formal events, such a breakfast briefing on a particular practice area, after which questions are asked. It’s normal to be nervous in these situations, addressing partners while being observed by your peers, but it pays off to take a risk and ask a question. Do it once, and you set the tone for the whole vac scheme. Next time, it will be so much easier to put your hand up.”
3. PARTICIPATE — IN EVERYTHING
Participating whole-heartedly in the out-of-hours events organised during a vac scheme is a sign that you are committed, says Hirschfield.
“While at the firm, immerse yourself as fully as possible in the extra activities on offer,” she advises. “Often graduate recruitment teams will set up a host of events for you to attend, which are a lot of fun and a great way to make friends with your potential future colleagues. They are also an important way for the firm to get a feel of you as a person outside of the office; it’s important to show commitment and involvement in all aspects of the life of the firm.”
Dent agrees, emphasising that a vac scheme is, after all, a mere two weeks. Given that they are with them for such a short period of time, firms expect students to get involved.
“During the time they are here vac schemers should take every opportunity they get,” she says. “Aside from the social events, things are constantly coming up that are not always in the official schedule, such as opportunities to sit in on a conference or a meeting, or assist on a piece of work. When the email goes round asking for volunteers, volunteer!”
Nevertheless, if you’d rather not do something — such as karaoke — it’s OK to pass, reassures Vertessy.
“Drinks, karaoke and bowling are common vac scheme activities, in my case I even got a trip to Mayer Brown’s Brussels office. Of course, some activities aren’t for everyone. And that’s OK. Participate as much as you can, but you also have to be yourself. You are sampling an organisation where you are hopefully going to be working for a long time,” he says.
4. STAY ENTHUSIASTIC (EVEN WHEN YOU’RE NOT FEELING SO ENTHUSIASTIC)
With many students doing two or even three vac schemes during a single summer, Dent has identified a tendency for some to experience burn-out during later schemes. This manifests itself, on occasions, in a slightly blasé attitude.
“Veterans of several schemes can become a bit too comfortable with the process,” she says. “They might relax a bit too much and forget that this is still a time to impress, perhaps by not being as formal with senior members of the business as they should be.”
Even during a single scheme, spirits can flag, especially when assigned to a department that wasn’t a first choice. Go with the flow and keep and keep an open mind, and you’ll have a better time, suggests Hirschfield:
“It is likely that you will be working in a number of different departments over the course of your scheme; approach each of them with equal enthusiasm and interest. You may be disappointed with a particular allocation that was not your first choice, and yet end up finding it to be very interesting. A vacation scheme is a fantastic opportunity to explore areas of the law that you have not previously considered; don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Ultimately, reflects Vertessy, the vac scheme should be all about building up to the training contract interview at its conclusion.
“As the scheme goes on, you should try to think through what you have done and what you have achieved on the scheme, what you have enjoyed and what you haven’t. These are the sort of experiences that, if thoughtfully reflected upon, can form the basis of a strong training contract interview performance,” he says.
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