by Victor Siek
In my experience, the Law Tripos is a sampling process, and it goes both ways. The Examiners (who are worthy of the uppercase ‘E’) set questions which focus on only a few of the dizzying array of issues that you would have covered over the year (more on this later), and they reward candidates who give them sample-sized portions of genuine intellectual engagement, nuanced argument and wider academic reading. With a few exceptions, candidates only have 45 minutes to present their argument and analysis, and have to do it four times over – without rest – for each subject. I think it’s just as dangerous to try to do too much, as it is to do too little!
The first section below is advice which I think is universally applicable through all three parts of the Tripos, and the second section contains advice specific to Part IB and II candidates. A word about this advice – different strokes work for different folks, and while I think some of the things I suggest are generally sensible, I’m sure many of my colleagues achieved excellent results going about their preparation an entirely different way. Treat these as benign suggestions – if it looks like something that might work for you, then go for it.
Don’t ignore the available information
Even though it doesn’t always feel like it, the Law Tripos comes with a roadmap. The grading criteria on the faculty website is of limited assistance, but it doesn’t take a long time to read. Far more important are the individual examiners reports. Law students generally have the benefit of very full reports (for example, Professor Spencer has an A-Z guide on what not to do in a Tort Tripos), and the commentaries in the reports provide a helpful insight on the issues Examiners find interesting and worthy of yearly iteration, and the kind of ideas or writing they reward.
Also, make it a point to skim over the March issue of the Cambridge Law Journal. Don’t put money on it, but it’s done some favours.
Structure your notes
There is little point rewriting or typing out a textbook which you already have. Be purposive in writing your notes. Some people like to write notes as a consolidation exercise; they read around an area of law, crystallise it in five or ten important points and add a few items of academic commentary at the end. Others structure their notes in the form of an ‘answer key’ to a particular type of problem question; thus for negligence, their notes deal first with duty, then with breach, causation and remoteness. It doesn’t matter which form you use, as long as the exercise of note-writing is an active one, not involving mere copying but one in which you actively process information. Write your own notes, and they’ll stay in your head and be useful to you for a much longer and in a much shorter time.
Look at past papers. In general, look back across 5 years, with the accompanying reports. Keep in mind that major legislation or decisions may have turned up since them, but the best way to become an experienced candidate in the Tripos is to do more Tripos questions. I never managed to sit down and do full papers before the exam, but many better-organised candidates managed to do some practice papers and none of them regretted the effort. Do them in timed conditions, and try to get a supervisor to look your answers to the sort of question you hope to do at the exam.
While it is next to impossible to give universal advice about answering questions, keep clarity and precision in mind.
Take the right kind of risk
No two subjects are the same. It is a common examination strategy to decide to ‘drop’ and ignore a third of the syllabus. This may not be as dangerous in an examination with sharply distinct themes and topics. It is fatal in others. Subjects such as criminal law and equity tend to reward the ability to draw from different parts of the course. Mixed problems (with issues requiring knowledge of different topics) are also common in these subjects, in the way it might not be in, for example, constitutional law. This isn’t set in stone, and there have been some shockers in previously ‘safe’ subjects over the years. This is an area in which a bad prediction can completely sink your examination, so extra caution is definitely in order.
The right kind of risk to take is to go for the questions with answers that are not immediately apparent to you. Students tend to do best in the questions they grapple with, in which they manage to demonstrate some spontaneous and imaginative thought. In my own experience, spontaneous and imaginative thought is never more apparent than when you have next to no idea what the right answer is. This isn’t to suggest that you should embark on questions the law on which you have no idea about; if what you’re unsure about is the application on the facts or on which side of the law a certain situation would fall, give it a stab.
The Tripos is at once a year-long process, a two-month affair and a mad two-week dash. Cambridge isn’t always helpful with coping with all of it. Many hardworking students end up burning out at the end of Michaelmas because they’ve tried to do everything on an eight-page long Criminal law reading list every other week, on top of all the others. It’s important to be prepared for supervisions, where most of the serious teaching is done, but it takes a really rare and unreasonable supervisor to expect you to have read every single page and digested every single idea on a massive reading list. If it is impossible for you to do, then just make sure you’re doing enough to cover the major ideas, authorities and commentary. Don’t place too much pressure on yourself during term. If you manage to keep a good structure in your head and good notes on the bulk of the material, you can flesh it out during the consolidation stage. In general, make sure you cover all of the information in the lecture handout as the first priority. A textbook will flesh that out, as will the major cases. I would feel comfortable leaving the academic commentary last of all. I have personally found the Text, Cases and Materials series from the Oxford University Press helpful. It may not always be accurate and it may be longer than the other textbooks, but it covers each topic with case and article extracts, and it has been a fertile source of academic opinion.
The two months before the start of the Tripos are vital. You can make up for a huge amount in that time. Take a short holiday during the Lent vacation and then be prepared to work your very hardest. When it comes to the two weeks of the Tripos itself, sleep and deep breathing should take the highest priority.
Just as a rough guide, I used to leave three or four days of pure memory work for each subject; this was after having written freshly consolidated notes and practiced writing outlines on a few questions. How long you should leave depends on how good your memory is; I tend to find that when it really comes down to it, my short-term memory carried most of the burden!
Don’t worry about what other people do
My criminal law supervisor told me early in my Cambridge career to ignore what other people say they do. Obviously this doesn’t mean that your peers have nothing to teach you, merely that you should not allow someone else’s industry or indolence to give you undue stress or make you unduly complacent. Stick by your own course, be sensible and realistic about the amount of work that you can do and that you’re expected to do. This is especially true in examinations. It is not unusual to be intimidated by the fact that the candidate to your right has submitted four bundles tied together with a mess of string. Examiners are in fact far more likely to reward something pithy, precise and accurate, but the point is not to worry about what other people do. The Tripos is not a competition, and those that view it that way end up disadvantaging themselves, by having to write an already stressful series of exams with added performance pressure.
For Part IB and II Candidates
It gets better. Statistically speaking, the number of Firsts and Second Uppers increase by about 5% every year. This is genuinely because the standard of legal analysis improves with experience (or so goes the hope), and not because the Examiners have grown soft with affection for second or third year students!
Choice of Subject
I thought this was important enough to merit its own section. Many students imagine that the way to success in the Tripos is to choose the ‘easiest’ papers, or to save ‘safe’ papers for certain years. I don’t recommend this at all. In fact, when I asked some of my peers about the advice they’d give to future generations of Tripos students, we all agreed that students universally perform better in subjects they are interested in, either intellectually or because they think it is a useful area of law to know; we couldn’t think of a candidate who had done well by choosing exclusively ‘easy subjects’ that they were disinterested in. I think you set yourself up for disappointment if you expect that all the Examiners of a particular subject are unable to tell if there is genuine intellectual engagement in an examination script.
Giving up on a subject
On a related note, don’t give up on revising a subject because you think it’s a lost cause, and harder work in the other subjects will make up for it. I have found that we are the poorest predictors of how well we will do in a subject. If it feels like you’re really struggling with a subject and finding it really hard to grapple with a subject, there’s a good chance that it’s good news.
All the best!