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
The career path to becoming a solicitor is a lengthy one. It’s also pretty expensive, we’re not going to lie. Though the financial rewards of a vacation scheme and training contract may be impressive, it’s going to cost you a fair bit of moula to make it.
Whilst you can get a student loan for your degree, financing the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC) or Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) is slightly more complicated.
Funding from law firms
You can secure yourself a training contract before undertaking your postgraduate studies as you can apply two years’ in advance. If you manage to secure a training contract in advance, well done. You’ll also be pleased to hear that some law firms, particularly the larger City firms, are more than likely to sponsor you through your postgraduate studies.
However, you’ll still have to stump up for your living costs. The firm may provide a maintenance grant but if you’re living in London, you’re going to need a bit more wonga. For example, RPC provide their future trainees with a maintenance grant of £7,000, but if you’re paying Central London rent rates, this won’t last very long. For instance, weekly rent for a room in the Borough of Hackney is around £120, which means that within a year, £6,240 of your £7,000 would have gone into the bank account of one very wealthy landlord.
However, along with law scholarships (which you can read about here), law bursaries are also a great means to fund your studies. But what options are out there?
Undergraduate degree bursaries
Bursaries at undergraduate level are awarded based on a range of criteria. Since the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition hiked tuition fees up to £9,000 a year, many universities have been more generous in the bursaries they hand out. For example, if you started a law course at the University of East Anglia when tuition fees were still at around £3,000 a year, if you achieved a certain number of UCAS points or A-level grades, you would get a £500 excellence bursary. You then received this bursary in following years if you achieved a 2:1 or above in your studies.
Now, if you’re studying at the University of Nottingham, you can receive a bursary of up to £3,000 based on your household income. Even if your parents earn up to £42,600 between them, you are eligible for £750. Additionally, you can choose to have this amount taken off the £9,000 you’re borrowing in the form of a student loan… winner!
We’ve only highlighted one example but it’s highly likely that there are similar awards available at a range of universities.
When it comes to the GDL, LPC or BPTC, the terms scholarship, bursary and grant are used interchangeably. It’s unlikely that you’ll be given any money based on your household income, and it’s more than likely that you’ll have to apply for any money that will help you on your way to becoming a lawyer.
So what’s out there?
Bursaries for the LPC
As we mentioned before, the best form of ‘bursary’ is by securing a training contract with your chosen firm who also happen to sponsor their future trainees through their GDL and LPC. There’s also the Diversity Access Scheme (DAS) from The Law Society. This allows students to fund the LPC so long as they don’t have a family member loaning them money, don’t have savings of over £3,500, attended a non-fee paying school, are the first generation in your family to attend higher education and were eligible for free school meals whilst at school. As the DAS only covers the cost of the course, you must also be able to demonstrate that you can afford to live. This is where a loan from the bank becomes almost necessary, unless you can live with your parents or another family member.
Awards for high-achieving law students
For aspiring solicitors, the two main universities, The University of Law and BPP University, offer a range of awards. The University of Law have a full scholarship award, whereby those with a 2:2 or above who have an offer for their course can apply by taking a skills assessment test and also submitting an essay on a law related issue.
BPP also have a scholarship whereby you’ll receive £6,000 if you have achieved a 2:1 in your undergraduate studies and have a ‘clear financial need’. You’ll also need to submit an essay of around 500 words. There’s only one of these scholarships available per intake, so competition is likely to be fierce.
Bursaries for aspiring barristers
For aspiring barristers, Inns of Court offer a range of funding options. For instance, Gray’s Inn dish out over £600,000 to help students fund the BPTC. The process for applying for this funding is lengthy, however, and even involves an interview!
Postgraduate law funding isn’t easy to come by, but if you’re committed to a career in the law and apply yourself, you may find yourself rolling in the money!