Convert your vacation scheme into a training contract

Jaysen Sutton -

14 min read

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A conversation with Rosie Watterson

We caught up with Rosie Watterson, the founder of the blog Apply.Shine.Win, to discuss how you can convert your vacation scheme into a training contract offer.  We’ve transcribed our interview below. (Note: It has been lightly edited.)

Rosie is a future trainee solicitor at Herbert Smith Freehills. She studied History at Queen’s University Belfast, and has recently completed the GDL at BPP in Leeds.

Rosie Watterson interview
Rosie Watterson, Future Trainee at Herbert Smith Freehills

What advice would you give to students looking to stand out during their vacation scheme?

One of the things that’s really important — and I’ve written about it in my blog before — is keeping a work diary of what you do. Because at the beginning of the scheme, you do a lot of stuff that you don’t quite understand. If you’re trying to write down what you’ve done, that’ll prompt you to ask questions like: Who is this for? What’s the point of this work? What does the client want? And also broader questions that explain why you’re doing it.

That’s really important if you’re on, say, a three-week scheme, because by the end of it, you’ve moved to a different department and you’ve met so many new people. It’s quite hard to remember all the work you did at the beginning of the scheme, and definitely hard to remember all of it in detail.

So I think it’s good to write it down. Then read over it again, and go back and ask the supervisor that you were working with, just so you can talk them through the work you did. But make sure you understand it, and that you can explain it to people, because there’s a good chance in an interview that you’ll have to explain what work you’ve done to a partner who’s from a completely different department.

And always make sure you’re looking at it at a deeper level: Why am I doing this? How does it benefit the client? How does that benefit the firm? What ultimate result do they want?  By the end, you’ll have a very thorough list of everything you’ve worked on, and it’ll be a lot easier to highlight your achievements to either your supervisor or the person you’re doing your training contract interview with.

So, in the final training contract interview, students may be asked about what they did during their vacation scheme?

Explaining technical topics on your vacation scheme white board
“Make sure you understand it, and that you can explain it to people, because there’s a good chance in an interview that you’ll have to explain what work you’ve done.”

That’s right. I’ve mentioned before in one of my blogs: during my vacation scheme, I was in the TMT department and then I sat in a different department after that. So, it was a three-week scheme. And in my interview, my interviewer asked me to describe something I’d worked on in the first week. And I said the word “mainframe” (of a computer). And she got me to explain what I meant by that.

If I hadn’t kept that journal and then written about it and then re-read it and gone over it, then I would have had absolutely no idea. I came out of that interview and ran straight up to a TMT associate that I was close with, and I was like: “Is this right?”

So, yes, for me, it’s definitely worth doing. And even technical terms, just write them down in a really simple way that in three weeks’ time you’ll still understand.

I would just add for students — don’t mention something just because it’s technical and you want to impress, because, as you mentioned, sometimes an interviewer will ask you to explain what it means.

Yes, I think that is a bit of an honesty test. They might think you have no idea what the mainframe of a computer is, and then they can ask you: “What is the mainframe of a computer?” And if you come out confidently with rubbish, then they know you’re quite willing to talk about something that you know nothing about, in a convincing way, and that’s obviously not what clients want you to do.

It’s better to say: “I’m not actually 100% sure. My understanding is XYZ. However, I would prefer if I could go back and do a bit more research to get the answer to you.” It’s okay not to know. I think it was perhaps a bit of that is a test as well, to just see if I was going to make something up so I didn’t have to admit I didn’t know.

Agreed! It’s important to remember that interviewers don’t expect students to be the complete picture. They understand students are still learning.

Yes, they expect you to understand what you’ve done and why.

I often hear from students who find it hard to put themselves out there during their vacation schemes, perhaps because they’re shy. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Vacation scheme social event chatting
“…they might not give me a training contract or vacation scheme, but I want to come out of there with everyone thinking: ‘Oh, isn’t she nice?'”

The first point is not to put tons of pressure on yourself before you go into interviews. I always just focused on being likeable. I thought they might not give me a training contract or vacation scheme, but I want to come out of there with everyone thinking: “Oh, isn’t she nice?”

You can do that by going up to people and making conversation, not even about law stuff. You can ask people what they did at the weekend or whether they’ve got any pets. Just chat; that’s what people like. If you can do that, it’ll make you more comfortable, and then you’ll be able to show off your knowledge.

Is that something you did on your vacation schemes? Did you go knocking on doors to introduce yourself?

Yes, for one of the vacation schemes, there was no trainee to show you around the office. So, you just had to get up, knock on doors, and introduce yourself. The first two doors it was quite daunting; by the third door, you’re like, “This is fine.” And by the 10th door, you’re like, “I can make small talk with anyone!”

The other thing is remembering that whatever people’s title, they’re also just people. Partners are just people. Graduate recruitment managers are people. And people all want the same thing. We all want to have a nice conversation with someone about something interesting, where no one looks like they’re going to faint with terror.

Talk about yourself vacation scheme
“We all want to have a nice conversation with someone about something interesting.”

So just bearing in mind when you are chatting to people, even if they’re the CEO of a company, they’re just people and they like to be talked to like they are just people.

And, as far as confidence is concerned, realising that, yes, of course they’re further on in their career and they make more money than you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything interesting or intelligent to say to them, or you don’t have anything to say that they’re interested in. They want to talk to you, too, because you’re new and interesting and from outside the firm.

So, to summarise: students should remember partners and recruiters are just people, and talk about what they’re interested in.

Yes. And, frankly, no one wants to talk about law, and everyone wants to talk about Love Island, so just bear that in mind.

So, “Watch Love Island” is the takeaway from this?

No, that’s not my advice! I think it’s terrible! But everybody does want to talk about it.

And everyone has their opinion.

Yes, so it’s okay to chat about stuff that isn’t law. If you’re a history student, you don’t know anything about law, and also they probably don’t want to spend their networking lunches talking about what they do.

I did the Jones Day vacation scheme, and I don’t know if you know the training system, but it’s non-rotational.

They don’t put you in the seat, do they?

That’s right.

That must be daunting.

It was terrifying. But as you said, knocking on the first two doors — or ten doors — was scary. But after that, it was fine. By the second week, it became much more natural.

Yes, absolutely.

I think you need to come to terms with the fact that the worst thing that can happen is you say something stupid and then don’t get a training contract… and neither of those things will kill you.

A couple of times I’ve had a few glasses of wine and said something that I found terribly embarrassing at a networking event, and I’m fine. Everything is still fine. My career is still okay.

I think you’ve got to be confident and chatty and that means if occasionally you have a foot-in-mouth moment… well, it happens to everybody.

Do you have any advice for the social events during a vacation scheme? How did you approach those situations?

I think it doesn’t matter if you’re doing something you don’t like: you just have to get stuck in, because you’re being assessed the whole time. They haven’t spent all this money on the socials not to assess you on them. And recruiters will probably say it’s not true, but it is. So, the thing is, even if you’re doing something you hate, even if it’s like netball, which I think is the most boring thing in the world, you just have to get stuck in. You just have to really go for it and look like you’re having a good time.

Vacation scheme social
“They want to know that you’ll be able to get on with your intake.”

It’s also important that you gel with the other vacation scheme students, because they want to know that you’ll be able to get on with your intake and not just get on well with the people above you — so not just the trainees and not just the associates.

And they do so many socials, and you’ve got the adrenaline going, so you’re quite up and down anyway, energy-level-wise. You just have to make sure that you go and get involved.

But if it gets to 11 oʼclock and everything’s sort of settling down, then go home. Get some sleep and watch TV, because downtime is really important and you don’t get a lot of it during vacation schemes.

Do you have any other tips for the vacation scheme?

While the real work needs to take priority, you will be assessed on any tasks that the graduate recruiters give you. So you need to designate an appropriate amount of time to it – it’s easy to forget about them and just focus on the real work. But that’s a mistake.

And, also, if the graduate recruiters arrange presentations — lunchtime networking events — don’t see them as optional, because they’re not. Often, at the beginning of schemes, everyone turns up, and by the end of schemes, everyone’s tired and busy and people start dropping out for kind of rubbish reasons. But, they’re really important to go to. Sit close to the front and ask good questions.

It just takes five minutes to prepare some questions before you go in, and to look interested even if you are not. I think those presentations are quite helpful, because, as you well know, when you do your training contract, you don’t get that many seats to decide what you want to do for the rest of your legal career. So it’s like a free pass to find out what a whole department does.

If you did find one of the presentations really interesting, it doesn’t hurt to email the person and ask if they can get a coffee and talk more about it. And that’s you showing you’re proactive and engaged and interested. And you want to get the most out of the experience. Whereas if you look bored — or I’ve seen someone be on their phone the whole time during these presentations. Or you start making excuses not to go; you start giving the impression you don’t want to be there, rightly or wrongly.

How can students prepare ‘good’ questions?

Keep on top of the business news during your vacation scheme
“Do a bit of research – just five minutes on the BBC – before you go to these presentations.”

Well, it doesn’t hurt to have some background commercial awareness, which if you’ve got a vacation scheme, you will have. Also, maybe do a bit of research – just five minutes on the BBC – before you go to these presentations, just so you can see what is going on, because they might mention something or mention one of the clients, and then you’ll already have some background knowledge.

And also just asking about what they actually do – day-to-day. What they did today; what they are working on; what they like the most; what the trainees in their department do; etc.

It’s always quite interesting to find out about people’s career progressions. Sometimes they volunteer information, like if they went on international secondments or if they worked in a different department before. I think people quite like talking about themselves — everyone does — so it definitely doesn’t hurt to get them chatting about their career. You’ll learn quite a lot from that, anyway.

I think the best questions are genuine questions, so you’re genuinely interested and you’re not just asking to look smart. If you give it some thought, about what information you would like to get out of the presentation, then you will have some questions pop into your head.

And if you think a question is stupid, it comes back to the worst-case scenario. You ask a question, maybe everyone in the room thinks: “That’s a stupid question.” Five minutes go by, and you’re the only one that can remember. So, if you’ve got a question, it’s worth asking — unless it’s something very basic you should know, like: “What is law?” “What is Uber?”

But if you’re worried about asking a common-sense question- well, you might as well . Because as the cliché goes, there are probably other people who are wondering it, and you’ll probably get some points for being the only one who asked.

How about dealing with rejection? What would you say to students about that?

I did a vacation scheme at HSF, and got it. And I did one at Bakers, and didn’t. So that was obviously pretty rubbish, to not get offered a training contract — because I thought, “Ahh, this is where I want to be.” And looking back, I’m pleased, because I think working at HSF will suit me better. But at the time, I was like: “This is terrible!”

You’ve got to give yourself time to be sad about it, because you’ve spent a lot of time doing an application, gone through the assessment centre, gone to open days and dinners, and done the whole vacation scheme. You’re allowed to be gutted about that, because you can envision yourself there and you’re not, all of a sudden. And while I don’t believe there’s one path for us all and we’re all following the right path or whatever, I do think that sometimes you can dodge a bullet.

I have had interviews with firms that, now looking back, I’m quite pleased I didn’t progress with, because I just think it would have been a pretty bad fit. And, actually, I realised that the graduate recruiters knew that at the time, and I didn’t. Whereas, now, I’m like: “Ahh, that was the right thing to happen.”

My friend said that once she was talking to a partner about rejection and he said, “I’m only sat on this side of the table because I’ve received more rejection than you.” And I thought that was quite funny, really, because it’s not something that people like talking about. But every trainee has faced rejections.

Confidence vacation scheme
“[The partner said:] ‘I’m only sat on this side of the table because I’ve received more rejection than you.'”

I tend to see it as like getting over hurdles. So, if you’re constantly falling at the application stage, it’s probably not because you’re not good enough. It’s just you’ve not quite nailed writing applications yet, and that’s okay. You just need to get feedback and improve, and once you’ve gotten over that hurdle, you can move onto doing psychometric tests. And maybe you’re no good at those — and no one is, you just need to practice them until you are. It’s a natural part of the process, and the important thing is getting feedback and focusing on improving, not beating yourself up about being rejected.

Some students get bogged down by statistics, such as how many students get recruited from vacation schemes for training contracts, and that can put them off applying to certain law firms. What would you say to that?

I tended to think that, when I was applying to HSF, there’s 70 training contracts and I only need one, so it doesn’t really matter how many other people apply, there are enough training contracts for me to have one.

So, say if it was only 30% of people from the vacation scheme got a training contract — well, that’s fine, because that’s enough for me to be in that category. It’s more than one, and if only one gets a training contract, then I’m still willing to bet it’ll be me. At least that’s how I saw it, and I didn’t pay much attention to stats, because I thought, you know, if I don’t get it this time, I’ll get it next time — and if I don’t get it next time, I’ll get it the time after. And if I just keep hacking away at it, I’ll be sure to get one eventually.

Vacation scheme rocket optimism
“If you keep improving, it is inevitable that you will be good enough to get a training contract.”

That’s very optimistic of you! Where did that self-confidence come from?

I suppose to a certain extent it was blind optimism, because I have no empirical evidence to base it on.

But I just thought “There are enough training contracts in the City for me to have one. And if that means that I have to spend five years going to open days, applying, and improving my technique, then so be it.”

I thought if I ’m not doing the same thing over and over again, if I ’m constantly working on my technique,  constantly improving,  re-drafting applications, learning how to write in the STAR technique, improving my interview answers…then I’d inevitably get a training contract one day. Even if  I had to have another career, if I keep doing this in my free time — eventually, one of those firms would give me a training contract.

If you keep improving, it is inevitable that you will be good enough to get a training contract: it’s just a matter of time, really, and commitment to it.

So, when I had a vacation scheme and I was worried about not getting a training contract, then I’d just think: “Well, I can do this again next year! It won’t be fun, but I’ll do it again. We’ll keep going until I finally get one.” So, I think if you just look at it as a battle of attrition between you and the City, rather than you competing with a bunch of people, then it  seems almost inevitable. And it’s quite easy to have confidence in that.

I know a student, he spent four years applying, and I remember just before the end of the year and he was saying, “If I don’t get anything this year, I’m just going to quit law and find another job.”

So close.

He was, but it was a happy ending, because he’s about to start at Freshfields!  Last year, he secured a training contract.

I was so impressed by how hard he worked. Because he didn’t have the grades, he went the extra mile to contact partners for coffee, and he managed to secure a couple of days’ work experience that way.

Yes, I think there’s a lot to be said about overcompensating. I had mitigating circumstances, but my A Levels weren’t particularly good, and I think that became a point of insecurity for me. So I worked my butt off at undergraduate to get really good marks, and was also really throwing myself into extracurriculars and law stuff, and constantly on the lookout for things that would demonstrate my commitment to law and also would look good on my CV. In a way I was fuelled by overcompensating, because I realised that I’ve got this weakness, but I don’t want it to be the reason I didn’t get a TC.

Hard work vacation scheme
“I think it does sometimes help if you’ve got a bit of a blip. Instead of looking at it as  career-ending, you just need to think, ‘Okay, well, we’ll just have to make up for that, so let’s crack on.’”

I think it does sometimes help if you’ve got a bit of a blip. Instead of looking at it as  career-ending, you just need to think, “Okay, well, we’ll just have to make up for that, so let’s crack on.”

Finally, how did you find your vacation scheme at Herbert Smith Freehills?

I found the work at Herbert Smith Freehills really interesting. When I was there, I could see myself being happy there. And the people were all friendly, chatty, outgoing, and had a good sense of humour, which is really important to me.

So, yes, I’m quite excited to start, to be honest. When they offered the training contract to me, I didn’t really have to think: I was definitely sure I wanted to work there.

No doubt you will do well. Thank you so much, Rosie. You’ve shared some excellent advice here.

 Thank you!