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Studying law in the capital

02 June 2017

Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Law

Based a short walk from Parliament and the Supreme Court in the building which used to house almost every government department, Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Law has been an important part of the capital since Professor Richard Maclaurin delivered the first law lectures in 1899.

LawTalk asked Professor Mark Hickford, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law, about the law school and its plans for the future.

With its location in the capital, what do you see as the main advantages of studying at Victoria University of Wellington’s Faculty of Law?

We often describe Victoria’s Law School as being situated at the legal and political heart of the nation. There’s the private sector – the business of the legal profession within a capital city – plus key aspects of the three branches of government: the legislature, the executive branch, and the senior appellate courts of the judicial branch. There’s an opportunity for students to be engaged in that larger set of relationships – about legal, policy and governance issues in their broadest sense.

Head and shoulders photo of Mark Hickford

The proximity of those institutions means you can actually be an observer of some of the most important cases as they proceed through the appellate process – for instance, the five days of hearing in the Supreme Court in what became the Proprietors of WakatÅ« v Attorney-General decision. We organised a multi-disciplinary symposium in the wake of that decision this year. As well as academics, a number of those actively engaged for and on behalf of WakatÅ« across a number of years were there in person, as were members of the Crown team and representatives of government departments – the public policy professionals who grapple with some of the consequences of decisions like these.

Very few students would get that advantage, which we can offer due to our location and our experience with these cases – they’re being heard just across the road. We’re offering students networking opportunities and experiential learning opportunities across a broad spectrum.

What are the main skills and attributes which the Faculty aims to give to its graduates?

One of the things we emphasise is the particular interactive form of teaching, often called the Socratic Method. Though interpreted differently by different teachers, it’s essentially a conversational mode, where students are engaged in dialogue that lets them learn how to think like a lawyer.

That discipline – thinking like a lawyer – is an incredibly valuable attribute, and one that can be put to many uses in the market. The law degree is equipping people not only for legal practice but also for roles far wider than a traditional legal career, and the fact that law graduates are highly regarded by a broad range of employers attests to that.

Myself, I’ve worked in private practice and in public policy, as well as in academia. As a former practitioner I’m cognisant of the stresses and strains that accompany that world, which is useful in engaging with students about the next parts of their journey.

We get the brightest young people from across the country, and the simple fact of completing law school means you’re already achieving highly. But I want to be open to students that, invariably, you will have failures, make missteps, and that you gain insight from those.

We want our students to see themselves as people who will continue to learn and develop across time. A law degree is merely the beginning, and it’s vital to maintain that intellectual curiosity, and a sense of humility about what you don’t yet know. These are valuable attributes not only in terms of scholarship but also in terms of ongoing learning as a professional, whatever that professional direction might be.

A lot of graduates never become lawyers. However, for those who do, does the Faculty curriculum contain the best possible range of topics to enable them to become effective practitioners?

In my experience, the most effective legal practitioners have a number of key characteristics. They’re able to digest significant quantities of information and know what is relevant – both in terms of selecting that information to start with, and then being able to translate it for a client. They’re open to clients’ needs and specifications, whilst being mindful of the emotional and relationship skills required to narrate different options for that client – which may not necessarily align with that client’s original personal preferences. They’re able to engage with different views, because invariably one is trying to learn how to reconcile or engage with conflict. This requires a broad awareness of diverse, and indeed contested, ways of seeing the world.

So, it’s not simply about, say, exposing students to legal sources across a number of topics. It’s about giving them the skills to interrogate those legal sources in a critical, self-aware way – and to be aware that they are actually tools to be deployed, as opposed to some sort of rigid doctrinaire set of abstractions that must always be complied with as if set in stone. This entails qualities of critical judgement in deploying relevant sources, constructing advice whilst being mindful of the outcomes that are sought after in any given situation or set of relationships.

Once one is prepared for legal practice, one should be able to offer a client a sense of different possibilities for crafting a set of solutions to their problems. This might engage not just conceptual solutions, but also process solutions, such as choice of institution to peruse the solutions. One of the things we teach, for example in public law, is the variety of techniques and forums that are available to secure outcomes for one’s client.

Has the Faculty of Law introduced any changes this year in matters such as curriculum and structure?

A key focus for us is to continue to develop our postgraduate programmes, such as the Master of Laws (LLM). We want to offer courses that are interesting, challenging and relevant for those interested in law as a discipline including legal professionals at all stages of their careers.

There are practical elements to this – such as offering an increasing number of intensive or block courses, which can be balanced with existing work commitments for those who are in employment but wish to take a flexibly arranged course. We also have an increased emphasis on partnering with the profession; and on using our strength as a ‘hub’, our research expertise and our reputation within the international academic community to bring together people who can provide some quite exceptional development opportunities for legal and policy professionals.

This can mean bringing over international experts to teach short courses on developing areas, or having faculty members partner with leading practitioners to deliver courses. I do think that that combination of academic expertise – people who are currently engaged in international quality research – and practice experience can be a powerful model in terms of providing postgraduate level courses. Partnering with the profession to deliver in new ways is important.

Where do you see the Faculty of Law in five years’ time?

It’s important our ‘benchmarking’ progress continues, for example in terms of the QS rankings (we’re currently in the top 50 law schools in the world), and in terms of our PBRF (Performance-Based Research Fund, run by the Tertiary Education Commission) leadership. We’re the number one ranked law school in New Zealand for research quality, according to the most recent PBRF Quality Evaluation.

Research quality is really a vital part of who we are and what we can deliver to our students, and also in my view is part of engagement – with communities in New Zealand, and internationally. Because of their research commitments, many of our scholars are and working closely with other communities – they’re connected to worlds beyond the abstractions of academic life, and are using their research in vibrant, engaging ways. It’s important that we continue to sustain those levels of energy and vitality into the future.

I also look forward to seeing some of our younger scholars develop over the next five years, both in terms of our junior lecturing staff and our PhDs, who are essentially the academy of the future. If you look at our senior academics, there’s a longstanding commitment to research excellence and teaching excellence. We don’t just have our permanent faculty exemplifying these characteristics, we also have Distinguished Fellows – such as Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former Prime Minister; or Sir Kenneth Keith, who was the first New Zealand judge to serve on the International Court of Justice. The Faculty is well placed to mentor younger scholars, and we’re mindful of this responsibility.

What do you enjoy most about working at the Faculty of Law?

Actually engaging with the students, and the student body, is really enjoyable. I value the occasional spots of guest teaching I’m able to do, and I’ve now had the experience of working with three very able Law Students’ Society presidents, and their very talented executives. I enjoy endeavouring to maintain an active research orientation myself despite the considerable management and external engagement demands that are a necessary part of the role, and I enjoy the quality of my colleagues here in the Faculty, in terms of their commitment to their students, their discipline, and the scholarly enterprise. I think we’re very privileged to have the high quality – international quality – people we have here. It is an honour to be here and to have such colleagues as well as a great range of students.

For me, an overall highlight is that engagement with our relevant communities – students, academics, legal professionals, alumni, public policy professionals, the judiciary, parliamentarians, a cross-sections of representatives from non-governmental organisations, and so on. The Faculty of Law is a ‘hub’ – a place where groups interested in the practice, discipline and development of law can come together, within a thriving capital city environment.

Mark Hickford, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Law, Victoria University.

Last updated on the 2nd June 2017