The Truth About Virtual Vacation Schemes

Purple briefcase
Next City Lawyer
November 19, 2021
[time to read]
min read

We are going to share an uncomfortable truth about virtual vacation schemes: they are terrible.

Students normally want to get a taste of the firm’s culture, meet trainees and associates and hear about their experiences, take in the views of the City and enjoy the various office perks.  Law firms want to see students in person, engage and interact with them and evaluate their business/soft-skills in an office environment.  And so neither students nor law firms are particularly happy about this online experience, and these make-shift schemes will hopefully only be needed for this summer cycle and we can return to traditional programs in the winter.

We also suspect that the virtual offerings will massively vary between law firms (Legal Cheek).  Some firms will do a brilliant job of integrating students and getting them involved; others will do an abysmal job and students will feel like they have been thrown into the deep end with no supervision, or not given enough work and feel ignored and bored.

It looks like the legal community is so concerned about how students will fare this round, even Legal Cheek has created its own virtual vacation scheme (more details).  We don’t think this makes for the best CV fodder, but it has given students a decent window into what the legal world actually looks like and is much better than spending one’s summer locked up and playing video games or watching Netflix!

On top of these issues is the elephant in the room: COVID-19.  Will law firms slash future trainee intakes because of it?  Will firms offer fewer training contracts to vac scheme students as a result?  Will some law firms go insolvent? These questions have not yet been answered but we think it’s pretty clear that COVID will certainly not improve your chances of landing a training contract.

It is therefore of paramount importance that you understand how to maximise your chances of securing a training contract when faced with these new challenges. Even though it looks and feels like we may be “done” with COVID, it’s likely that a number of law firm initiatives in future will include virtual elements and so this advice remains as relevant as ever.

  1. Attitude
  2. Technical Ability
  3. Responsiveness
  4. Hiding Behind Email
  5. Asking Questions
  6. Equipment
  7. Dressing Appropriately
  8. TC Interview
  9. Conclusion

1. Attitude

The #1 most important attribute for vac scheme students (and trainees and even junior associates) to demonstrate is that they have a good attitude.  Law firms want to make sure you are a good fit, client-safe, enthusiastic and willing to work hard when required.  This is going to become even more important in a virtual vacation scheme where your supervisor won’t be able to get to know you as well as you’re both hidden behind screens.

If you hear someone apologise to you about the vac scheme or event being virtual do NOT moan about it.  Instead just acknowledge the reality and be optimistic: “Yeah, I really wish I could’ve been in the office to properly meet everyone but I’m sure it will be great nonetheless and I’m really excited to learn more about the firm and help the team”.

2. Technical Ability

Law is no different from any other industry: those who are well liked have a greater chance of succeeding than those who are not.  In a normal vacation scheme it is fair to assume around 75% of participants will be offered training contracts; provided you are decently liked and seem enthusiastic you have a great chance of getting the offer.  Essentially you will only not get a TC offer if you do something blatantly wrong (i.e. are seen as too arrogant, not a good fit, have a bad attitude, etc) and it gets recorded.  Making any sort of technical mistake is to be expected and no one judges you for it at vac scheme level.

In a virtual environment it is much harder to seem personable and demonstrate all of your great individual qualities.  You will likely have a listening role only on most calls or virtual meetings and your work will be given to you through email in many cases instead of in person.  The only thing you can take control of and impress on is your initial introduction to the team.  We think it’s pretty likely that you will be introduced via telephone/video conference to the team in a group setting and that you will be asked to say a few words about yourself.  You do not want to be unprepared for this and stumble when you make your first impression!  Prepare a couple of sentences and you will look great from the get go: “Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m a third year history student at Durham. I play on the uni netball team and am also quite into theatre, music and have gotten into baking during lockdown. I’m quite excited to be in the [corporate] team and am looking forward to helping out.”  

Apart from this (and any other time you meet someone on a call or video call), there will be pretty few opportunities to shine as a person.  Instead, you will likely be judged more on your technical ability than usual.  Standards are normally low for vac scheme students but we expect them to be raised during this year’s scheme as (a) there are less ways to evaluate candidates and (b) some firms may have more competitive TC processes if their intakes are being reduced as a result of COVID.

You may be wondering how to demonstrate your technical legal abilities if you have no legal work experience - and that’s a good question!


One easy thing you can do is write emails clearly and professionally.

A good email can look something like this:

Hi Mary,

Sure, I can start your research task now.  Please let me know if you have any preference as to the search provider used (i.e. Westlaw or LexisNexis).

Kind regards,


You don’t need to be paranoid about crafting the “perfect” email, just start and end it well and try and be concise with any analysis.  Lawyers tend to be busy individuals and would prefer to read something short and/or broken up with suitable headings or bullets than several long paragraphs of text. You also don’t need to be overly formal as that can look out of place. The safest way is to just mirror junior lawyers in how they communicate and copy them.

Tip: when sending an email to a group of people, include “xxx” in the “To:” section as this will prevent the email from accidentally sending before you intended on it.  This has happened to all lawyers and it’s always embarrassing so best to take precautions to avoid it altogether.


Associates often struggle to find work to give to vac scheme students because it’s hard to find the right balance between being interesting, challenging (but not too challenging that it can’t be done well) and useful to the team.  Vac scheme students often have pockets of free time where they end up sitting around and not doing much (like lawyers!).

If you are in the employment team and have a free 30 minute window one afternoon, instead of scrolling through your Instagram or Facebook feed, spend the time looking up legal updates / blog posts / articles written by law firms in that area to see if there have been any new developments of note.  If you are able to casually drop in that you were reading up on things or that subject area comes up in conversation then your supervisor will be quite impressed that you took the initiative.

Other good ways to use your downtime during the vacation scheme are reaching out to associates whom you think do interesting work to see if they would be keen on a virtual coffee or quick chat, or preparing for your end-of-week interview for the training contract.

Attention to Detail

Everyone makes mistakes.  Nevertheless, if your work shows that you have good attention to detail then this will improve any scores you get on your technical abilities.

If you have a printer then it is best to review important documents by hand to catch any typos or final errors. Otherwise make sure you proofread any emails or work you send to ensure you are happy with the end product.

3. Responsiveness

When you eventually become a lawyer you will realise that getting to the right answer is only one part of producing work that your superiors and clients will be pleased with.  Another important element is that you provide your answers in a timely manner.  Since you are being judged more heavily on the quality of your work during the virtual vacation scheme, you should aim to reply to emails as soon as reasonably practicable.  You don’t need to panic or rush to respond immediately after receiving an email, but you equally should not let emails sit in your inbox all day unresponded to.  When you are asked to complete a piece of work, most lawyers will appreciate you replying to them with a short holding email confirming that you will action the request and letting the know when you think you will get it back to them.

4. Hiding Behind Email

Notwithstanding the above pointers on emails and appropriate etiquette, we want to stress that in a virtual vacation scheme you should NOT hide behind emails.  Calling a more senior lawyer can be intimidating (even as a trainee and junior associate), but you want your supervisor and rest of the team to get a flavour for who you actually are, and it is very hard to show that by email.  If you have an opportunity to call someone instead of emailing then you should take it.

This is something that junior lawyers struggle with too, but senior lawyers will respect someone who can “pick up the phone” and make a call or walk into someone’s office to ask a question.  

5. Asking Questions

The old adage that “there is no such thing as a stupid question” is completely wrong.  Some questions are better kept to yourself.  We have seen vacation scheme students not get training contracts because they constantly pestered supervisors with pointless or thoughtless questions and the supervisors considered such students to be less intelligent/conscientious as a result.  

To avoid falling into that situation, you should follow this hierarchy in terms of who you go to if unsure of an answer:

Admin/IT related

  • Secretary (if you have been allocated one, and if not then perhaps ask one you have been introduced to) - always remember to be polite and thankful.  Condescension towards non-fee earning staff is grounds for an immediate TC rejection
  • IT department
  • Other vac scheme students
  • Graduate development (if it is about scheduling or procedural matters)
  • Trainee in the team you are sitting in (assuming you have been introduced)
  • Junior associate on the matter (if the matter has multiple associates on it)
  • Supervisor

Technical/Legal related

  • Google - there’s a surprisingly large amount of quality materials out there
  • Practical Law Company (if the firm has a subscription)
  • Trainee in the team you are sitting in (assuming you have been introduced)
  • Junior associate on the matter (if the matter has multiple associates on it)
  • Supervisor

In short, your supervisor (i.e. the person who has the most influence as to whether you get the TC or not) should be your last port of call for basic questions.  If you have any intelligent questions or ones that clearly evidence your thinking then those are worth posing to him/her.  If you can get yourself in front of a partner and are able to impress then this is also great and feel free to ask intelligent questions to him/her as well.

6. Equipment

It might seem obvious, but if you are going to be assessed virtually you should make sure that you have a functioning webcam and a good WiFi connection.  If you are unable to join meetings or calls because of connectivity issues this will set you back a bit.

7. Dressing Appropriately

You need to forget how you would normally dress on a vacation scheme: if you wear a full suit every day and people see that on Zoom call they’re going to think you are a weirdo.  No one is wearing suits or anything close to that right now.

For men, if you wear a shirt and jeans/chinos that will be sufficient. Women should wear a smart jumper/blouse and some form of comfortable trousers.  There are good odds no one will see what you wear below your abdomen due to the webcam angle, but you don’t want to be the guy who gets caught wearing gym shorts underneath a pressed shirt!

You could probably get away with being even more casual than our recommendations but we think that sometimes putting a little bit of effort into your appearance can help you focus and take work more seriously. You’re unlikely to do your best quality legal drafting in pyjamas!

8. TC interview

Most firms usually have a final training contract interview at the end of each vacation scheme.  It is often seen as a rubber-stamping exercise to make sure no undeserving candidates make it through, but it is fair to assume that it will take on added importance for online schemes as it will be much harder to otherwise evaluate candidates.

This means you should prepare for your TC interview as if you were going through your vacation scheme interview prep all over again.  Except this time it will be a video interview where it will be harder to establish rapport and they will likely grill you with the usual questions asked to vac schemers when you may have had a very unusual virtual experience!  Fortunately we can help you with this  - our team of qualified lawyers have been through everything before (except COVID!) and can show you how to shine in this sort of interview format.  Our mock interviews will be especially tailored so you can prepare first-rate answers to questions you are most likely to get asked.  

You may want to dress slightly smarter for this, but still no need to go full suit and tie / trouser suit etc.


Virtual vacation schemes present unique challenges for students, especially during COVID-19 as law firms slash intake numbers and remain pessimistic about expected 2020/2021 growth.  Many students will struggle to thrive in an online scheme and fail to showcase their unique attributes, but if you follow the above advice you will drastically improve your odds of success.  Remember to be enthusiastic and seem keen, write clear and typo-free emails, be responsive to calls and emails and use your downtime productively.  Don’t forget the admin points of ensuring you have functioning IT and appropriate dress before the scheme (and interview) begins.  And above all else make sure you prepare diligently and efficiently for the interview, get a couple of practice sessions in and finish the scheme on a great note.

As a team of qualified solicitors from US, Magic Circle and Silver Circle who know the process inside-out, we can help you:

  1. identify firms that suit your interests
  2. eliminate firms that are not the right fit
  3. craft polished and convincing applications
  4. prepare for every type of interview in the most effective way
  5. outperform the competition at your assessment centre
  6. distinguish yourself from other trainees once you land your dream vacation scheme and training contract.

You can learn more about how we can help you secure a training contract here.  

  • Our Application Database has >95 examples of successful applications for >70 different law firms for £14.99 each. Each application includes expert line-by-line commentary by our team of qualified solicitors from US, Magic Circle and Silver Circle firms to help you craft your own perfect application and secure a training contract.
  • Our Practice Case Study will help you turn your assessment centre into a training contract offer. This realistic mock case study takes 45 minutes to complete. It includes >15 pages of expert feedback which will teach you vital commercial content that you need to know and help you to assess how strong your practice performance was.  It costs just £19.99.
Share this post
Get a free copy of the NCL Law Firm Prioritisation Guide

Sign up to our email list.  Get a free copy of our 15+ page guide explaining how to choose the best law firm for you.

By subscribing you agree to with our Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.