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A student’s view of vacation work at law firms and a bank

The law firms were the City of London solicitors MacFarlanes, the larger
‘Magic Circle’ firms Allen and Overy and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, and
the US firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen and Hamilton. I am not naming the bank
as I may want to work there again!

At Allen and Overy and Freshfields, I worked in the Banking and Finance and
Capital Markets departments. Both firms are so large that you have trouble
finding your way back and forth between the office, the library and the
canteen for the first few weeks.

The Vacation Schemes were well co-ordinated and consisted of plenty of lunch
and drinks sessions with fellow placement students, trainees and members of
the HR team. Despite this you are aware you have little or no identity
within the firm.

Allen and Overy and Freshfields are simply far too large to reasonably
expect anyone outside your corridor to know your name or job description.
The IT and leisure facilities are excellent and the social links between
Trainees are good, but even as a Trainee it would be hard to feel you were
an integral part of the firm.

MacFarlanes was entirely different. The firm is so much smaller that within
a few weeks you have a variety of contacts throughout the firm. You know
more people from different departments and will interact with partners
professionally and perhaps socially.

In the Corporate and Banking departments lawyers at MacFarlanes were
extraordinarily well motivated and driven, even by the standards of the
Magic Circle firms. In dedication, intellectual ability and professionalism
there was no appreciable difference between MacFarlanes and a Magic Circle

However, the client base was not as wide or as high profile and the deals
not always large or well reported. Facilities were good, but as the firm
continues to grow apace, space appeared to be at a premium, making the
building feel claustrophobic at times.

Cleary was different again. The general atmosphere was far more relaxed than
at MacFarlanes. The London office is growing quickly but associate
solicitors still get their own offices. Over half the lawyers are American
and all UK lawyers are encouraged to go to New York at some stage to qualify
at the New York bar.

The client base of the firm is as large and international as any Magic
Circle firm, but the responsibility given to trainees and young associates
is greater at an earlier stage. Hours are not necessarily longer but
salaries are significantly higher than at top UK or Magic Circle firms.

Lawyers feel more valued by the partners and appear to get more guidance on
a day-to-day basis because of the lower partner/associate ratio.

In-house legal teams in investment banks are smaller and more diverse than
departments in large private practice firms. In-house lawyers are generally
older than might be expected at a law firm.

The hours are shorter and the financial rewards rather lower. Complicated
cross-border work is still farmed out to large international law firms
rather than kept in-house despite an increasing emphasis on completing as
much work internally as possible.

Compliance issues drive much of the in-house lawyer’s role. Lawyers are
becoming increasingly valuable to banks as regulatory requirements, imposed
by the FSA and other bodies, increase.

However, as a non-revenue producing division, the legal division will never
be the focus of a bank and as a lawyer you will rank below a trader or an
investment banker in the grand scheme of things.

Though opportunities for limited part-time work or legal internships at
banks exist, they are not well advertised. In-house legal teams do not offer
full-time jobs to trainees or graduates, but prefer to take on associates
who have a few years experience at a City firm.

However experience in-house is valuable and will help you in your
applications to law firms. An internship can also be translated into jobs in
other parts of the bank by successful networking

At most of the the law firms, the work I was given was
generally simple and undemanding. I was never overloaded with tasks and
never felt pressured. Most students passed the time by emailing each other
and surfing the web.

Banks, by contrast, will work you hard from the very start and make no attempt to lure undergraduates into employment by way of a deliberately relaxed working programme.

At the law firms, we were actively encouraged to leave the office promptly at 5.30pm and were
never expected in before 9.30am. Study sessions, trips and meetings were
laid on to break up the days.

Students who had done placements in similar firms said they were much the
same. Much turned on the attitude of the associate you sat with. Some were
too busy to delegate any tasks to students and some had no interest in
involving students in their work at all.

To get ahead, ask as many intelligent questions as possible about the
department you sit in and appear engrossed in the work. Volunteer for
everything and never refuse a task for any reason.

The exception was the European Associate Scheme at Cleary Gottlieb. The
scheme had only two students. We were encouraged to be proactive and ask for
work from a variety of sources, rather than wait to receive tasks from a
single ‘mentor’ as happened at the other firms.

We were left in our own office and given research and drafting tasks that
were then used by associates. Only during this placement did I have to work
late or feel that my work was valuable and of some use to the firm.

At each law firm I was assessed by a questionnaire that was
completed by my associate or trainee mentor at the end of the placement.

At banks, the work is not part of an assessment programme. They give less feedback than law firms and there are fewer opportunities for informal performance discussions with senior lawyers.

The law firm questionnaires typically awarded a mark out of 5 for appearance, punctuality, interest in the work, personality, intellect and commercial awareness.

The mentor wrote a few lines about my time at the firm, outlining exactly
what pieces of work I had been involved in and if it had been of use to the
lawyer it had been produced for.

If you dress smartly, arrive punctually, show a genuine interest in what
your mentor is doing and complete what ever work you are given on time you
will do well in each of these categories. To convert a vacation placement
into a training contract you do not necessarily excel throughout your

If you are pleasant and hard working you will be successful, providing you do
not actively make mistakes and embarrass yourself.



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