Showing your commitment to a career in law and helping you to improve your skills and legal knowledge vacation schemes are also a chance for firms to take a closer look at you

What is a law vacation scheme?

Lasting anything between one week and a month a vacation scheme will give you invaluable insight into the work of a law firm. You'll get the chance to 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.

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 but 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.

Find out more about training contracts.

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.

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?

In 2016, most magic circle and city law firms are offering in the region of £400 a week. 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 firms will wait until the deadline to shortlist applicants. Therefore sending your application as early as possible may help increase your chances of success. 'If you meet a law firm at an event or open day, always submit your application shortly after, when your name is fresh in the firm's mind,' suggests Juliette Chase, careers adviser at University of Roehampton.

Some firms will ask you to send an application form and CV while others will ask for 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.

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 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 mistakes should I avoid in my application?

  • Spelling and grammar - When you've worked so hard it would be a shame for you to fall at this stage thanks to a typo. To avoid this make sure you read through your application checking for any errors and ask someone else, either a careers adviser, teacher, or family member to read it.
  • Generic applications - Firms will spot blanket emails from a mile away so it's important to include specific and relevant information about your experience relating to that particular role.

How do I make the most of my placement?

Research the firm well in advance and take the opportunity to ask intelligent, open questions about the firm's work, and its future development. 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. 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.