Mills & Reeve LLP:
Best Work Placement Scheme – Regional Firm
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It’s no secret that in the world of legal recruitment, the work placement (or vacation) scheme has become the preferred way of selecting trainees. It is very much a two-way street, giving the firm the chance to get to know its potential new hires and candidates an idea as to whether the firm – and even the law itself – might be the right fit for them.
It is surprising, therefore, that many firms limit vac schemers’ exposure to day-to-day work, preferring instead to fill their time with lectures and presentations. At Mills & Reeve, however, they realise that every second spent with candidates is precious – a fact that has no doubt contributed to its continued success at the LCN Awards, having scooped the award for Best Work Placement Scheme – Regional Firm over half a dozen times.
“I think the vacation scheme is a great representation of what life is like on the training contract itself,” claims Elle Outram, who is perfectly placed to tell as a second-year trainee. “I did one other scheme and it was very differently structured. Here, you revolve around four different departments over the two weeks, which I thought was fantastic – you see the diverse range of work that the firm does, meet more people and get a real idea of the general vibe of the firm and how it works. On the other scheme I spent a week each in two different departments, so I didn’t get to see as much of the firm as I might.”
Such is the desire to get the vac schemers into the swing of life at Mills & Reeve that they will find themselves getting down to real work on their very first day. “Participants arrive and, after a short introduction from the training partner in charge of that office, they get talked through our IT systems and library facilities and go straight to their seats to start work that afternoon,” explains graduate recruitment manager Fiona Medlock. “That might sound a little daunting, but in between they’ll have lunch with some current trainees and be given a trainee ‘buddy’, who will look after them over their two weeks at the firm.”
And the work they are given is as close to what a first-seat trainee would be doing as possible. “I strongly prefer to see people doing live work,” says Brian Marshall, a partner in the corporate team who has overseen trainee recruitment for the last 12 years. “What we do in our team, for example, is to start them with some analysis on a particular matter and then maybe end up with an email to clients with advice. Of course, feedback will be given along the way; but in most cases the emails are good to be sent.”
Once again, Elle’s experience bears out the theory. “Each team seemed to do it slightly differently, but you very much feel like you are involved in the day-to-day running of the firm,” she recalls. “I distinctly remember that when I was in the projects and construction department, they were going to one of our university clients to do a presentation on student accommodation. Given that I was a student at the time, they asked me to put together about 10 minutes of that presentation and stand in front of the client and deliver it. For a young law student to have contact with the client, I think is pretty amazing. It shows they put trust in those they are thinking about recruiting.”
The firm also tries to make sure that the vac schemers enjoy their spare time as much as possible. There are always a couple of social events organised by Fiona with the help of the trainees. These tend to fall at either end of the scheme, with a meal out early on (usually either the first or second night), so that everyone can get to know each other in a social setting. Then, towards the end (usually the final Thursday), there is an outing or event which might variously involve pizza making, comedy or even punting, for those in the Cambridge office.
“The trainees ultimately always try to make an effort to get to know the vacation scheme students and take them for post-work drinks in more informal settings and find out a little bit more about them.”
In addition, the current trainees include the work placement students in all the other activities that are going on while they are there. “The trainees tend to organise sporting events throughout the couple of weeks,” says Elle. “There are netball and football teams, and then there’s the annual cricket match between the partners and the staff – the vacation scheme normally coincides with that. The trainees ultimately always try to make an effort to get to know the vacation scheme students and take them for post-work drinks in more informal settings and find out a little bit more about them.”
As one might expect, competition is pretty hot for places on Mills & Reeve’s work placement – last year there were over 650 applicants for just 36 places. The first step is to fill out the online application form. Fiona personally reviews all applications and the shortlisted candidates are then invited to take part in an online Watson Glaser critical thinking test. Those who make the benchmark score are vetted further by a training partner to decide who will be invited to take part in one of the two assessment days that take place in each of the offices in which the firm runs a work placement (currently Cambridge, Birmingham, Norwich and Manchester).
On the assessment days, applicants are given a tour of the office, have an informal chat with current trainees and associates, perform a group exercise and undergo an interview. “The group session makes sure that candidates are good at participating in a team environment – neither hogging the show nor being a shrinking violet,” explains Brian. “Then the one-to-one interview with a partner, which allows us to find out a little more about the individual’s personality and motivations. Obviously, on top that we are looking for someone who is fairly cheerful and enthusiastic about the chance they are being given.”
The Holy Grail at the end of the vacation scheme is, of course, the offer of a training contract. Around 24 people attend the assessment days at each office, competing for a final eight to 10 places on a vacation scheme (although currently this figure is six in Manchester). On average, the Cambridge office usually has around eight training contract places a year, Birmingham and Norwich both have five and Manchester three (with trainees encouraged to do at least one seat in the Leeds office). It’s also important to remember that not all of those places are filled with vacation scheme candidates, so those on the work placement need to impress to stand a chance of that elusive offer.
“Essentially, on the vacation scheme we are looking for future Mills & Reeve trainees,” states Fiona. “That presents in attitude, willingness to learn, willingness to grab the opportunity with both hands and find out as much about the firm as they possibly can. Professional demeanour is also important, which can be tricky sometimes – knowing when to interrupt people and when not to, while getting across enthusiasm, can be a fine line. We are looking for them to do the best work that they can. They are not handing it in to be marked, but they are hopefully producing a final product they are proud of and that can be sent out to a client or used in a meeting.”
Elle agrees that the teamwork is a hallmark of the Mills & Reeve ethos and suggests that training at the firm is just as enjoyable as the vacation scheme: “I’m absolutely loving life as a trainee. You do need to be willing to work hard, but you should also get involved in the extracurricular side of the firm and try and enjoy the whole thing as well. Since our training contract has six seats as opposed to four – that extra bit of variety on the vacation scheme is a microcosm of the training contract in that way – you are able to garner that little bit more experience than you might at other firms. I’m midway through my third seat and there’s still the possibility of moving to another office for a seat, as well as secondment opportunities, both of which would give me more insight into the way the firm works and help me cultivate links with more colleagues and clients. I think it is fantastic opportunity to have, particularly if you intend to stay with the firm after qualification, which I fully do.”