New Zealand Law Society - Professor David McLauchlan: 40 years teaching the law

Professor David McLauchlan: 40 years teaching the law

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One could be forgiven for thinking that after 40 years teaching law, the spark may have become a little dim.

Not for Professor David McLauchlan. His high level of enthusiasm is evident the moment you walk in the door of his office.

Even the door itself has a hint of things to come. A quote is glued to the woodwork: “If a scholar is not a teacher, his scholarship will be sterile,” it says. “If a teacher is not a scholar, his teaching will be superficial. Harold J Berman.”

Made a professor at the young age of 33 (one of the youngest ever), his enthusiasm for both teaching and writing is infectious.

“I’m so lucky to have a job I enjoy,” he says.

So, what have been the highlights of his undoubtedly long career?

“I don’t really think about it in terms of highlights,” he replies.

“Highlights, I guess, would include seeing people who were in your classes going on to the higher levels of the profession. That’s not my doing, of course. That’s their doing. They just happen to have been in my classes.”

And then a little later Professor McLauchlan comes back to what may well be the even more significant highlights.

“I think the highlights for me are the students who say to me: ‘you’ve made me decide not to give up law’ or ‘I thought the law of contract would be boring but it wasn’t’.

“That’s far more rewarding than a citation by a judge or being part of an important legal development or winning a prize for an article.

“It’s just a pleasure and a privilege to work with young people all the time.”

It is this quality of sparking the motivation of students that Law Commissioner Geoff McLay and Victoria University of Wellington Law Review Managing Editor Dr Nessa Lynch highlight in a review issue in honour of Professor McLauchlan.

“Over the course of the last 40 years, David has enthused countless students and given them the valuable gift of his particular way of looking at cases and the way that judges interpret both the law and commercial contracts,” they write.

That sentence came just after this tribute. “David has had an extraordinary career as one of the Commonwealth’s leading writers on contract law and, in his earlier days, on wider issues of commercial law.

“His contribution to scholarship, as shown by his bibliography, has been enormous. But, we would suggest, his contribution to the teaching of generations of students at Victoria has been greater still.”

It is no wonder, then, that he has been voted best lecturer at the law faculty several times. He was even voted the university’s “academic idol” in 2006.

Professor McLauchlan not only embodies enthusiasm for the law, he also has a very clear idea of the importance of this quality.

“Enthusiasm is the most important attribute of both good teaching and good writing. Probably no quality is more essential than enthusiasm.”

Another very important dimension for Professor McLauchlan is the relationship between research and writing on the one hand and teaching on the other ‒ as evidenced by the quote on his door.

“I guess I try to keep that symbiotic relationships between my teaching and writing,” he says.

“The influence legal academic writing can have on the development of law is not widely appreciated,” he says. “For example, by subjecting important decisions in the courts to critical analysis, legal writing provides one of the very few ways in which judges can be held accountable for their decisions.

“The legal writing of many academics is also used widely as a resource by practitioners when preparing cases.

“I see myself very much and I would hope I am seen as a lawyer in the best and widest sense of that word.

“What separates lawyers from others is their ability to analyse the law and to solve legal and factual problems. And in large measure my teaching seeks to develop the core skills of legal and factual analysis.” “David’s academic career has been quite extraordinary both in terms of his teaching ability and his output of books and articles in legal journals,” Supreme Court judge Justice Peter Blanchard said at a recent function celebrating Professor McLauchlan’s 40 years teaching law.

“Anyone researching David’s writings would be struck by both the quantity and quality of them and would realise just what an influence he has had both in New Zealand and elsewhere on the development of the law in his specialist subject, contract law.

“There are two text books. The Parol Evidence Rule was published in 1976. It was used by the English Law Commission as the basis for its work on that topic in 1986 and it has been much cited.

“The even better known treatise on the Contractual Remedies Act 1979, written with Francis Dawson, is a New Zealand classic. It has guided Judges on the interpretation and application of that very important piece of legislation from the outset. Without it we would have gone even further astray. It is still, after 30 years from publication, one of the first places you go for help with a case on cancellation of contract. In the last 12 months, for example, the Supreme Court has cited and relied on it twice in important contract cases.”

It is not just New Zealand’s Supreme Court that has referred to Professor McLachlan’s work. His lengthy list of citations includes one House of Lords case where two articles were cited. His work has also been cited in most of the other leading Commonwealth courts as well as in the major treatises on the law of contract.

by Frank Neill 

This article was published in LawTalk 780, 9 September 2011, page 11.

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