In order to gain insights into how firms and organisations might adapt to run a successful virtual or hybrid summer placement this year Olivia Moore, Careers & Wellbeing Manager at the Law Society, speaks to Burness Paull and CMS about the programmes they ran last year.

Summer 2020 was a time of scant opportunities for students and school pupils, with seasonal jobs off the cards for many and access to work experience disrupted as most of us worked from home.

Understandably for many employers, turning a usual in-person work experience placement into a virtual experience, when trying to keep a business afloat, was one challenge too far. Therefore, we saw a lot of legal employers cancelling placements and as a result, students missing out on their insights into the law.

It’s hard to predict where we’ll be working this summer but likely, it won’t be business as usual back in the office. However, hopefully we have adapted a bit more to remote or hybrid working and more employers are thinking about how they can run a successful summer scheme.

To give firms and organisations some insights into the realities of running a virtual placement, I spoke to two firms, Burness Paull and CMS, who ran programmes successfully last year. Learning more about their approach might give you some thoughts on how your firm or organisation might be able to accommodate students this year and give them the work experience they’re missing out on.

First Steps at CMS

Jen Silva, Early Talent Acquisition Advisor, CMS

Our First Steps programme is designed to give an insight into the legal profession for law and non-law students who are at the early stages of their university studies. The structure of a typical week, which would ordinarily take place in person throughout our offices in the UK (including Aberdeen, Edinburgh & Glasgow) involves a range of networking and development sessions. The majority of time would be spent with a trainee buddy and supervisor, where participants engage in meaningful desk-based work.

As we looked at the realities of restrictions brought on by the pandemic, it became clear that it would be difficult to replicate the exact format of our in-person programme. Consequently, we fully re-designed the scheme to deliver a week of sessions that were immersive and engaging, while still ensuring that participants were able to gain a deeper insight into us as a firm.

We ran the scheme with 65 individuals and used MS Teams as our platform. The first change we made was to the length of the day – condensing each day to five hours (10am – 3pm) to mitigate ‘Zoom fatigue’ as much as possible and provide opportunities for regular breaks. Instead of the usual desk-based work, we focused on other activities, ensuring they were as interactive as possible. We ran various networking opportunities, a commercial awareness session and a competitive team challenge throughout the week. We also had social events, including a virtual escape room. It worked well to have this later in the week as the students had by then had the opportunity to get to know each other a little better.

The most popular session of the week was ‘Meet Your Mentor’ which provided a chance for participants to have 1:1 time with their new trainee mentor. As we had planned to extend this far beyond the First Steps programme, we recommended that paired mentors and students meet once a month until the end of the year. This pairing is available to everyone on the programme and is a major value-add to students as it provides ongoing engagement and access to quality peer support. Following their time on the scheme and beyond the mentorship, we hope that the majority of our First Steps participants will be fast tracked to an assessment centre for the CMS Academy, which is the main route to a training contract at CMS.

For further details for our programmes, please visit www.cmsearlytalent.com

School pupil insights and student summer placements at Burness Paull

Yasmin Millar, Graduate Recruitment and Development Manager, Burness Paull

For University students, our 2020 summer placement offer was condensed down from six weeks to one week, which represented a big departure from the usual set-up where future trainees are assessed broadly on their legal work tasks, as well as general skills and approach. During the one-week placement, there wasn’t the same opportunity for seat-rotation or preferences (although we have gone back to this offering for 2021 over a four-week programme), but students were still set work and partnered up with a mentor who would support them and discuss their work which related to a legal team. Additionally, all students were matched with a trainee buddy who could also be a source of information and advice.

Engagement was a concern when running a virtual programme, however we found that students were very committed and technically able to adapt to the virtual environment. So much so that we are looking at how a hybrid approach might work for the future, asking ourselves: ‘what can we offer as the best opportunity?’ We have found that some training is actually better delivered virtually, rather than sitting in one room with others for hours at a time, however, sit-downs with mentors are more valuable in-person. We found that the virtual approach takes away location barriers for potential applicants, but also helps ensure consistency in the way summer placements are delivered between different office locations. Additionally, the access to senior-level people like partners was better virtually than in-person, as students can often be nervous to approach senior colleagues in an office environment.

After the success of the summer programme last year, in March this year the firm ran a virtual work experience week for school pupils as part of our work with the PRIME initiative, which provides targeted opportunities to young people from less-advantaged backgrounds. Usually running in-person and giving pupils the chance to see a real-life law firm, the virtual programme needed to offer an alternative way to get quality insights into the realities of working for the firm. During the week pupils experienced a range of different talks which specifically focussed on getting to know the firm including its values and areas of specialism, in addition to giving an all-round taster into topics like pathways to becoming a solicitor, career options and looking at ‘what is law?’ These varied topics meant a wide range of speakers and facilitators could take part, enabling pupils to see the personal side of the firm.

For us, a big positive of being able to offer a virtual programme for school pupils meant being able to reach more areas where opportunities are harder to come across. After all, for many school pupils in Scotland, travelling to central cities every day for a week isn’t a viable option. This year, we could target a wider range of schools and students. Going forward, we are considering how to create an engaging hybrid programme, which would allow us to offer some in-person experience if possible, whilst also being able to keep opportunities open for pupils across a wider geographic area.

All in all the positive outcomes weren’t just felt by the pupils and students who benefited from virtual experience, but rather by the firm too. We felt adapting the usual programme was worth it, not just from the point of view of hiring trainees as usual, but also because it helped Burness Paull keep our finger on the pulse, ensure we maintain access to talent and gain valuable student feedback allowing us to adapt our programmes as needed for the future.

I am looking forward to seeing future success from the virtual experience as we look to translate our learnings into the new hybrid working approach.

For further details for our programmes, please visit www.burnesspaull.com/careers/law-graduates-scotland or reach out to us on social media.

Internships and summer placements: Information for employers

Read our guidance on internships and summer placements, download our style internship agreement and see our at-a-glance information about the remuneration of summer students.