I have been on two vacation schemes. On one I was successful in getting a Training Contract and on the other…. I was not. And while being rejected for a Training Contract royally sucked, it has given me a useful perspective in hindsight.
Because the two schemes were actually very similar. They were both well-run, the firms were big, commercial and international. And I enjoyed both of them. So really the key variable had been my performance. But not even my day-to-day getting-work-done performance; I had worked my butt off on both of them. What had made the difference was the little things… the sort of …polish. The stuff that tips you over from being middling to great.
So here’s the three key tips I would give myself if I could go back in time. (Aside from ‘drink less at the Christmas party’- but I probably wouldn’t listen to me anyway).
1. Keep a vacation scheme work diary
On day one of your vacation scheme start a work diary. Every day, spend a few minutes writing down everything you have worked on, and try to answer the following questions:
Overview: Who is the client? What sort of business do they run? What is the case about? What do they want from the firm? What is their desired result?
Details: What tasks have you worked on/ completed? Have you learned any new skills?
Impact: How does this contribute to the case? What was the purpose of your task? How does it help your supervisor?
Thoughts: Do you think the client will get what they want? If not, what is the fall-back position? What will the result depend on?
There’s a couple of reasons why you should do this. Firstly, it will encourage you to ask your supervisor questions. It’ll make sure you really understand what you’re working on, and it will demonstrate your interest in the business side of the firm- how it makes money (I.e. through the repeat business of clients).
Secondly, it will make you think about how the work you do impacts on the team and on the result for the client. Don’t be tempted to see any of your work as pointless. To use an overused metaphor; your research/ admin tasks are a small cog in a larger machine. They are important. They do contribute.
And finally, keeping a work diary means that at the end of the scheme, you will be able to talk confidently about work you completed three weeks ago. This is particularly important if you have a Training Contract interview. Three weeks is a very long time, and you’ll have packed so much in, you’ll hardly remember what you did at the start.
2. Have a coffee catch up
Before you have your Training Contract interview, arrange to have a quick coffee with some of the supervisors/ Trainees you’ve been working with. Then when you’re having coffee, explain to them the work you did when sat in their department. Yes of course, they already know, they were there. But it gives you an opportunity to practise explaining the case out loud (which you may have to do in your interview) and they can correct you if you’ve gotten anything muddled. Moreover, you can ask any questions you have and also get an update on the case if you haven’t worked on it for a week or so.
Added bonus: it also makes you look engaged and enthusiastic.
(You can imagine how grateful I was to have done this when I was asked in my interview to explain a mainframe computer. Try recalling that information from 3 weeks ago!)
3. Proactively work on feedback
One of the things that I thought was great about the Herbert Smith Freehills vacation scheme was that right at the start, the graduate recruitment team gave individual feedback from the assessment day.
Some people might think feedback at that stage is pointless – if you got offered the placement you must have been great, right? But I think that if you genuinely were flawless, they probably would have offered you a Training Contract there and then. So the recruitment team may have some…reservations about you. Just one or two things that they want to check before making you a Trainee.
The great thing about receiving feedback right at the start is that you can spend the whole three weeks showing them how fabulous you are. And hopefully, by the end of the scheme, you will have made them 100% sure you will be an excellent Trainee.
So first- if your firm does not automatically offer feedback, there is nothing stopping you having a quick chat with the Recruiters and asking for it. Once you’ve been given feedback, you then need to be not very subtle about working on it.
It’s a bit of a judgement call whether you should tell your supervisor or not. But I got put with Associates I clicked with- really nice guys. So I pretty much said; ‘here’s the feedback I’ve been given (I need to demonstrate more commercial awareness– typical), I am going to be working on it this week- so any suggestions or pointers would be welcome.’
Then, throughout the week I tried to ask a lot of business-related questions, and talk about my understanding of how the work influenced clients’ businesses.
And at the end of the week, I told my supervisor what I had been doing to improve my commercial awareness. So, I researched X market/ I learned about Y/ I talked to so-and-so about Z. By doing this, not only do you tick the boxes that need to be ticked, but you also show that you are serious about your personal development.
Extra mini-tips (while we’re on the topic).
Try to introduce yourself to everyone in the department on the first day. (And don’t be a coward and send an email – literally get out of your seat and go round the office). It is a very daunting thing to do, but it’s so important to making a good impression. You want to gel with the team, and you’re not going to do that if no one knows who you are. Plus if you need to go and ask for work, it’s a bit awkward to be introducing yourself half-way through the week.
Get stuck into departmental/ vacation scheme socials. Even if karaoke is your worst nightmare, you’re going to go…and you’re going to LIKE it. Ok you might not like it but you should try and at least pretend. Because you need to look enthusiastic and like you are comfortable socialising with other students, Trainees and Partners.
Go to absolutely all of the presentations and networking lunches that the graduate recruitment team have put on. At the beginning of the scheme, everyone is filled with optimism and good intentions. However, by the end of the second week, attendance at these events starts to drop. But if you don’t go, it looks like you’re not bothered; exactly the opposite impression you’re trying to give. So go. Sit on the front row. Ask questions. Smile. You know; normal rules apply.
Never ever ever click ‘reply all.’ That button is dead to you.
And finally, remember that if it doesn’t work out and you don’t get offered a Training Contract….it’s not the end of the world. Life is full of Plan Bs. And sometimes Plan Bs are better than Plan As. While I was gutted to not be offered a Training Contract the first go round, looking back I’m glad I wasn’t- as I’m now going to train at a firm which I think will be much better for me. So try not to put unnecessary pressure on yourself while you’re on the scheme. Work hard. Put your all into it. But don’t be afraid of “failure.” It happens to everyone sometimes.