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The Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference 2016: A Review

The Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference 2016: A Review

James Smith gives you an insight into this years Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference and tells you why you should attend next year’s event. If you would like to contribute an article just like James then please send your idea to contributions@thestudentlawyer.com.

The ‘Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference’ (CSFLC) has a name that inspires undue fear.

The daunting presence of Cambridge University, the expected hostility of some delegates and the expectation at conferences to speak publicly often turn people’s attention away.

Yet the Conference was totally inoffensive – I can honestly say that all the delegates were friendly, decent individuals, and it was exceptionally easy to make friends.  

The day before the Conference began, I was fearful of what the next four days would entail. I wondered what I’d signed up for. But the answer was plain enough: if you love Law, and would like to study it – especially at Cambridge – then this is the event for you.  

Applications commence in October each year, and each delegate finds out whether they’ve been accepted in January. A few more deadlines for payments follow in the respective weeks afterwards, and the Conference actually takes place in mid-March.

Interestingly, there can be only two delegates from each school, and, consequently, most people on the CSFLC are there alone. It’s encouraging to know that everyone will be equally timid – from opposite ends of the country (I even noticed some Americans), from different backgrounds, and from different types of schools – state, grammar, and private.  

Arrival

There’s no need to provide much information about your background. Other courses, such as UNIQ in Oxford, are far more stringent, and you need to submit your grades and a short personal statement as part of the application. For the CSFLC, however, only basic information is required – academic performance is not taken into account when applying.  

After paying, you’ll receive a steady stream of emails concerning your living accommodation for the week. Each delegate is assigned a college – this year, the colleges were Pembroke, St Catharine’s, Jesus, and Newnham.

Successful delegates make their way to Cambridge on the Monday, arriving sometime between two and four. Upon checking in, each delegate receives a folder with a Cambridge prospectus, and a booklet about how to become a solicitor or a barrister. If you arrive early, there’s plenty of time to walk round Cambridge. One recommendation I have is that it’s best to download a map of the town beforehand.  

Most university accommodation is Spartan at best. A room at most universities is typically small, and equipped with the essentials and, oddly, a single sink hidden behind a door in the corner of the room – a consistent feature that tricks temporary residents into believing the rooms are actually en suite. The dorm I stayed in followed a similar blueprint – with the notable exception of room size. I found the accommodation at St Catharine’s unusually spacious. 

For someone of my bodily proportions, food is the imminent order of business. I can only speak for St Catharine’s when I say that the food was absolutely fine. Breakfast consisted of a full English or a continental option. Lunch and dinner comprised a meat dish with vegetables.  

‘Social Night’

The first evening was ominously called a ‘social night’. When this name crops up at school, it usually refers to a party in all but name – an event the students know to be a party, with a name spun to be more tolerable to the administration. This, however, was not the case – don’t listen to rumours of a crazy night in town on the first night. Instead, there was an evening of comedy from the Footlights inside the Cambridge Union. This was followed by a quiz.  

I should take a moment to talk about the Cambridge Union. Many politically-enthused people will have seen videos of debates at the ostensibly-similar Oxford Union on YouTube. Founded in 1815, the Cambridge Union has the exact same rustic interior as the Oxford Union. A blocky wooden table in the centre of a large two-tiered hall provides a stand for orators at despatch boxes. Any budding lawyer or politician with a passion for debating should come to the conference – even just to see the Cambridge Union.

Lectures

Most nights finished at around 10p.m., at which time the delegates return to their respective colleges. Even when walking, it typically takes less than twenty minutes to walk from the Cambridge Union or from the law faculty to the college accommodation.  

Morning lectures start at half nine, following breakfast at eight o’clock. (These times can differ, depending on college). Dr O’Sullivan introduced the principles of the law in a talk entitled ‘Introduction to Law’, and this was followed by lectures about Roman law and land law. Each lecture lasted roughly half an hour. This allowed for material to be covered in reasonable depth very rapidly. Before lunch we also had mock interviews, and a lecture on contract law – and talks on tort law, EU law (a pressing issue at present!) and criminal law followed. Moreover, the delegates were divided into workshops, which allowed us to gain greater insight into how the ‘supervision’ system worked.

On the second evening, we attended at debate at the Cambridge Union on the motion, “This House would repeal the Human Rights Act 1998”. A keen debater myself, this was an especially interesting moment – watching four incredibly knowledgeable people shoot down each other’s arguments was a joy. I’ve previously written on this subject before – but I believe firmly in entering the debating hall with a clear, unbiased, unoffendable mind. Nevertheless, I sided with the Opposition to this motion.  

The third day bristled with lectures: family law, constitutional law, international law, and pro bono work was discussed. An interactive talk by Professor Virgo, co-author of ‘What About Law?’, entitled ‘Legal Problems’ was especially interesting – it discussed the intricacies of the law, and allowed us to develop a critical mind about aspects of the law, in order to more accurately evaluate it. Is it fair that impossibility is no defence against attempted murder? In other words, if you intend to kill someone with a banana, the crime would still be attempted murder – is this justifiable? I think this was enthralling because it challenged everyone’s assumptions about the law, and forced every single delegate to simultaneously grapple with questions of morality, legality, and practicality – some of which were unanswerable, but all of which were intriguing.  

‘Called to the bar’

Edward Cumming gave a memorable talk about the life of a barrister, and this was matched by a question-and-answer session about becoming a commercial solicitor. Delegates could see case studies of where reading law at Cambridge could potentially lead them.  

The evening comprised watching a mock trial at the Cambridge Union. Edward Cumming, who delivered the ‘barrister’ talk earlier in the day, defended his client against his brother. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘called to the Bar’ took on a double meaning – the Cambridge Union shares the same building as the 1815 Bar, and, at ten-minute intervals, someone would stride through the mock-courtroom and slam a drink in front of the barristers! The trial was a bombardment of crude, hilarious jokes – this being a family website, I shan’t recount them. Whilst laughing and enjoying the evening, delegates also understood more about the adversarial system in British courtrooms, the presumption of innocence, and the full implications of the phrase ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’, giving everyone a front-row view of the  law in action – albeit in a mock trial.  

The last day adjourned at noon – with delegates from Scotland and America, it’s clear that this may be because of travel arrangements. We listened to lectures about applying to Cambridge, and the experiences of studying Law from students themselves. At midday, the conference was concluded.  

The Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference is the best educational conference I’ve been to – worth every penny. Forty-odd years of experience shines through in every lecture, and the organisers consistently produce a high-quality experience. The sheer range of lecturers – professional solicitors, up-and-coming barristers, Cambridge law students, eminent constitutional lawyers and experts in legal disciplines – means an immense volume of content is covered in a brief amount of time. The facilities are excellent, and the experience of being in Cambridge for four days makes the actual applications process far less daunting.  

What do Cambridge want?

Some areas still remain perplexing – and one or two areas have become even more unclear. Previously, I thought the qualities Cambridge sought in a potential law student was obvious: an impressive academic performance at GCSE at A-level; a litany of previous work experience placements; good working knowledge of the law; a string of law-related books making up your monthly reading list, etc. – in other words, the typical qualities one might expect from a legally-enthused, intelligent young person. One by one, each of these qualities was reduced to redundancy, or simply obliterated. Work experience – perhaps, I grant, understandably – is actually wholly useless, since it can be easily acquired via well-connected parents.  

The notion that Oxbridge applicants needed a good working knowledge of the law was systematically destroyed. According to the conference, we needn’t know anything at all about the law. Consequently, it’s not necessary to have read any books about the law.  

Accepting that it’s possible to be accepted into Cambridge for Law, whilst knowing nothing about the law itself, is a difficult task. I still haven’t fully digested its implications  

You might also think that previous academic performance would entirely resist scepticism – that it’s simply imperative to have double-figures of A* grades at GCSE, and an appealing smattering of the same grades at AS. Even this idea didn’t escape doubt – not everyone giving the conference had especially impressive GCSE grades, and some students present seemed to have only scraped the minimum entry requirement of A*AA.

Cambridge, we were told, wants good previous academic performance, a capacity for self-disciplined individual learning, immense potential, and a proven passion for the law. But, surely, to prove passion for the law we should read books and do legal work experience? To show a good academic performance, don’t we need tremendous grades?

So, as I went home, I asked the question of myself: “What does Cambridge actually want?”

If the conference lacked in one area, this was it. The image in my head of a well-read, thoroughly work-experienced, A*-decorated student acing the interview and walking away with a guaranteed seat in the Cambridge Law Faculty lecture theatre was no longer there.  

Of course, the fault could also be mine. I’d previously expected that there was a checklist, stored deep inside the darkest vaults of Trinity College, which contained the secrets of a successful Cambridge application.  

The enduring, central idea – that the applications process is incredibly nuanced, and there’s often no clear reason for acceptance or rejection – is tricky to grasp. A bitter pill to swallow. The conference is excellent in demonstrating this core concept. With legal academics taking, on average, four hours to decide whether an interviewed candidate should be admitted, it’s clear that there’s a host of intangible factors that go into making this crucial decision, about which I dare not speculate.  

‘The best of its kind’

In short, the experience of being in Cambridge– of walking to the Cambridge Union, into and between the eminent colleges, visiting the market during the day and the cafés during the evening – was, without doubt, amongst the best aspects of the Cambridge Sixth Form Law Conference. Brilliant, too, was meeting lecturers – some of whom, like Professors O’Sullivan and Virgo, had actually written books I’d read before the conference. Many of these people were world experts in aspects of the law, and gave well thought-out, fascinating talks about their discipline. It was a continuous feature of the conference that these lectures were of a high quality – not to be missed for the world.  

I’d recommend applying to the Cambridge Law Conference to every single prospective law student next year. Aside from the lingering doubt about the applications process with which it leaves the delegate, the conference is fantastically useful, and endlessly fascinating – the best of its kind.  

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