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8 vac scheme application form hacks

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By Harrison Hutchinson on

Warwick history graduate Harrison Hutchinson, who starts a training contract at Shearman & Sterling next year, explains how to nail a vac scheme application

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1. It’s much easier to build an answer when you have a clear starting point

The unique questions on vac scheme application forms can be intimidating. This year, for example, Shearman & Sterling, where I completed a vac scheme last year, is asking: “As one of only a handful of elite, international law firms, how do you think Shearman & Sterling LLP maintains its competitive advantage?” When formulating a response to this sort of thing, it’s easy to get lost among a collection of vague ideas.

But if you can identify a key piece of information that is specific to the firm, such as an important recent deal which they handled, you have a starting point around which to build an answer. I based my response to last year’s question on a deal — the billion dollar revolving credit facility for Brookfield Office Properties on which Shearman acted for Deutsche Bank as a joint lead arranger and joint book running manager. The question was different, but the principle of structuring an answer applies the same.

2. Relate everything back to the firm

By highlighting the calibre of a deal, and how it plays to a firm’s strengths, you can demonstrate your broad understanding of how that firm fits into the market. The Brookfield Office Properties deal included a London element but was very international, which allowed me to mention the firm’s multi-jurisdictional presence. And, being so high value and complex, it was a good example of the firm’s strength in finance. From there, you can expand into other things you have found out about the firm that you believe give it an advantage — such as Shearman’s preference for lean teams and willingness to empower its lawyers with a lot of responsibility.

3. Start your research widely, then narrow in

There is a lot of information on firms’ websites, but to use it well it helps to have read around more widely first. Prior exposure to the financial and legal press makes the terminology you encounter easier to understand. And you of course need to find out which firms’ websites you want to go to in the first place. By the time I came to making vac scheme applications I knew I wanted to work for the London office of an American firm, largely because of the smaller size of their intake, greater personal responsibility offered to trainees and high quality of the deals they handle.

4. Find a way to work with what you’ve got

My personal opinion is that you’re at a slight disadvantage if you aren’t doing law at university. Answering the “Why do you want to be a City lawyer?” question — variants of which you’ll find on most vac scheme application forms — is harder if you have no experience of legal study. Fortunately, during my history degree I did a fair bit of legal history, which I enjoyed — and was able to build on in my application. The legal history led me to consider a career in commercial law. I did some work experience at a local firm, and at the same time started to find out about the large international deals done by big firms, became intellectually curious about how those deals work, and then and did some City vac schemes. In the end you can still build a compelling case without first-hand knowledge of being a law student.

5. Don’t lose sleep about the odd bad grade

Not all of my grades were brilliant. Although I graduated with a high 2:1, some of my first year results could have been better. The worst one was a 58. You obviously have to put that on the form. So just be honest. You’re not expected to be perfect, as long as you have good overall results. But be prepared to be asked about your lower grades at interview.

6. Lead with what’s most relevant to being a City lawyer

At times it’s about knowing what to leave out. With the word count so low on some application form questions, you need to start with what’s most relevant to working in professional services. So, for example, on the “activities, interests and positions of responsibility” section I led with a position I’d held on my history society executive committee as an events organiser. It showed that I could work well in teams and was motivated and reasonably organised. I fitted everything else around that. Similarly, there’s not enough space to list all your previous work experience, so I left off a waiter job which hadn’t involved any real responsibility. Positions that demonstrate your interest in finance are probably the most valuable.

7. Enlist the help of your peers

Some of the best advice I got was from other students who had been through the vac scheme application process. Which is why, as a non-law student, it’s a very good idea to join your university law society (the Warwick one was excellent!) — through which you meet people in a similar position to yourself and get exposure to trainees at law firms. If possible, try to get someone who has already secured a vac scheme or training contract to have a look at your form before you submit it. A good final proof can give a form a major boost.

8. An application doesn’t have to take all weekend — but it should take most of it

It took me a day and a half to complete my Shearman application last year. Editing down the core of what you want to convey into not many words takes time. I also applied to five or six other firms. It’s hard work, but do-able if you set aside a few evenings and weekends.

Harrison Hutchinson is a Warwick University history graduate. He will start his training contract at the London office of Shearman & Sterling in 2016.

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