Sunday, 15 May 2011

Top tips from the Perfect Work Experience Student (I am not talking about me, by the way)

 Earlier this week a query was sent around twitter; how to turn a vacation scheme into the elusive training contract. Vacation Schemes are can be the selection process for the 2 year long interview that is a TC. They often have assessed tasks dotted through them and you will no doubt be observed for your entire time within the firm. The period will culminate in an interview which will be your basis for selection. You could say it is the law world's answer to the Apprentice and is no less stressful. Luckily for me I managed it, although I was not at all prepared for the week at my Firm and I am not entirely sure how or why I got an offer! I wouldn't recommend this approach (it surely was a fluke!) and I have recently been shown a better way.

There has been a student in the offices over the past two weeks. We shall call her Claire. She had used a contact to get work experience but will be starting her GDL in September, so is vac scheme equivalent. By unanimous consensus the trainees were all very impressed with Claire and I don't think anyone could have done better in 2 weeks. I think it is safe to say that Claire was the Perfect Work Experience Student.

Tip 6 - don't act like anyone on the Apprentice. Any of them.

Now this may be a bit of an exaggeration (no-one is perfect) but I am using her as an example because I have no doubt that had she been interviewed (if she was on the vac scheme she would have been) she would have been offered a contract. She put me, and several other trainees I vacced with, to shame and I am not embarrassed to admit it. If she was in front of Lord Sugar, Nick would be making that impressed face and Karen would be raving about the rise of the business woman. I don't think anyone could devise a formula for turning a vac scheme into a TC, much of it is about luck, but there are a couple of things we could all learn from Claire.

So, without further a do, here are mine and Claire's top tips for doing well in your work experience or vacation scheme:

1. Be Your Self
It might be common sense but there are no end of work experience students I have met that are trying to be something other than themselves. You may think there is an ideal candidate profile for a training contract or that to impress you have to act in a certain way. If you are not being yourself this will show through, no matter how ideal you are acting and will put the Selection team off. They might not be able to tell you why but the slightly fake aura around you will leave them dissatisfied. If you do manage to pull the wool over their eyes, remember a TC is for 2 years, will you be able to keep it up that long? Claire was not worried about being herself. She admitted when she didn't understand something (considering she had no legal background, this was quite a lot!) and this actually earned her some respect in the office. She did also make sure she didn't ask the same question twice - you can only claim lack of knowledge once!

2. Know your Firm
Mr Ashley Connick's recent blog explains the basic premise behind knowing a firm. You need have a good idea before starting work experience as to why you would want to work for that firm and why they should want you. It is a good idea to go beyond the normal 'who are the partners, what areas of law do they practice in' kind of prep; really get under the skin of the Firm. My Firm are a sporty firm; if you read the news about us there is an endless amount of stories about staff members raising money through physical exertion. I know - madness you might say!! It is nevertheless true and the Firm takes a particular pride in entering team sports. I am not sure if this was Claire simply being nice or  being very shrewd but last Friday when we were a team member down for corporate canoeing she volunteered. Not only did she show her team spirit and athletic ability (well, she tried, I don't think canoeing is her thing), she also got her name on the intranet and photo around the Firm.

3. Have something to Say
There is nothing worse than striking up conversation with a student for it to fizzle out and die within 5 minutes. Everyone you spend time with may be asked to report back on you and those uncomfortable silences are not TC winners. This doesn't mean making up things to talk about (go back to tip 1) but preparing well. Form opinions about current affairs, both generally and in the legal world. Find out what's happening in the various sports you like. Read some books, see recent films, go to a festival. Have plans for the rest of your summer, even if they don't come about. If you have put interests in your application or CV then do those. It all adds up to being an interesting person who Firms can imagine employing.

Claire had all of these. Granted she has had the last month or so off so has had a lot of free time but it was refreshing to have someone who could offer insightful comments to a conversation instead of looking confused. And although she hasn't yet studied law, she had even read up on legal news. Impressive.

4. Network
This follows from tip 3. Use your time at the Firm wisely. Talk to the trainees, the team you are in. Talk to the Training Principle and trainee supervisors. The more people you can make an impression on, the better. Even if you don't get a TC, they might remember you for an NQ position or make the effort to speak to you at a networking event. Lawyers don't always stay at the same firm either, the associate at this Firm might be your supervisor at another in 2 years to come. Claire has 4 trainees emails, with promises for drinks when she gets back from travelling (plans for the summer, check!) plus on her last day I saw her disappearing off for lunch with the head secretary and the head legal executive. Or the secretary to the MD and PA to the head of business. Score 3 for Claire.

This tip could even start before you get to a firm. A fellow trainee gave Claire a pointer which is pure genius. When you have secured some work experience, phone up the firm. Usually you will have a contact - speak to them first and find out what you will be doing. If you will be sat in a particular department, find out who you will be working with. Then call back and ask for them, or the trainee in that department. If you manage to get through, tell them you will be coming in for work experience and find out what they have been doing recently. If nothing else, they will know you before you arrive but it gives you an extra opportunity to impress.

5. Use the opportunity
Do not forget this is an opportunity for you as well as a week long interview. Use your time well. If you are stuck reading files, ask if there is something else you could do. If the firm has a department that is often in court - like family, find out if there are any hearings you could go to. Really get an idea of the work that is done in a particular department as this will help you with seat choices in your TC. I always regret not getting more work experience as I only worked in 2 departments before my contract and now seat choices are sooo hard! Claire spent her 2 weeks on the business floor, but managed to speak to a couple of lawyers in family and spent a couple of days in court. So even though she didn't get the chance to interview, she has got experience of roughly 4 areas of work plus court time.

When it comes down to it, there is a lot of luck involved with securing a TC and vacation schemes merely give you a longer time period in which to impress the firm you are applying to. Making securing a TC the only object of the week to the exclusion of all else misses the point. Yes it is a chance for the firm to get to know you better. It is also your chance to get to know your potential future employer and possibly understand your own ambitions a little better. Before she left, Claire told me that she had really enjoyed her time in the office and thought that Employment might possibly be something she would be interested in. That's a lot more direction than I had at the same stage. I have a sneaking suspicion that Claire is going to do just fine.


  1. As a wannabe solicitor who is wanting to do a GDL/LPC and looking for work experience these insights are invaluable. I've gotten a week's work experience (which has since turned into a month's paralegalling but that's another story) and will put them into practice but I'm not sure if I have the gumption to ring people up beforehand! I don't want to annoy them by being too keen.

  2. I wouldn't be scared of being too keen - although if you don't phone, an email could be another way. Most firms have their lawyer's emails on their website. However, as you are there for a month time is not of the essense for you! you quite a bit more time to impress. Good luck!!