Vacation schemes are a little bit like a matchmaking service where future trainees and law firms test the waters before committing to a training contract.
Typically, these schemes are aimed at students about to go into the final year of their degree and offer some practical experience, help shape your future direction at a firm and allow you to build contacts.
Most importantly, vacation schemes are often a gateway to a training contract. For example, Pinsent Masons offers summer vacation schemes of between two and three weeks, and approximately 70 per cent of its trainees have undertaken a vacation placement.
Glasgow graduate Katy Docherty did a summer vacation scheme at Pinsent Masons. Here she talks about how she found it and how it helped her get a training contract, and offers her advice for students interested in a career in commercial law.
What kind of work were you involved in?
My vacation scheme lasted two weeks and I was based in the Glasgow office. I was studying law at Glasgow University so it was nice to be working in a city I knew well.
I was placed in the litigation department, which covers quite a few areas of law, and was assigned a trainee buddy and a supervisor who was an associate at the firm. A few weeks before the placement began my buddy contacted me to let me know what they had planned, which helped settle my nerves.
During the placement my supervisor was working on licensing matters to do with the sale of alcohol, so I had the chance to attend Licensing Board meetings and take notes.
I was also able to do some more independent work and produced a document for a client with a number of establishments in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The document I produced allowed them to easily see what licences they had and when they had to renew them. I had to be really thorough and make sure that it was completely accurate - it really tested out some of my practical legal skills.
I also worked on a complex legal problem involving partnership law. I was asked to look into whether or not someone can sue individual partners once their partnerships have ended.
At first it appeared that you couldn't, but when I dug a bit deeper I found that there are ways to do so. It was similar to what I did at university in that it was pure legal research, but I preferred it because I had a client in mind, which gave me a clearer goal and a greater level of focus.
My vacation scheme wasn't just about the practical experience. Pinsent Masons organised presentations by partners from different departments, which helped me find out more about the work of the wider firm.
One of the talks was about contentious construction law (which involves resolving disputes arising out of building contracts) and non-contentious construction law (drawing up building contracts and related work).
Construction is an area of law that really appeals to me and I was able to ask my supervisor to put me in touch with the solicitors in the department. I spoke to a trainee there who was very helpful and offered me some advice on doing a seat in construction during a training contract.
How did you get to know the people at the firm better?
Pinsent Masons put quite a lot of emphasis on us meeting and getting to know everyone at the firm - it's a really sociable place.
There was a partner lunch in a local restaurant and a dinner with trainees, but the best event was a cocktail-making class! I was surprised because I didn't expect to be doing that sort of thing at a law firm.
I can't say I was the best at it, but it was a great way of getting to know the trainees and other vacation schemers and we had great fun learning how to make the perfect mojito while having a laugh along the way.
It really gave me a sense of what life is like for trainees at the firm because it was more informal than other events, and I felt as though I got their honest opinions as well as a feel for the firm's culture.
How has the scheme shaped your next steps in your legal career?
The vacation scheme really set up my career because soon after the placement finished, Pinsent Masons offered me a training contract. I still have to complete the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (the Scottish equivalent to the LPC), and then I'll start my training contract in September 2014.
Any advice for future applicants?
When it comes to the interview, I think it's best to be as honest as possible. They do ask about your weaknesses but don't try to make yourself sound perfect, because they know no-one is. Instead they're looking for people who are interested in feedback to help improve themselves.
Once you're on the vacation scheme, if you have an interest in another department to the one you're placed in, don't be afraid to get in touch with them, because it shows you're keen. Getting as much experience as possible will also help you when you're trying to make decisions about your future direction as a commercial lawyer.
Finally, don't be scared of commercial firms. I think everyone always seems nervous about applying to them - they think they won't be very friendly places - but when you get here, you realise it's not the case at all.
Why do a vacation scheme at Pinsent Masons?
It's flexible and varied
I chose the Pinsent Masons vacation scheme because I liked the variety of departments they have and their sector-based approach (for example, there are lawyers who focus on infrastructure, or on energy and natural resources).
I also liked the fact that Pinsent Masons has offices in other jurisdictions in the UK and abroad, because it means that lots of trainees have the chance to do secondments elsewhere in the country and overseas.
There are some great opportunities
The focus of the placement was about the legal work, which is exactly what I was hoping for. I was able to work alongside lawyers and get involved with real client matters.
With a firm as big as Pinsent Masons, there's the risk of feeling a bit lost, but I found that somebody was always there to help if you needed it.
I liked the way that, when you were assessed for a training contract place at the end of the vacation scheme, everybody gave feedback on your input throughout the two weeks. It really felt like they invested a lot in you as a potential trainee.