Fifteen years on, I still shudder at the memory of my unsuccessful interview for a place to study law at Cambridge. If only my curtain-haired 18-year old self had been more like the accomplished student who excels in the mock interview video on the Oxford law faculty's website.
How does she do it? At the end of the clip, the interviewer, law tutor Ben McFarlane, singles out for special praise the student's capacity for "looking carefully at words and drawing fine distinctions, building up an argument and applying that to examples", while emphasising how the university is testing for motivation, reasoning ability and communication skills rather than prior knowledge of the law.
I vaguely recall being similarly advised before my interview all those years ago. But like many Oxbridge law rejects, I failed to consider properly what these criteria meant in advance. One of the consequences of this was that every time my interviewer asked me a legal question, as McFarlane does frequently in the mock interview video - without expecting an informed response - I panicked.
It wasn't just the interview I fluffed; I bombed on the written test, too. These days, the test has been formalised, with the specimen questions on the Cambridge law faculty website a good example of how legal conundrums don't always require a QC to answer them. One begins ominously:
(1) A person who is not a party to a contract (a "third party") may in his own right enforce a term of the contract if—
(a) the contract expressly provides that he may, or ...
Overcome the initial impulse to freak out, though, read on a bit, and all the question is asking is for some rules to be applied to some facts. In its own way, it's no more complex than one of the more esoteric debates on Match of the Day about whether or not a striker has strayed offside.
The point about prior legal knowledge not being a prerequisite for Oxbridge exam and interview success is an important one. But legal knowledge shouldn't be confused with an understanding of the fundamental aspects of how society works - which is helpful for would-be Cambridge undergraduates, as illustrated by the first question in the Cambridge specimen test essay section. It states:
"Judges should be given no discretion in sentencing criminals: all criminal penalties should be fixed by statute. The exercise of discretion in sentencing requires an exercise of moral judgment by the judge, and judges in a modern democracy should not be allowed to exercise moral authority over their fellow citizens." How far do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.
Clearly those with a basic grasp of the mechanics of democracy, in particular the separation of powers doctrine, are at an advantage here.
This is one of the many areas in which the Cambridge test differs from the National Admissions Test for Law (LNAT) used by Oxford and several other top universities (LNAT is completely separate to the Oxford oral interview). LNAT steers well clear of anything that could be construed as legal, focusing instead on themes like feminism and imperialism. As such, the scores it generates seem less vulnerable to manipulation by the coaching of students in advance. Still, a familiarity with publications like the Economist – to whose editorial style the passages in the LNAT comprehension section bear more than a passing resemblance – can't hurt those sitting the test. A example of its mixture of multiple choice questions and essays is available here.
Despite the efforts of LNAT setters to make it accessible, most students aren't keen on the test. Summing up the general sentiment in a post on my blog LegalCheek.com, law student Jack Harris, who took the exam in 2008, describes LNAT as "pain, suffering and misery." Indeed, many are so averse to the idea of sitting the test - which was introduced in 2004 - that they deliberately do a non-law degree, then convert to law via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
Surely, though, in the future more will simply grit their teeth and face LNAT as the trebling of university fees creates a strong incentive to minimise the number of years spent in higher education. There is already some early evidence of this trend: Ucas figures released earlier this week – which recorded an overall decline of 8.7% in numbers applying to university - showed the fall in applications for law undergraduate courses (3.8%) to be significantly lower than average. GDL numbers, meanwhile, have dropped substantially over the last few years.
Of course, there are plenty of universities offering undergraduate law courses ranked highly by the Guardian that don't require candidates to sit the LNAT or attend an interview. Indeed, Harris (who got an average score on the test) chose to go to non-LNAT Queen Mary's (ranked fourth in the country for law), graduated with a first and is now studying for the bar with the aid of a large scholarship from Lincoln's Inn.
Alex Aldridge is the editor of LegalCheek.com
Getting into Law School
A law degree is not a prerequisite to becoming a lawyer. More and more non-law graduates are joining the profession (in fact, these days only around 50% of trainees studied law at university), and virtually any degree is acceptable. Some non-law degrees are regarded as particularly useful for specialist areas of the law, a science background can be useful to specialist IP lawyers, for example.
The downside of not studying a law degree is that you’ll have to acquaint yourself with law via the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) - a course which squeezes into one year the seven foundations of legal knowledge that are compulsory for progressing to the vocational stage of training. Concentrating three years of study into just one means that, by most accounts, it's quite an intense experience! It is also an extra year of study so bear in mind the extra fees and living costs.
The Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is the vocational stage of training that must be completed if you wish to become a barrister. It is a one-year, practical course, designed to provide training that is specific to the work of a junior barrister (a two-year, part-time course is also available at some law schools).
Some leading universities require you to complete an entrance exam if you wish to study law.
The LNAT (National Admissions Test for Law)
The following universities require you to sit the LNAT: Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, Kings, Nottingham, Oxford, and UCL.
It is designed to be a test of aptitude rather than educational achievement. The skills that you need to do well in the LNAT are also the skills that you need to do well in legal education. It is used alongside standard methods of selection such as A’ Level (or their global equivalent) results, university applications, and admissions interviews. The test measures the following verbal reasoning skills:
The LNAT cannot be revised for, although those taking it will benefit from familiarising themselves with the style and format of the test.
The LNAT is a 2¼ hour test in two sections:
Section A consists of 42 multiple choice questions. The questions are based on 12 argumentative passages, with 3 or 4 multiple choice questions on each. Candidates are given 95 minutes to answer all of the questions.
For Section B, candidates have 40 minutes to answer one of three essay questions on a range of subjects and demonstrate their ability to argue economically to a conclusion with a good command of written English.
You can practice the LNAT at www.lnat.ac.uk.
Cambridge Law Test
Cambridge University requires you to sit their test, once you have been asked for interview. Nearly all colleges use it. All applicants who sit the test will be asked to answer one question in one hour. Individual colleges will select, from a centrally-set bank of questions, the particular question or questions which appear on their test papers. Three types of questions will be made available to the Colleges, although most Colleges will use only one of the three types:essay, problem or compreshension. Get practice tests HERE
Whichever type of question you are asked to attempt, you will not be expected to have any prior knowledge of the law. Specimen questions are available on the Cambridge university web site.
To obtain a place at a leading university, you will increase your chances if you gain some relevant work experience. Write or visit your local solicitors practice and see whether you can secure some work experience during the holidays. Projects Abroad offer overseas voluntary placements for pre university students wishing to study law and interested in human rights. Pinsent Mason offers a gap year placement. Numerous barristers chambers offer work experience weeks.
More Information: LAW WORK EXPERIENCE FOR 16-18 YEAR OLDS