When Cambridge law student Rebecca McNeill accepted a place on a vacation scheme at a top City law firm in February, she did not expect the programme to begin with the company shipping a full desktop computer to her family home in Belfast.
But with the Square Mile still in a state of hibernation, McNeill was one of thousands of students who had to forgo the skyscrapers and the buzz of Europe’s biggest financial centre for their parents’ spare bedrooms and kitchen tables as firms moved their highly sought after internship programmes online.
“It was definitely strange,” says McNeill, who interned at US law firm Akin Gump, and subsequently accepted a training contract. “You kind of compartmentalise your life and, for me, home is associated with my childhood and high-school self… it was odd that my home environment also became my professional environment.”
The virtual internship is the latest manifestation of a working world entirely upended by the pandemic. Instead of welcoming students on site, investment banks, law firms and consultancies attempted to give prospective employees a taste of City life through Zoom and Microsoft Teams – with mixed degrees of success.
In most cases, the length of the programmes were significantly reduced. For example, JP Morgan cut most of its internships from 10 to five weeks, while the vacation scheme at magic circle law firm Slaughter and May was condensed to just one week from its usual three.
Companies also had to make the work more applicable to a virtual setting. Interns at Goldman Sachs had to sit through four to five hours of training each day at the start of the programme, including classes on “how to be yourself”, while those at rival JP Morgan spent their afternoons learning how to use Excel.
“Informative rather than practical,” was how an intern at one investment bank who asked not to be named described their experience.
But given the constraints, most of the interns interviewed for this article acknowledged that the companies had gone to great lengths to stage the programmes virtually and were appreciative that they went ahead. After all, more than a quarter of students had their internships cancelled this summer, according to UK graduate jobs website Prospects.
Fionnghuala Griggs, a trainee recruitment partner at law firm Linklaters, says this year’s virtual vacation scheme will not be a substitute for their usual face-to-face model going forward, but adds that it went as well as could be expected.
“In terms of presentations for students, we have been able to replicate a lot of what we would normally do. We have the technology and are able to give them the same insights into the firm and explain what we do day-to-day,” she says.
Networking and hobnobbing with senior staff is a big part of any City career, and most firms set aside chunks of time to allow interns make connections with their superiors.
Ellen Steiner, who took part in Slaughter and May’s vac scheme, says a lot of emphasis was placed on speaking to colleagues and tailoring the experience to learn about the parts of the firm people were most interested in.
“I really enjoyed how easy it was to reach out to people,” Steiner says. “I definitely got an insight into the firm’s culture and I didn’t think [the virtual aspect] took away from the overall picture that I got of the company, what they do and the people there.”
While the work-based aspect of the programmes was relatively straight forward to shift online, the social side was less easy to replicate.
Known for its “work hard, play hard” culture, the City attracts young talent who are willing to put in the hours, but who also – famously – enjoy letting their hair down in the Square Mile’s bars and restaurants.
However, stuck in makeshift offices – often in family homes – interns had to dial into virtual events, including quizzes, escape rooms and bingo, rather than explore the City’s famed watering holes
“I’d say cringey is the best word to describe [the social events],” says one intern at a City investment bank, who asked to remain anonymous so they could speak more frankly.
“They tried to make it as interactive as they could but there are just limitations. The whole Zoom thing is just a bit awkward.”
Another described a quiz event where only a handful of interns showed up, and those who did spent their evening staring silently into a screen as the virtual quizmaster read out questions. “It was really awkward and didn’t really feel right,” they say.
This made it more difficult for interns to get to know each other and even contributed to a heightened sense of competition at some firms.
One legal intern who asked not to be named says: “It was strange because there was a slightly competitive atmosphere. That was definitely heightened online because you couldn’t go for drinks together – you weren’t really switched off from the work atmosphere.”
Others faced challenges experienced by many employees working from home in recent months. Hana Fletcher, who also took part in Slaughter and May’s scheme, which she says was “really engaging”, adds that the biggest challenge she faced was her “rubbish Wi-Fi”. “I suppose that’s the problem with living in Devon,” she says.
But firms stepped up to the plate by providing computers, monitors and even electricity generators to those who needed them. And despite the lengths of the internships being shortened, most companies still paid interns for the full period they were supposed to spend in the City before the pandemic forced the programmes online.
Ultimately, working from home has hit early-career employees hardest during the pandemic, and one student said an internship from their childhood bedroom was never going to give them a complete sense of what life might be like in a few years’ time in the City.
They say: “At this point, I still don’t know what it would actually be like to work in Canary Wharf in an investment bank. Because 10 weeks would have given me time to work out whether this is what I want to do or not.
“But if I get offered the grad scheme and I choose to do it, I am going in a lot more blind than if I was there.”