2 Nov 2015
How to prepare for an Oxford Law interview
A law interview is a challenging and nerve-racking experience. There is often no fixed format for the interview besides the fact that each interview is 30 minutes long. This means a few things:
1. Interviewers have a free hand in asking what they want to ask, and may differ in what they want to hear.
2. Each interview experience might be slightly different from the next one depending on the interviewer and the direction the questions go. The questions can go in any direction.
3. There is only a limited amount of time to impress the interviewers. 30 minutes is a very short time for such an important interview.
The challenge is made even greater by the fact that candidates face a pressing need to distinguish themselves from other candidates. Every candidate sitting for the interviews have got near perfect grades. It is important to impress with your academic knowledge as well as let your passion and personality shine through.
Some tips and advice
A few things might be good to bear in mind. Firstly, it is invaluable to contact and talk to someone who has been through the interview process himself and who knows the tutors personally. The many tutors on GuruMe are an excellent resource for this purpose, but it need not be limited to GuruMe. If you know any seniors in the same course and college you are applying to, seek their advice! This cannot be overstated enough. The reason is simple. These students have faced the tutors who are interviewing you for at least a year. They know what the tutors like to hear, they know their tutor’s personality and they know what their tutors are looking out for. And their tutors are your interviewers. Doesn’t it make sense to ask someone who has been through the whole process and know what the interviewers want to hear?
The second point is practice. Get as much practice as possible articulating your ideas. It is one thing to know what you want to say and know about a subject. It is quite another to articulate your thoughts in a clear, concise, logical and coherent manner. If you cannot articulate them clearly, you cannot pen them down clearly in an essay. If you cannot do so, you will not be a good student academically, even if you know the answer to the questions. Being able to express yourself is an important skill. To this end, mock interview practice sessions are highly recommended. Again, GuruMe offers an excellent resource for this purpose, with a ton of tutors ready to provide mock interview experiences. But it need not end there. Discuss and throw around ideas with your friends, talk about them, gain new perspectives from what other people think.
Some past questions
These are some of the questions that have been asked in the past in law interviews. Note that they are only meant to serve as a guide. In fact your interview experience might be completely different. Nonetheless, this might serve as a good starting point:
1. Two enemies of mine work independently, as I am travelling across a desert. The first poisons my water. The second tips my water out of its flask, unaware of the poison. I continue on my journey and die of thirst. Who is guilty of murder?
a. Whatever answer you believe to be true, be aware of the fact that there are at least four possible conclusions: that enemy 1 is guilty, that enemy 2 is guilty, that both are guilty, or even that neither is guilty.
b. This question is designed to try and get you to grapple with the idea of fault and the connection between intention and act. Should wanting to commit a crime be enough to be guilty of it? Or should you have to attempt the crime? Or do you actually have to commit it before you can be guilty?
c. These are linked to the legal concepts of mens rea and actus reus. Those of you who have read up a bit more may know that these correspond to the concepts of the actual act, and the intention to commit said act. Was there a coincidence of actus reus and mens rea in the above?
d. It may also be helpful to think about the implications of any conclusion you arrive at. If you think the first enemy is guilty, how does this have an effect on other kinds of crimes? On other factual scenarios? Is this point of view controversial?
e. These are all questions for you to grapple with and answer independently – the actual legal answer is irrelevant.
f. Try very hard to examine all aspects of the question, and not just arbitrarily pick an enemy you think is the guilty one.
2. If I said Manchester won a football match believing without a doubt that this was true but actually Chelsea won, am I lying?
a. Again there is no fixed answer. The answer can very well depend on many factors. This may include whether you think lying involves an element of wrongfulness, what “wrongfulness” might mean, whether lying involves intentional deceit etc.
b. Or you might wish to consider lying from the perspective of harm. Is it only lying if harm results? Does it matter whether we call it “lying” or not and should the query be focused on preventing harm to others from untruths? Why?
3. If a man was in prison and dying, would it be right to kill him and use his organs to save seven other people?
a. This question is more philosophical. Nonetheless, it requires the same skillset of dissecting the question and thinking about the issues involved.
b. The question is made complicated by the fact that it may not just be about the value of a life. What about the value of a life of a prisoner? Is it worth less?
c. It is important to consider the question from multiple perspectives instead of letting your own point of view cloud your judgment. Even if you have a strong point of view, it is important to argue from the other perspective and then explain why the other point of view is not as persuasive.
Some qualities tutors are looking out for
Finally, these are some of the qualities tutors might be looking out for in a law interview:
1. Academic ability and potential
a. This is an important one that can be reflected in sophisticated and clear arguments, strong analysis and cogent reasoning.
2. Motivation and independent thought
a. The point of Oxbridge interviews in general and law interviews in particular is to see how quickly you can get to grips with new information with it and apply it to something you already know. The ability to do this well is impressive.
b. Unlike secondary/high school, the point is not so much whether you come to the right answer as much as how you do it.
3. Enthusiasm for your course
a. Your tutors will be spending 3 years with you and giving you work. They want to have rigorous debate and discussion with people who are passionate about their subject and not applicants who treat it as a chore.
My own interview experience
Before my interview, I had tried to prepare as much as I could by searching for what interviewers would look for. There seemed to be so many things to memorise, from being able to draw fine distinctions to crafting a nuanced and sophisticated argument, from conveying an idea logically and coherently to demonstrating passion and knowledge on the subject.
Once in the interview room though, all that went out of the window. I was asked questions and I answered, it was as simple as that. Ultimately it is the foundations that matters. How widely one has read on the topic, how many case studies one has practiced and how much you’ve run through difficult issues in your head and practiced talking to people about them either through mock interview experiences or daily life. I believe all these will show clear as day in front of the interviewer and passion will be naturally conveyed if present, and difficult to fake if otherwise.
As for the interview itself, the process goes somewhat like this. There would be a passage on either a case or some current affairs to read. Usually there would be 30 minutes to read and prepare before the interview. I thought before the interview that 30 minutes would be an incredibly long time. I was wrong. It feels a lot shorter when you’re in there. Upon entering the interview room, you’d be asked some basic questions about yourself to ease you in and make you comfortable.
Also, expect basic questions like “why do you want to study law?” although the interviewers know that any answers to such questions are carefully prepared before the interview and they tend to place little weight on the answers (unless they’re outstandingly good or bad). The meat of the interview will focus on tackling issues in the passage. Many different kinds of questions can be then be asked from there, from philosophical questions to legal questions to current affairs etc. The discussion can go in any direction.
My passage had to do with contract law in a familial setting. In a family, we don’t typically expect promises to be legally binding, but is that always fair? That was the crux of the debate.
Anyway, remember that you are not expected to have legal knowledge. But you might be asked legal questions. I was asked what consideration in a contract meant. I did not know the answer. But you will be expected to make intelligent guesses based on the context of the passage, and your understanding of the surrounding facts.
One thing to note though is that just because there is no expectation of legal knowledge does not mean there is no expectation of a basic understanding of how society works. For instance, you might be asked if appeals to the Court of appeal should from now on only be by leave (permission) of the court of appeal. It would not require specific legal knowledge but clearly, a basic understanding of where the judiciary fits into the societal framework would be desirable. Or you might be asked if the exercise of discretion in sentencing requires a moral exercise, and whether such an exercise of moral authority should not be allowed in a modern democracy. Thus one would need ideally a basic understanding of what democracy entails to effectively answer the question.
These are some of the basic principles to bear in mind. Good luck with the interviews!