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31 August 2020

Vacation schemes move online as Covid-19 curbs traditional work experience

With the summer vacation scheme period winding down, students and law firms alike reflect on their virtual work experiences

By Lauren Woodhead

Kennedys, Allen & Overy and Burges Salmon have all run virtual work experience schemes this summer Shutterstock

The impact of the coronavirus has meant significant change for how lawyers work and learn. The same is true for those seeking to be lawyers. 

As the nation adjusts to the ‘new normal’, even the most technophobic have had to learn to adapt to the socially distanced, virtual world we now live in. For practitioners, this has meant remote working, online deal rooms, courts and arbitrations. For training, it has been webinars and online conferences. For aspiring lawyers, it has meant virtual summer vacation schemes.

For students seeking to enter the legal profession, vacation schemes and work experience placements are a rite of passage, and a potential fast-track ticket to a training contract. For law firms, they’re a way to find and recruit new talent in what has been a competitive marketplace. 

Thus, while some firms postponed spring vacation schemes in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as Baker McKenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills, and Hogan Lovells, others sought to adapt to the new virtual landscape, rapidly formulating online content and networking opportunities. 

Wider opportunities

Many of them have used the InsideSherpa platform or equivalents to run these programmes, opening up schemes to applicants who would otherwise miss out on the traditional vacation scheme experience, for capacity reasons alone.

Kennedys is one such firm. With 120 spots usually available for in-person work experience, this year over 2,800 students signed up for the firm’s online scheme via InsideSherpa. All students and graduates—even those with no legal experience—can apply to the programme, which involves modules in liability, insurance, healthcare and commercial law. 

Hannah Worsford, Kennedys’ human resources manager for trainees and apprentices, said the four-module programme would help students gain critical skills, such as legal analysis. It would also help them “develop legal knowledge of the insurance industry, and learn critical legal communication, research and drafting skills.”

For each module, students watched videos prepared by current trainees. They completed tasks ranging from preparing a draft witness statement to undertaking a legal research exercise on force majeure. Upon completion, each student received a certificate which could be added to their CV and LinkedIn profiles.

A&O takes experience online

Other firms have taken a different approach by focusing less on widening attendance and more on adapting traditional vacation schemes to online platforms, with successful applicants later assessed for training contracts.

Allen & Overy announced in May that its usual vacation scheme would run for one week rather than two, this time in an online format. Hannah Rolph, A&O’s senior graduate recruitment officer, outlined the fundamental changes the firm had made to accommodate the shift.

“When designing the scheme we took a user-led approach,” she said. “We were extremely conscious some students may be living in accommodation which may not give them the space needed to attend a virtual vacation scheme all day. Therefore to ensure we were inclusive; the timetable allowed regular breaks for students and take into account time zone differences for a few of our students.”

Alongside networking and skill sessions, A&O incorporated wellbeing sessions into the programme; with virtual quizzes and games’ providing some light relief during what has been a challenging time for many students

Work experience placements can be crucial in providing insight into the broader culture of the organisation and ensuring trainees find the right firm. Several schemes ensured informal coffee mornings were as much a part of the virtual experience as the formalised tasks.

Regional experience outlined

Outside London, other firms have followed suit. Bristol-based Burges Salmon announced in early August that their usual two-week-long vacation scheme had become a week-long programme, run via video-conference. 

The altered scheme enabled students to encounter a different legal practice area each day, with additional sessions including a Q&A session with partners and trainees, a presentation on the firm’s international strategy, and introductions to its internal diversity networks. 

Anna Dixon, the firm’s resourcing business partner, said the firm had been “determined to provide the candidates who joined us online with the same opportunities to experience life at Burges Salmon and understand the work we do here.”

She added: “Those who took part were delighted our summer vacation scheme still went ahead, and we received positive feedback on our efforts to devise an engaging and interactive schedule of virtual activities over the week.”

Students welcome schemes

Among students, there was an overwhelming sense of relief that their placements went ahead, commenting that in some ways the virtual schemes were preferable to the traditional model. 

Amelia Turner, who completed Burges Salmon’s vacation scheme, said that compared to her in-person experiences, the virtual programme “gave the most realistic insight into the varied range of seats a trainee would carry out.” 

She welcomed her ability to experience many practice areas rather than being limited to one department.

Yasmine Abdulle, a satisfied student of the Kennedys’ programme, felt similarly positive. She said: “Virtual experiences allow a much more relaxed and steadier pace to work at. You don’t have to have previous experience to access a lot of these virtual programmes, and they are an excellent stepping stone to further opportunities with major firms,” adding it was “a valuable teaching experience without the usual pressure.”

Looking to the future, firms seem likely to incorporate elements of the virtual scheme into future work experience programmes. A&O noted that while there were definite benefits to the virtual model, many students still wanted to experience the in-person element of working for the firm, indicating that a hybrid programme may be a potential route forward.

For Kennedys, the scheme has exceeded expectations. Worsfold said that the online programme provided “an amazing pool of talent to work with” and her firm’s challenge was to encourage students to take the next step. 

She added: “We will be planning more virtual events for them, where they will be able to speak to trainees and apprentices about working for a large law firm and receive tips on what they need to demonstrate when they apply to us.”

Importantly, it seems virtual work experience schemes may help also encourage greater diversity, a key focus for firms over the last few months. Rolph said such programmes “will no doubt play a role in promoting diversity in the legal sector, as a much broader group of students can access the content and upskill themselves virtually.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Worsfold, who acknowledged that location and financing attendance on such schemes could be significant obstacles to participation, as can a perception that connections are more important than talent. 

In contrast, thanks to virtual schemes, “students from any school, college or university can now undertake real-life tasks from the comfort of their home. The virtual programme really has levelled the playing field for all applicants for work experience.”

The long-term benefits of virtual vacation schemes are as yet unknown. However, such schemes seem likely to continue, at least as long as the pandemic persists, and possibly beyond. As firms begin to view remote working as a more permanent feature of the legal world, virtual work experience programmes may better equip trainees as they embark on the early stages of their careers.

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