I applied for several vacation schemes when I was sitting the GDL, and I was fortunate enough to secure a two-week placement at large American firm during the summer. My experience may be limited compared to others, but I nevertheless hope that my 2 cents will be of help when you decide to apply for a vacation scheme and ultimately a training contract.
Approaching your work:
My placement allowed me to choose and sit in two areas of practice, and I picked litigation and capital markets. I had read about what the firm had done in those areas, and I was interested in learning more about the work going on in the London Office.
One reason why a vacation scheme is so valuable is because you have the opportunity to ask questions – and you are encouraged and expected to do so during your time there.
My work consisted of drafting, editing and legal research most of the time. Of course, this will not give you a full picture of the work you will be doing, but that is not the main point of a placement! You are not there to polish your legal skills. You are not even there to show that you are competent (this is expected of you when you are given a vacation scheme). You are there to show that you have a professional and proactive attitude towards your work. See your work not so much as a set of chores to keep you busy, but rather as a chance to for the supervisor to evaluate whether you can handle even more difficult work that he/she may have for you. And when I say that your supervisor is evaluating whether you can handle more difficult work, I mean that he/she is not only looking at the finished product, but also in how you approach your work – are you asking good questions, taking the initiative, building upon feedback etc.
But sometimes, that may not be possible. There may be a lull in the workload, and your supervisor – as impressed he/she is with you – simply cannot give you more work. But what about the rest of the staff in the department? Sometimes, if the day was going by slowly, I would go around the department asking others if I could be of help – trainees included! During the vacation scheme, it is important to that you take the initiative. Go around the department during the first day or two and introduce yourself to the associates and trainees – especially the trainees! (3 reasons: You will rarely know how many people are assessing or observing you, you will usually end up having more work, and most important of all you get to know some great people). Follow up with them, and ask if you can be of help.
Approaching the exercises:
My firm also organized a series of group exercises for the group. For instance, my group participated in two negotiation simulations one afternoon. Again, the firm will be assessing you here, and one of the things they are looking for is your leadership and your ability to work with a team.
One observation I have is that ‘timing’ – knowing when to speak – is incredibly important if you want to succeed in negotiations. Knowing when to speak up is crucial and it is just as important – if not more so – than what you say. You will not always have an opportunity speak – nor should you seek out every single minute opportunity to be overbearing and dominate the negotiations at the expense of your colleagues. Instead, you should seek to guide and facilitate the negotiations – set and direct the agenda! (There are of course, many other ways to be effective in negotiations, depending on your role and person) Also, do not hesitate from asking the other side questions, and do so in a succinct, but courteous way. A good negotiator always asks questions, and in doing so they guide and shape the outcome of the negotiation.
The best part of the vacation placement:
I will honestly say that the best thing that I took out from the two weeks was getting a chance to meet and know the trainees and associates who worked at the firm.
They gave me the common-sense advice that I have echoed here, and they gave substance and truth to the old cliché that the people make the organization. When I first applied for a vacation scheme, I was attracted by the nature of the work and the international presence of the firm and by many other things. But in applying for the training contract, I highlighted one simple reason before my interviewers: I wanted to work alongside the people I had met during my placement, because they were the best of the best in every sense of the word.
You may have many, many, good reasons for wanting to work at a particular firm. But if you use your time during your vacation scheme well, the best and most persuasive reasons (persuasive for you, that is!) for working at the firm will naturally stand out, adding clarity, substance and focus to your training contract application.
Jon Feng completed his LPC at The City Law School in June 2011.