December. An oddly-shaped room. Books upon books upon books. A strangely-dressed woman with an unplaceable accent begins to speak. “So why do you want to read law?” Welcome to your Oxbridge law interview.
You would be surprised how few people manage to explain why they want to read law. Some people use the question as a cue to rant about the injustices of what is happening in Syria; others will veer wildly off course trying to analyse the intricacies of promissory estoppel; and just about everyone will mumble general platitudes about “intellectually rigorous”, “demands of time management” and “really interesting”. So why do you want to read law?
First, reading law as an academic subject is very distinct from being a lawyer. As Elle Woods pointed out, while law may meant to be reason free from passion, passion is a key ingredient to the practice of law. The skills which make a good lawyer (e.g. the ability to keep good records; managing people well; following procedure) do not necessarily make a good legal mind. Likewise, many who begin reading law at university never practice and go on to different postgraduate studies or completely different jobs.
Law shares many characteristics with other subjects: law is the nexus of history, philosophy, politics and dozens of other subjects. The reasons many candidates give when explaining why they want to read law could be applied to these and other subjects. English, economics and engineering are intellectually rigorous subjects which demand those who study them manage their time effectively. If your interest in law is morality, then why have you chosen law over philosophy? If you are interested in the social effects of law, what differentiates law from sociology or politics?
Ask most law students and lawyers why they enjoy law and each will have his or her own reason. You should reflect on what your reason is too – and whether it is genuine. Law, because it leads directly onto a professional job, is often a default choice for those who are unsure of what to study and who want to be “practical” about their degree choice. However, there is nothing practical about reading a subject which does not inspire passion in you. Have a look at the course structure of the Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate law courses. You will note that the Oxford course is not a BA in Law but in Jurisprudence – something that outlines the more theoretical and philosophical nature of the course. You may be passionate about human rights law, but how do you feel about trusts law, Roman law or EU land law? The best test is to experience legal reasoning for the first time yourself.
Try reading the judgement for the famous case of Donoghue v Stevenson. It’s about a woman who drank a fizzy drink with a snail in it. Pretty small stuff (literally and metaphorically). How many Oxbridge lawyers could get excited about some woman moaning about her dodgy drink? If you can then you’re halfway to reading law.