As well as giving you an excellent insight into the workings of a law firm vacation schemes help to demonstrate your commitment to the legal profession

What is a law vacation scheme?

Lasting anything between one week and a month, a vacation scheme will help you to improve your skills and legal knowledge and also give firms a chance to take a closer look at you. You'll meet partners, associates, solicitors and trainees and find out more about the structure of work and training, the culture of the firm, and what cases and transactions actually involve. It's also a good opportunity to gain a better understanding of the skills and personal qualities that the firm is seeking and what they mean in practice. To find out what's available take a look at areas of law.

The structure will vary with each firm but generally you'll be assigned a supervisor and a buddy and placed with two practice groups where you'll get the opportunity to work on live cases and transactions. You will also get to shadow lawyers, sitting in on client meetings and observing them giving legal advice. There may also be workshops, seminars and presentations for you to attend and, depending on the size of the firm, some social events.

Will it help me get a training contract?

Some firms automatically treat work experience candidates as applicants for training contracts, while others ask students to apply separately.

If you can't get on a vacation scheme all is not lost. You could arrange some work shadowing, which is a much shorter stint of experience that will still provide a little bit of insight. Or you could use your time to do pro bono work, which will also show your commitment to a career in law. Alternatively you could do some work experience in another sector or get a part-time job and, while this may not provide you with specific legal skills, it will build your soft skills and give you real life examples to use in interviews.

When should I do a vacation scheme?

Placements with the biggest firms are usually at Easter, Christmas or during the summer of law undergraduates' penultimate year (or the final year for non-law students). Many of the larger firms open for applications in the autumn, and may have pre-Christmas closing dates for Easter and summer vacation work. 'An increasing number of firms are also providing vacation schemes or work experience for first-year students,' says Valerie Matthews-Lane, senior careers consultant, School of Law, University of Warwick.

Deadlines for summer work experience placements tend to fall between January and April, several months ahead of training contract applications. However, the best advice is to research early as increased competition for places means that schemes may be brought forward. Firms may be quite specific about what sort of applications they want and when, such as final-year non-law students at Easter and penultimate-year law students in the summer.

There isn't a magic number of placements that you should do and the more experience you get the better. If you're unsure what you want to do, you should do vacation schemes in different-sized firms and in those that offer a variety of specialisms to help you decide. You need to make sure that the schemes you're applying to are worthwhile and will add something to your development - don't just do them to fill up your CV.

To see what's on offer, search law vacation schemes.

Will I be paid?

'Most firms are likely to pay something, even if it is just to cover expenses,' explains Valerie. The Chambers Guide produces a , which shows how much firms pay, although not all firms choose to disclose this information.

You should receive at least the National Minimum Wage in the UK if you're performing the role of a worker. The most telling factors of a worker are set hours, duties or responsibilities. However, you should consider the arrangement as a whole in determining your right to pay - work experience should be for your benefit, not the employer's. If you're part of the commercial operation of a business, you're likely to be entitled to payment.

How do I apply?

A typical law firm may receive more than 2,000 applications, and because of this not all will wait until the deadline to shortlist applicants. 'Starting early will give you the best chance of succeeding, as will getting help with your application,' adds Valerie.

'Draw up a list of firms you’d like to apply to and schedule time to research the organisation. Most large and mid-sized firms are likely to have multi-stage application processes, which start with registration and an online application form. Smaller firms usually require a completed online application form or a CV accompanied by a cover letter.'

Whatever documents you send this is your opportunity to explain why you want the vacation scheme and what you'll be brining to the firm. Get help and advice on writing your legal CV and cover letter.

You may also need to attend a one-to-one or panel interview where you could be asked questions including:

  • Why do you want to be a solicitor?
  • Who are our main competitors?
  • What stories in the business press have caught your eye?

You should prepare responses beforehand and ensure you have examples to draw upon. Careers advisers should be able to help you with mock interviews and how best to answer the questions.

What makes a good application?

  • Know what's happening in the legal profession e.g. firm mergers, partner moves, new client panel wins and law firm revenues and profitability.
  • 'Allow plenty of time to research the firm, practice areas and high-profile cases,' says Valerie. 'Focus on one application at a time and ask your university's careers services to review it before sending.'
  • Be clear about why you want a law career. It's a challenging option and you need resilience and determination; demonstrate your passion and be confident that you are committed to this career.

How do I make the most of my placement?

  • 'Complete all tasks to the best of your ability and ensure the work that you submit is to a high standard,' advises Valerie. 'Going above and beyond the requirements will get you noticed for the right reasons, as will being proactive and asking for work if you have time on your hands.'
  • Take every opportunity to get involved with practical, legal tasks and demonstrate a willingness and enthusiasm to contribute to the work of the departments that you're based in. 'An offer to help others will be appreciated, but remember to keep a record of the work you’ve done and who you've done it for,' adds Valerie.
  • Use your buddy to find out what life at the firm is really like for a trainee and take every opportunity to get inside hints and tips from the employees that you spend time with. 'Take advantage of opportunities to make s and speak to as many colleagues as possible,' says Valerie. 'It's also important to take part in any social events that you're invited to.'