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Jonny  Hurst

Senior lecturer, Bpp

Quotation Marks
this year, expect there to be less of a focus on static case studies; with vac schemers once again gaining a valuable insight into the work of the departments to which they are seconded

2D vac schemes: Better than nothing

2D vac schemes: Better than nothing


Jonny Hurst discusses how vacation schemes are being affected by the pandemic and says virtual cannot compete with three-dimensional human interaction

Vacation schemes – or ‘vac schemes’ as they are commonly known – have been an integral part of trainee recruitment at leading law firms for many years. All participating firms run placements over the summer, with many choosing also to run them in the spring or winter. 

Vac schemes aren’t just ‘work experience’ for the lucky few who secure them. They are also a great way for graduate recruitment teams to take a close look at a selection of strong candidates who have successfully navigated their way through the firm’s online application process and other sifting exercises, such as video interviews and assessment centres. 

For the candidates themselves, it’s an excellent opportunity to find out more about a firm’s practice areas, what it’s like working there and about the people and the culture.

In most cases, pre-pandemic vac schemes lasted from two to four weeks, with candidates receiving a weekly stipend ranging between £250 and £500. By the end of the summer, some vac schemers could be holding more than one training contract offer, so graduate recruitment teams went to great lengths in an effort to give the best candidates such a positive experience that they really wouldn’t want to start their careers anywhere else. 

And then came covid-19.

I spoke to a number of recruiters 12 months ago to find out whether their 2020 schemes were going ahead, and if so, what adjustments they were having to make. I also caught up with a number of them more recently to find out what they had learned and the changes they were making this year. 

As the pandemic descended, ‘BAU’ (‘business as unusual’ – as I like to call it) was prioritised over future recruitment. Some graduate recruiters were furloughed or made redundant as firms collectively held their breath. Even if they weren’t laying off staff, the timing of the first lockdown meant it was preferable for many firms to cancel their spring schemes than to cobble something together at the last minute. 

Those who chose to cancel their schemes last spring include Addleshaw Goddard, Baker McKenzie, Freshfields, Herbert Smith Freehills, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose Fulbright, Shoosmiths, Slaughter and May and White & Case. For those schemes that still went ahead, most were reduced to no more than a week’s online work experience. 

I spoke to Rebecca Reese, knowledge, learning and development advisor at Farrer & Co which usually runs three two-week vac schemes each year. She told me “the events of 2020 meant we had to rethink our vacation scheme plans. Rather than cancel the schemes, we decided to go ahead with a virtual scheme where candidates spent a day completing work for their supervisor, having lunch with our trainees and meeting with a partner – all from their screens!”

So, a much-reduced offering but Reese reports: “We were delighted to still connect with our candidates and the feedback was universally positive”.
For those who are running online in spring 2021, ‘short and sweet’ remains the order of the day, although some firms have chosen to hold out until summer when (pandemic permitting) they hope to offer a face-to-face experience.

Like last year, candidates this spring should expect their electronic diaries to be punctuated with plenty of virtual coffees with buddies, supervisors and human resources – just to check that no one’s sinking; interspersed with ‘on-message’ hour-long presentations on the direction of the firm, trends in key practice areas and skills workshops delivered by the learning and development (L&D) team. 

But now that firms have had much more time to plan and create materials suitable for a virtual environment, candidates should expect the content of this year’s virtual schemes to look a little more like those of the past (albeit with an online twist). 

This year, as well as getting exposure to different practice areas, candidates are more likely to be asked to take part in an individual or group presentation based on a commercial case study or a client pitch. Also, expect end of scheme interviews to play a more significant part once again. 

A technical challenge

One issue which was apparent twelve months ago (but is less so now) was how firms would manage to give meaningful work to interns who were all located outside the security of the office’s IT firewall. 

Last year, a minority of firms loaned their interns secure laptops which could connect to the firm’s servers. Others preferred to ask the candidates to use their own devices to access case studies and research tasks created by the firm, not dissimilar to some of those found on virtual work experience platforms such as 

The thought was ‘something was better than nothing’, but those candidates who had little or no exposure to live work were justified in feeling short-changed. Twelve months on, IT solutions have been found with almost everyone working remotely, so this year expect there to be less of a focus on static case studies; with vac schemers once again gaining a valuable insight into the work of the departments to which they are seconded.

Although it’s fair to say that for large parts of any vac scheme, candidates are left to their own devices, help is never that far away if you’re actually in an office. But for the last 12 months, while firms have supported vac schemers with wellbeing sessions and regular catchup calls, some candidates have still reported a sense of isolation. As we’ve all found over the last year, no number of virtual socials or online quizzes with work colleagues can really compete with three-dimensional human interaction.

Risk to retention rates

Immediately before the pandemic struck, retention rates were at their highest since the aftermath of the credit crunch: many leading firms were reporting that they were retaining between 90 and 100 per cent of their trainees.

I do worry that a proportion of the 2020-2021 candidates may feel less secure in their decisions when they commit to where they will start their legal careers. It will be interesting to review trainee retention rates in 2023 and 2024 in order to track those who move on immediately after their training contracts, to evaluate whether (at least in part) they attribute their move to a less than ideal recruitment cycle during the pandemic. 

After the vaccine

Rebecca Reese sums up what appears to be the majority view: “Although we have seen many positives from running virtual vac schemes, we think there will still be a place for face-to-face contact post-pandemic. Feedback from candidates suggests that they would value time in the office to get a complete picture of life at [the firm] and to help them imagine themselves joining us in the future. We will get creative, as we did last year, to find a way to meet this.”

Vac schemes will find a new equilibrium over the next few years, most probably settling at some form of hybrid placement, with candidates starting online followed by a week or two in the office. After all, that’s how the working lives of future lawyers is likely to be balanced – so vac schemers better start getting used to it.

Jonny Hurst is a senior lecturer and head of outreach and student recruitment at BPP University Law School He is a former law firm partner

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