Oxbridge Law Applications: the Ultimate Guide, Written by a Top Oxford Law Graduate
About the Author
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course.
Oxford and Cambridge are well known for requiring a perpetual balancing act between spending time in the library and dressing up for dinners and balls. Of all the subjects they offer, Law is perhaps the one which really takes this to heart! It’s a fantastic degree to study anywhere, and Oxford and Cambridge are still considered two of the best places to do a law degree in the UK.
It is however a big step to decide to apply for a new(ish) subject to you at university, especially one which is so obviously linked to a vocation. This guide will help you think about whether Law at Oxford or Cambridge is really for you, and then give you some key advice about navigating the parts of the application process that are specific to this subject. There’s a lot of misinformation about Oxford and Cambridge, and about law in particular; if you can sort the fact from the fiction, you’ll be well-prepared to embark on this challenging but exciting path.
How do I know if I want to be a law student? Do I need a law degree if I want to be a lawyer?
It can be quite daunting to decide to study a brand new subject, but studying law appeals to a lot of people because it has relevance for everyone and is such a central part of society. You can’t do much better than to get a primer out on something ‘exciting’ like criminal law and something ‘less exciting’ like land law and check you find both interesting on some level. It’s important that you enjoy thinking about the detail of the law as much as the political motivations behind it or the historical treatment of an area of society, so think about what is keeping your attention as you read. Law students have to cover certain core topics in detail as part of the degree so be aware that even if your heart lies with discussing overall policy aims and ideological struggles you will still have to learn the finer points of contract law!
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s important to know that a law degree is considered very different to practice (especially an Oxbridge degree compared to working in a corporate firm) so there is no need to do an undergraduate law degree in order to work as a lawyer. A large proportion of qualified lawyers do their undergraduate degree in another discipline – you take a one-year conversion course and then have caught up to your peers. A law degree can be very philosophical (especially at Oxbridge, where many of your tutorial discussions will be about what the law should be) – it’s not just about learning the content of the law, but about thinking seriously about how we organise our society from property law to control of the state. So if your heart is set on corporate law then the decision isn’t too important – they can bring you up to speed fairly quickly.
Oxford and Cambridge – essentially the same place, yes? Not quite…
If we’re honest, Oxford and Cambridge are overall very similar, and on the careers front it’s still the case that around 30% of barristers went to Oxford or Cambridge (Barristers’ Working Lives, 2011). They’re also both very different to other universities in learning style, with small tutorials or supervisions being the main focus of the academic week and around three essays to submit a fortnight. But there are a few key differences between the two for law which are worth thinking about:
– The number of compulsory modules: Oxford has 12 and only 2 options, in your final year. Cambridge has a more flexible structure. Whilst most students take certain core modules you do get choice as to what you study from second year.
– The big one: assessment structure. Oxford has a few exams midway through first year which don’t count towards your final mark, an extended essay between second and third year which does, and a marathon of 9 exams in about 12 days at the end of third/fourth year upon which almost your entire degree classification is based. Cambridge has exams every year, so the pressure’s less intense at the end of third year but you have to keep completely on top of your notes as you go through the years. Think hard about which style would play to your strengths, but if it doesn’t make a difference then consider other factors.
– Applying for a year abroad. Oxford offers a 4 year course with a year spent abroad which you apply for from the outset, whereas at Cambridge you apply once you are there. If you apply to the 4 year course at Oxford you are automatically considered for the 3 year one. If you are absolutely dead-set on a 4 year course and want to know straight away then apply to Oxford, though personally I would recommend taking an offer for the 3 year course if given one (that’s what I did!). Places do become available during the first year because you have to maintain a certain level of academic results to stay on the course, and invariably someone drops out.
– The clothing: at Oxford you wear academic dress to examinations, whereas at Cambridge you don’t. Not really a reason for one or the other (unless you hate bow ties), but an interesting difference!
However, don’t worry too much about this decision. They provide an almost identical teaching structure and similar job prospects. Go to a couple of open days and see which you prefer. The two cities are quite different although the Colleges are almost identical – Cambridge is smaller and the Colleges are slightly more secluded, whereas Oxford is bigger and the Colleges are mostly right in the middle of town.
I’ve decided – Oxford/Cambridge law is the one for me!
Be sure to read the universities’ websites’ information and our Oxbridge applications guide for the general information you need to know about your application form. This extra information should be helpful specifically for Law applications:
– Work experience is not necessary but nor is it a bad idea. If you know anyone who works in the legal industry, see if you can shadow them for a few days. If you can’t, e-mail round some local firms or chambers politely asking if you could come in for a day or so during the holidays (don’t try criminal sets, they tend to say no for safety reasons). If that doesn’t work, go sit in your local open court. Tribunal justice is perhaps even more fascinating than watching barristers float around in wigs and gowns, and it’s a good way of showing that you know there is more to settling legal disputes than what you see in films.
– You need no legal knowledge whatsoever (see below on the interview). However it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the papers and understand what’s going on in the world and its legal implications. As you’re thinking about studying Law in the UK, keep an eye on the UK newspapers and especially the current legal aid/system reforms.
– Your personal statement is a large part of the application process and the advice in our Oxbridge interview guide is as good as you can get. You want to show that you’re interested and interesting – these tutors are thinking about spending three years supervising your learning and sitting next to you at the odd dinner and they want to know that you’ll put some effort in. Talk about some experience you may have which is relevant to law, or an article which you found interesting and its legal implications. Try to avoid (1) quotes by any Greek philosopher; (2) in fact, any quote you found on the Internet under the heading ‘law quotes’; (3) saying how enthusiastic you are about law, and especially how ‘passionate’ you are about it. Very few people are passionate about the Land Registration Act! You may find particular areas fascinating, you may find the way society interacts with law and how it shapes morals and behaviour really interesting, but I promise you that you are not passionate about ‘Law’ in the abstract! (4) Commenting on how ‘law is all around us’. This is, unfortunately, so common in personal statements as to sound as though you’ve copied it from someone else on The Student Room.
– The LNAT can be quite daunting but just think of it this way – it tests your ability to (a) pick out fine details and understand arguments (b) consider an issue with a legal mindset even if not from a legal perspective – consider all the relevant parts, including the impact on others from picking one side or another, the practicalities and the principles at stake. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? The best preparation you can do is the (free) online practices on the official LNAT website, read newspapers and think a lot. Talk to a family member and ask them to try pick apart an argument you make on (say) elected judges, or if they’re not keen talk to a pet. The way they stare back always makes me notice flaws in my own argument! Make sure you book the LNAT in plenty of time; it had to be booked by October 5 for Oxbridge students this year but local centres can book out well in advance. Do lots of typing preparation too, both for speed and for knowing what an essay within the 750 maximum word limit looks like.
– Your UCAS application will be to 5 universities. Don’t discount the others! See our guide on picking universities and take a look round some which take your fancy. Lots of universities put the core 7 areas of study required for Qualifying status into as few modules as possible so you get more options, and that suits a lot of people. Be aware though, your chances of going to a prestigious firm or becoming a barrister are higher if you go to a Russell Group university (Bar Council Report, Barristers’ Working Lives 2011) so this is a good start from which to focus your search.
Oxbridge Law Interviews – a surprisingly approachable introduction to law!
Before you start watching the doormat for that crucial letter, be aware that not everyone is invited to interview because the LNAT acts as a filter. If you’re not interviewed don’t be disheartened, there are plenty more universities, but if you are then this is the part where it starts becoming quite real! Whether you come to Oxford and interview or (usually for visa reasons) do a telephone or Skype interview, the format of the actual interview will be the same so the same advice applies.
Above all, let the tutors know what you’re thinking when you are trying to answer a question. The point of Oxbridge interviews in general and law interviews in particular is to keep giving you some brand new information and see how quickly you can get to grips with it and apply it to something you already know. Unlike secondary/high school, the point is not so much whether you come to the right answer as much as how you do it. So keep talking! You may want to say ‘I’m just thinking aloud here, but I’ll give you a concrete answer in a second’ and that is absolutely fine. Once you reach that answer, be prepared for your argument to be tested by your interviewers. Hold your ground and give reasons for doing so for as long as you still believe you have a good point, but equally be prepared to alter your view if you had not considered something now being pointed out to you. Just make it clear why you think the interviewer’s point makes your argument problematic.
There are two main types of academic interview, assuming you don’t have a personal one (i.e. about yourself). In one type, you may be given some text to read for half an hour before the interview and sometimes questions to think about before you go in. Read everything slowly, and preferably twice. Underline, star or highlight anything you find interesting or don’t understand (you are allowed to ask!), and write a two-line summary of the reading for your own benefit because you may well be asked for one. It also helps ensure you understand the information! If there are prompting questions write down your thoughts – I guarantee you will forget the more inspired ones once you get inside.
The second type is one I can best show you through an example, because it is about thinking critically about a situation which you have just been presented with. Please be aware that this is not an actual example from an Oxbridge interview, and nor is it a proper definition of the offence of theft. It is simply a way of getting you to understand the thinking processes that are valued in legal study.
Imagine you are given this piece of paper in the interview. “The offence of theft is defined as ‘taking another’s property without that person’s permission or consent and with the intent permanently to deprive the owner of it”. You can refer to it as much as you like. Now, you are given scenarios to consider and have to say whether they fall within the definition or not.
1. Alan owns a cat. Bert sees the cat on the street and takes it home. He knows the cat belongs to Alan and plans to keep it locked in his house because he has always wanted a cat and wants to keep it forever.
2. Catherine sees Alan’s cat wandering the street after it escaped from Bert’s house. She thinks it is a stray (Bert took its collar off) and takes it in. She locks it in the house so she doesn’t escape.
3. Derek takes Alan’s ticket for this week’s LocalTeam FC match and uses it to go to the game for free. He plans to put the ticket back in Alan’s house afterwards so that Alan just thinks he missed the ticket when looking for it before the game.
4. Eva sneaks into Alan’s garden at night and takes a plant pot she really likes. Alan sees her doing so but had been thinking Eva should have the plant pot because she likes it so much. He therefore says nothing.
Have a think about these examples before you read on – apply the definition to the facts and see if each element is satisfied.
Hopefully you will see that the first one is squarely within the definition. For the second, the question is whether Catherine intended permanently to deprive the owner of the cat. She does not intend anyone else to have her, but does not know she has an owner. For the third, Derek intended to return the physical ticket but that isn’t the real value of the ticket – the value is in using it to watch a football match. Does depriving Alan of the benefit of the ticket, i.e. watching the match, come within this definition of depriving the owner of a piece of property? What is the ‘property’ here – a piece of paper or a right to enter a match? Is a right ‘property’? For the fourth example, Alan has not given explicit consent or permission for Eva to have the plant pot but is quite happy for her to take it. Is this consent? In the interview you would need to go through these examples in a similar fashion but make a case for either side of the argument and explain why you think it is correct. It can actually be quite fun!
Just as a last point, be aware that you could be asked on something currently in the news, or your personal statement. The latter is quite rare because the tutors have so much to find out about your suitability for legal study but it takes ten minutes to check your personal statement so it would be an error not to look it over before you go in. As for current news stories, it is always a good idea to watch the papers in the couple of weeks before you go to interview. However, the discussion in my interview was about a fairly minor story and anybody who hadn’t seen it was given a brief summary. This reinforces the point I made earlier – these interviews really are about adapting to new information, not knowing it already, so if you don’t know a phrase or concept then explain that you’d like a brief explanation so you can really get to grips with the material. It just shows you’re interested.
The big day – letter/e-mail arrives
If you’ve got in, well done! There’s nothing to do except meet your offer grades and wait for the reading list to arrive in September. If you haven’t then it doesn’t mean you are not as smart as the other candidates, just that the tutors didn’t think you would benefit the most from the Oxbridge system. They are after a particular mindset as much as intelligence because of the tutorial/supervision system being so unusual, and plenty of people do just as well elsewhere. If you’re absolutely dead-set on Oxbridge you could e-mail asking if it would be possible to have some feedback and advice as to whether re-application might be a good idea, and that might help make up your mind.
Image credits: banner; library; subfusc; moot; Cambridge; cat; letterbox.