Oxford Law: A selection of common past interview questions

Leslie Ho, Oxford Law
29 Jan 2016


Why study law?

This is a commonly asked question. In fact, the interviewers tend not to put too much weight on the answer, it is a question that candidates expect and would have prepared for, and interviewers are just looking to warm you up and hear a little bit about yourself.

I remember I was asked this question at my interview. I didn’t prepare for it so I just said whatever was in my head. It might have even been better because my answer was not completely smooth and didn’t sound scripted.

My reason was manifold. The main reason was because I was very interested in the moral, philosophical and social issues that the law brings. I find it very interesting to think long and hard about difficult issues that span values such as right and wrong, justice, fairness public policy etc. I very much enjoy the theoretical and philosophical aspects of legal debate (By the way, Oxford law has a very heavy slant on jurisprudence, definitely more so than Cambridge or other universities so the tutors MIGHT like to hear this, although of course it would depend on the tutor). At the same time, law is a very valuable and practical degree. Hence, it is the reason I didn’t apply to e.g. PPE or philosophy on its own. Law is both a science and an art, it involves both a theoretical academic aspect and a very much technical, down-to-earth and practical aspect (in other words I find pure philosophy and all that a bit too theoretical for my taste. Law brings the best of both worlds).

The above would be my answer but the answer would of course differ for each individual. You could drop a few examples here about some examples of difficult legal issues you find particularly interesting. I could give you some cases to start you off, but remember if you quote cases be prepared to know them well. E.g. there is a case called Ruxley v Forsyth.

Facts: Forsyth is this guy. He is not a nice person. He wants a pool 7-foot-6-inches deep. Ruxley is the builder of the pool. Ruxley screwed up and built it 6-foot deep. From Forsyth’s point of view, it made absolutely 0 difference. However, Forsyth sued. In contract law, damages are awarded to put you in the same position you would have been if contract had been performed. So Forsyth sued for the amount required to demolish the entire pool and rebuild a new one to 7-foot-6-inches (an amount of about £21,560). Note that if Forsyth wins, he is not even required to rebuild the pool, he can just enjoy his free £20k+ while enjoying his pool. Quite clearly this case is very controversial.

You can pick out a ton of issues to discuss from there. How much damages would you give as the judge? If you give £20k, it is unfair for Forsyth to land a free windfall. If you award £20k and force Forsyth to rebuild the pool so he can’t enjoy a free windfall, it involves incredible social waste because the pool is for all intents and purposes, fully functional and usable. If you don’t award £20k, it is an attack on the doctrine of contract because, how will you justify not awarding it when there was a breach of contract?


How would you distinguish between justice and fairness?

This question is very wide. Just defining justice and fairness alone could be a PhD research paper each.

Fundamentally it depends on how you define both of them, since a lot of different definitions are possible. The concept of justice may differ in every culture. Justice can be a matter of god’s will (advocates of divine command theory), or it could be a social contract where people impose rules to govern themselves. Fairness could be based on so many things, like need (if you need it, it might be more “fair” to give it to you), equality (everyone gets the same is “fair”), effort (if you put in more effort, it is “fair” for you to get more). You can see that even within the definition of fairness itself there are contradictions.

If you ask a different legal philosopher, they would give a different answer as to how to how justice and fairness relate to each other. Hence for instance, Hart thinks the general concept of justice relates to fairness. John Rawls too argues that a society can only be just if it is fair.

If you ask me, I will say this. I don’t know what the content of justice and fairness entails so it is difficult to answer this question. What is “just” and “fair” may have objective yardsticks, or they may be completely subjective. (Do you believe in objective morals and objective right and wrong or do you think all right and wrong is subjective? It might be worth thinking about this before the interview, and know that there are powerful arguments on both sides).

However as a starting point, I can pinpoint some possible differences (that I may not even agree with, but can generate further discussion). Justice seems to convey a more objective and universal standard. Fairness on the other hand evokes a more subjective emotional response. Justice withstands the test of time. Fairness depends on popular sentiment and is subject to change. Justice can be the validation of your legal rights. Fairness may go beyond that. For example, you may win a case and get $1 nominal damages. Justice was served, you won the case you should have won. But the $1 award might be unfair particularly if let’s say you suffered more than that. Justice suggests ensuring rules are followed whereas fairness seems to insist on adherence to moral principles. Thus for example, if you park illegally although you have good reason to, in an emergency, justice is served when you are issued a fine in accordance with the rules set in place by the justice system. Justice is not served if you got away scot free. However, it might not be “fair” for you because you had a legitimate reason to park illegally. All of these are very controversial of course, and all can be disagreed with easily.

I think a takeaway is never to take questions at face value. I think the actual answering of the question itself might be the least important part. The important part in answering interview questions might be how you set the stage, define your parameters, address possible concerns, ask what context the question is asked in, ask why we care about the answer and whether it is the right question to ask, address the assumptions, recognise opposing points of view, identify the crux of the matter etc etc. Then after you’ve done all that, the question should already almost answer itself.


Should laws mandate morality? (or questions surrounding law and morality in general)

What are “laws”? Is an unjust law a law? Is a corrupt law a law? Is law anything passed in parliament that has been stamped or must it be in accordance with the rule of law (the topic rule of law alone is another PhD you could write, HUGE topic)? Or perhaps it has to fulfil certain principles of natural justice such as fairness, clarity, openness etc? Is an immoral law a law? Well if it is then clearly laws don’t mandate morality.

Recognise there are many possible definitions. Which one you pick is not important or not as important as recognising that even the concept of “laws” might not be easy.

What does “should” mean? “Should” suggests some kind of outcome or goal we are trying to achieve. Perhaps it “should” because it could serve this xyz goal for instance. Is there some kind of common united goal the law seeks to achieve? Does the legal system have a coherent unified objective so that one can coherently discuss whether mandating morality will bring it closer to that objective? (if yes then it “should” if no then “shouldn’t”). Because if we don’t believe in some kind of objective goal or some kind of objective good, it is difficult to talk about “should” or “should not” right, such concepts are rendered arguably meaningless, it would simply be an “is” or “is not” kind of phenomenon. And clearly the law is not so simplistic as to have just a few huge common goals or something like that. The law balances competing considerations from many spheres which are usually not even commensurable or measurable by the same standards. Hence the answer must necessarily be very nuanced too. E.g. Criminal law is a very different animal from civil law which is again different from administrative law, in process, outcome, objectives - everything. Hence we might say the law should mandate morality because e.g. it can guide behaviour, which is good because xyz reason, on the other hand it shouldn’t because it interferes with autonomy, or morality is subjective etc etc, you get the idea.

Or perhaps “should” means it “should” because it fulfils some universal principles of natural justice (I personally don’t subscribe to this point of view, but lots of legal philosophers write about these). Hence perhaps law should mandate morality because if it does not do so, it is not a law or should not be considered a law.

It is worth thinking about one more point. Before identifying what the law should do, asking about what a feature of the law should be is meaningless. And because what the law should do is itself a meaningless question (everyone has their opinion on what the law should do, is there an objective answer? Perhaps, that is for you to think about), it is a very difficult question.

Also note that I didn’t even define morality yet, I felt it wasn’t as important for this question but you could if you wanted to discuss. But that again is another HUGE topic.


What should the law seek to achieve? (aims/objectives of a legal system)

For this question, the actual substance and content should be googled as there are too many answers.

The law is huge and there are many areas of law, so it is impossible to answer this in a comprehensive manner. However I will point you to useful resources. You might want to read Stanford encyclopaedia of philosophy and other websites to learn a bit about jurisprudence, legal theory and great legal philosophers (e.g. Hart, Finnis, Rawls, Dworkins etc)
E.g. Theories of tort law: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/tort-theories/
Theories of criminal law: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/criminal-law/
Theories of contract: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/promises/

Just these alone and their associated reading and all the theories involved would be a lot to digest.

But fundamentally, the most important part of the question is not answering the question. It is identifying WHY the question is so difficult to answer. E.g. identify that the law is so diverse and different and cite examples, identify that there are many possible social theories for what it might be desirable for the law to achieve e.g. utilitarianism, consequentialism, deontological ethics, identify that perhaps the law might not be a tool we use to shape and achieve objectives but a mirror to reflect social values, identify that there might be more than one goal the law seeks to achieve and that these goals might be in tension and contradict, identify these goals might change in tandem with societal norms or perhaps you subscribe to the notion that some ideals of justice are universal etc etc.


Is alcohol a drug, and if so, why is it treated differently from other drugs? (or any other tricky questions that seem to be unrelated to law)

Well I would first question what we mean by a drug. There is the proper dictionary definition, which is any substance which has a physiological effect when ingested. Then there is the ordinary usage which might mean something you can abuse to bring pleasure, the practice of which is frowned upon or something (e.g. you wouldn’t ordinarily call bringing panadol to another country drug trafficking, although technically it is a drug). Both definitions can be equally correct because language is a convention; words have the meanings we attach to them.

I would assume the second meaning makes more sense in the context of this question. Hence, alcohol may be like ecstacy or heroin in the sense that it is ingested to bring about an altered state of consciousness that some find desirable.

The question then is, why is it treated differently? By “treated differently”, I shall assume we mean, treated differently from a legal point of view. Hence, drugs like ecstacy and heroin are illegal but not alcohol. First however, is it actually treated differently? Drugs like heroin and ecstacy may be illegal but there are other “drugs” like coffee and tobacco that are certainly not illegal, that fit our second definition. The assumption that it is “treated differently” may not be true.

If it were in fact treated differently, perhaps we might argue the main reason is social acceptance. Law in the UK is enacted in parliament by the legislature and the members are voted in. They enact laws that sit well with their voters. Hence in this sense, the law is a reflection of social norms and values. Alcohol is more socially acceptable, hence it is “treated differently”. Just like coffee and tobacco are also “treated differently” and not made illegal.

As for why it might be more socially acceptable, there could be a myriad of historical, political, societal and economical reasons, e.g. alchol is less detrimental to health etc etc. Or it might be the case that alcohol is more socially acceptable because the law treats it as such.

I feel like such a question is usually one that will lead to further discussion. The initial answer may not be as important as the follow-up discussion.





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