Happy holidays

Doing work experience during your Christmas holiday can be more fun than you’d think. Nicola Laver reports

Without work experience on your CV, the chances of securing a training contract or pupillage nosedive. But if you didn’t do a summer vacation scheme, don’t panic, it’s not too late. Many firms hold shorter programmes during December and January. And with most deadlines for winter placements not until mid-November, there is still time to put in a last-minute application.

The majority of winter placements are aimed at non-law students (including those who have just started the GDL). However, it is worth bearing in mind that the non-law student requirement is not always a hard-and-fast rule. Double-checking with individual firms is certainly a good idea. Philip Beswick, now a trainee at Lovells, was accepted on the firm’s scheme even though he was an LLB student at the time, simply because he had the tenacity to pick up the phone and explain why he wanted to do the programme.

Securing a place on a vacation scheme is challenging at the best of times. When you’re part of an increasingly large pool chasing the relatively few winter programme places available, it’s even tougher. The secret to success? Doing a good job on the application form, says Beswick. He emphasises that, “forms require a substantial number of hours to complete properly”.

Particularly difficult are the short-answer questions. “They are deliberately tricky things like: ‘Why do you want to pursue a career in law?’ or ‘Why have you chosen to apply to Lovells?’ I think I was even asked to give an example of a time when I had led a team in a group activity to ‘produce a successful outcome,” recalls Beswick. He stresses the importance of drawing on wider experiences when formulating responses: “Prior work experience and a broad range of hobbies and interests certainly help – I don’t think I’d have been able to answer half of the questions if I had focused purely on academics.”

After getting over the first hurdle, Beswick was invited for interview. In typically understated lawyer style, he describes the process as “quite testing”. In particular, he recalls the ‘Watson Glaser’ psychometric test he had to sit, in which his suitability to the firm’s culture was examined.

During the actual interview, Beswick says that candidates must show business acumen, commercial awareness and a genuine interest in the firm.

Of course, if you miss out on a placement at a City firm, it’s not the end of the world. As Christian Bedford discovered, there are plenty of other options out there. As a student, he attended a law fair, ended up chatting to lawyers at the stand of BP Collins, a mid-sized firm based in the Thames Valley, and found himself invited out for a beer with one of the partners that evening. “He asked me if I fancied spending a week in the winter with them – and that was that,” says Bedford.

He had an unexpected introduction to his week’s placement. “When I got there, I met with the partner who had offered me the placement. He immediately handed me £20 and told me to go and get on a train to London.” Bedford followed orders, heading down to London’s Central County Court, where he observed several cases. “I watched people from the firm I had never even met before. It was a great first day. The rest of the week was spent conducting research and attending meetings. On top of that, there were plenty of informal drinks.” The experience proved to be a springboard for Bedford, assisting him to secure a training contract with City giant DLA Piper.

Students on winter programmes at the larger firms are typically allocated a dedicated supervisor (usually a partner or associate) and sit in a variety of core practice areas. The emphasis is on providing as hands-on an experience as possible – ‘real work for real clients’. Having said that, most lawyers view work experience as a way for students to demonstrate that they’ve tested the water, rather than an opportunity for them to get involved at the sharp end of cases and deals.

Beswick’s experience corresponds with this: “The work I did was fairly low level, but it gave me a good idea about what the department did.”

He spent time learning how to use various research and technology tools and took part in ‘mock board meeting’ and ‘mock-pitch’ exercises.

For Oliver Humphreys, the overwhelming memory of vacation schemes is of the tension of the first day. He recalls the awkward atmosphere as he and his fellow-participants concentrated on being on their “best behaviour”.

“On day one we played a game which was like a treasure hunt, involving strategy and teamwork, where we had to try to get as much gold out of a mine as possible,” he remembers, adding that people noticeably relaxed as the week went on.

Mini-pupillages are generally more low-key affairs, with chambers preferring individuals to arrange to spend a few days shadowing barristers at mutually convenient times.

Alexia Knight, a newly-qualified barrister at 3VB chambers, did two vacation placements at law firms. But it was the mini-pupillage, which she did at 3VB, that she enjoyed most. “I sat with a senior barrister and had to present my views on a case he was dealing with. He played devil’s advocate, as it were. I then read his opinion and was able to challenge him, expressing disagreement when necessary,” says.

An upside of winter work experience is that the time of year means there are often opportunities for a bit of seasonal fun. Humphreys went ice-skating at Somerset House and had a grand meal out at the end of his time on the Lovells scheme. Meena Oduru, who did a placement at Linklaters, says the firm took her and her fellow vac-schemers out “most evenings”. Events included dinner in Soho, champagne at the Broadgate Circle and dodgems at Namcos.

Spending the Christmas holidays doing work experience may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but it can be a shrewd move to give your CV a boost. Just be careful at those office Christmas parties…