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School of Law

From Vacation Scheme to Training Contract in a Magic Circle Firm

Securing a vacation scheme at a top London law firm is often seen as a big step for law students looking to advance their careers. Zakiya Rahman, a law student who successfully navigated the competitive process to secure a training contract at a Magic Circle firm, shares her insights and strategies.

Office at a law firm with a desk, chair and computer. The view from the large window shows another skyscraper right next to this office building

Trying to secure a vacation scheme (VS) was probably the most stressful and difficult thing I have had to do in my time at university. Grappling with making new friends and figuring out university life whilst also applying for vacation schemes alongside all this can be a lot – especially when there is so much competition! This is my experience and tips of how I managed to secure a training contract at a Magic Circle Firm during my second year.


The key thing in preparing for applications is firstly to think about what area of law you are interested, and what type of firm you are interested in, e.g. regional, national, international, and within that US, Magic Circle, Silver Circle, etc., and what type of workplace culture suits you. Once you gain an understanding of what you like, it will make it much easier to narrow down the firms to apply to. Not only this but you will also have genuine reasons for applying to firms rather than superficial reasons. To further develop your understanding of all the different law firms (as there are plenty to choose from) it is helpful to attend firm events, open days, and panel talks; anything that can get you talking to people from these law firms. Make sure to take notes on who you have spoken to/what you have learnt.

When writing applications, the key rule is to be clear and concise. There are limited words for a reason, so make every word and every sentence count and be meaningful. Structuring your writing using firstly, secondly, and thirdly, etc. can make your writing easier to follow. Each application should take a couple of hours to do as your answers need to be specific and tailored to the individual law firm. Try to find unique things about the firm that connect with you and your career goals because while it may be great saying 'your firm is ranked Band 1 across 50 practice areas’, you also need to back this up with why this matters to someone like you, who will be joining this firm as a junior. Recruitment teams reading applications can always almost tell when someone has half-heartedly written an application as opposed to someone who has taken time to identify strengths in a firm and linked it back to why this is of genuine interest to them and their aspirations.

Two coffee cups on a table with a view from the window showing another skyscraper

Lastly, when preparing for interviews, case studies and any technical parts of the application process, the key thing is to be commercially aware. This word is constantly thrown around and talked about within the corporate world but what it essentially means, in terms of applications, is knowing what law firms do: who they advise, what they advise on, how they are structured, etc., and having a general understanding of current issues that are occurring, which may impact law firms and their clients. This may seem like a lot but if you incorporate this into your day-to-day activities it will be very manageable. For example, you can listen to podcasts, read news articles, subscribe to commercial awareness emails; these will all help you have a better understanding of the economy and current affairs, which in turn relate to law firms and the businesses they advise. In interviews, it is also important to have a basic understanding of key commercial topics, as they will likely be brought up in case studies. For this, I used Jake Schogger’s Commercial Law Academy as it has everything you will need to know about commercial concepts and what law firms are expecting candidates to know.

Pre-Vacation Scheme Preparation

If you have secured a VS and you are wondering what to do to prepare, the short answer is, don’t. This may be controversial, but assuming that you are a type-A personality (common in law), you probably tend to over-prepare. This is counterproductive. Rather, the best thing to do is completely clear your head. If your scheme is a few months/weeks away, forget about it.

However, 1-2 weeks before your scheme begins, there are a few things you can do:

  • Refresh: Research the firm, re-read your application, and get together some information about the scheme. Has anything developed since you applied?

  • Reach out: to future trainees who converted and ask about their experience.

  • Commercial awareness: Digest everything that has happened since you were last actively

    reading. How are markets right now? What macro trends are occurring? What could be

    relevant to the Firm?

  • Seat selection: It does not matter which seat you pick. Either pick (a) a practice area you’re

    interested in or (b) the practice area the firm is known for.

  • Practice area: Research the team that you have been allocated to. You may only be allocated

    a few days before. That’s fine. Understand what a trainee does in that seat, the type of deals

    the team does, and brush up on the basics.

  • Ensure: you have at least a foundational knowledge of the practice. This will allow you to ask

    better questions during the scheme.

  • Relax: I cannot stress this enough. Parts of the scheme will be stressful so there is no need to work yourself up before it even begins.

Vacation Scheme

The most important thing in a VS is to be yourself, but be the best version of yourself. A VS is essentially a two/three-week interview. You will find that the exhausting part is not the assessments nor the work, but simply the feeling of being constantly watched and having to be on your best form. It is important to be friendly and approachable. Don’t gossip. Don’t say any remarks about other firms. Treat everyone you come across (from the reception staff to HR, to associates and partners) with equal respect. Talk to people from across the firm. Proactively organise coffee chats. Get to know the key players in your team (who are the partners and senior associates, who are the current trainees).

Two people covered from head to toe in flowers. The other person is covered in orange flowers and the other one in pink

If you applied to sit in X practice area, but unexpectedly got Y, this is a great opportunity. Reach out to associates from Y practice area to gain insight. The number of coffees chats you have is up to you, but it is important to talk to as many people as you can, as it shows you are proactive and keen to find out more about the firm more widely and the different type of work being done. The structure of your VS may mean that you won’t get to do many, but try to do as much as you can. A good idea would be to ask your supervisor for recommendations on who to reach out to. Mine gave me a list, and when I spoke to them, I told them who sent me. I then relayed this to my supervisor. It felt like killing two birds with one stone – my supervisor had set me the ‘task’ of talking to these people, and I was able to network! Be sure to make a positive impression on your supervisor by having regular chats and updates with them as they will ultimately feedback on your performance during the scheme.

A typical VS timetable will have a mix of practice area talks, firm talks, socials, and more. The gaps in your timetable will be for completing work from your supervisor or Graduate Recruitment and any coffee chats, so it is up to you to manage your workload and ensure everything is completed on time. It’s also important to understand the timing of your VS. Is it a 9-5? Or can you stay later? Different firms have different attitudes toward this. Some push you out at 5, while others expect you to stick around, so it’s crucial to ascertain this early on. This will instruct your capacity to take on work. When you do feel like you won't have enough time to compete your Graduate Recruitment tasks or supervisor tasks, then make sure to let people know and explain appropriately that you just don’t have the capacity for it.


VS assessments come in different forms. Some have exit interviews, others have no assessment at all. Ascertain yours immediately. This will help you understand what to prioritise. Consider the following:

  • A two/three-week interview: Everything you’re doing is watched, but don’t worry. It just means you need to be on your best behaviour.

  • Logbook: Everything you do on Monday, you will forget by Friday. Keep a logbook and fill it out at the end of each day. Note your networking chats, the work you did, and your general thoughts.

  • Be reflective: What did you like? What did you dislike? What new things did you learn about the firm? What could be improved about your experience? All of these could come up at exit interview.

  • Group presentations: Fully commit to the role. Usually, it will be a pitch. Have a designated partner, associate, etc. Ensure you show off your teamwork skills. If one person lets down the team, which means the presentation could not be complete, you all fail. Don’t make excuses. Adapt to the situation and help each other out.

  • Exit interviews: These are typically more personal than your VS interview. Your answers should reflect your experiences. Your ‘Why XLLP?’ should draw upon what you have done on the scheme. For example, if you say that you’re attracted to the Corporate and M&A practice, speak about your experience sitting in the team (or equivalent).

  • Prepare for negative questions: You may get asked something along the lines: ‘What piece of work did you dislike and why?’ Just be honest, but don’t say anything detrimental to being a commercial solicitor.

  • Expectations: Keep at the front of your mind the expectations of your assessors. Understand what they’re looking for.

    Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the experience! While at times it may be stressful and nerve-racking, a VS is a great experience to make new friends, be in rooms with people you may not always get the chance to network with, and experience what life would be like working in a law firm. Whatever the outcome, the experience will undoubtedly leave you in a much stronger position than before you started the VS.

Best of luck!



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