New Zealand Law Society - Training legally trained minds for society: Shelley Griffiths appointed Dean of Law at Otago University

Training legally trained minds for society: Shelley Griffiths appointed Dean of Law at Otago University

After 20 years in the academic field, specialising in Taxation, Company Law and Securities Market Regulation, Shelley Griffiths was appointed as the Dean of Law at the University of Otago in July, 2021.

Shelley initially studied History, Accounting and Finance and worked in what’s now PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), primarily in audit with a particular focus on tax, before starting her journey as an academic.

“Our role as academics is to prepare students for the practice of law, not to teach them how to do the practice. Apart from teaching students’ skills and knowledge that a lawyer needs, a Law degree ought to cultivate openness, flexibility, responsiveness and all the qualities that a good Law graduate should have,” she says.

"One of the significant developments in the law curriculum this year is the integration of the Māori Law and CLE’s resolution to include Te Ao Māori across the core curriculum. Although the structure of the law education hasn’t changed much, the expectations and the way and angle of how it’s delivered have shifted progressively."

Law training for life

90% of students enrolling in the Law degree at the University of Otago are doing double degrees, 30% of them also enrolled in Commerce, 40% in Humanity and around 20% in Science. Additional to the traditional career path of becoming a full-time lawyer, graduates are normally involved in a range of areas like accountancy practice, corporate advisory work, policy analysis in government departments and iwi authorities, etc.

“We are not just training lawyers for the profession but training legally trained minds for society across a wide spectrum,” Shelley says.

“Law is an assistant profession. All laws are about people – people sitting inside the structure and those affected by it. It’s equally about service and problem solving for people in a structural way.”

An enquiring mind is the prerequisite to the profession

The law profession is typically associated with an elite image but Shelley suggests that it shouldn’t be conflated with it being difficult. There are aspects of Law that are difficult and will always be difficult. However, we need to have an enquiring mind and the want to master the difficult concepts and apply ourselves with interest.

“It’s particularly important to be open-minded to think there is always at least two sides to every story,” she adds.

Be prepared for uncertainty

“I’ve enjoyed working at the University but never for a moment thought I was going to be a professor,” she reflects.

“When I was little I wanted to be a doctor. I was sort of a 5-year-old feminist. When playing with some friends, a boy said to me I’ll be the doctor and you can be the nurse. I said, I’ll be the doctor”. Shelley later on discovered her uneasiness with blood and hence chose a more commercial career.

Before furthering her education in Law, she was already a mum of two children. “When my children were nine months old and three years old, I had a part time job but was a bit bored so thought I’d do a Law degree. On hindsight it was crazy”.

Upon the completion of her Law degree, she was approached by the then Dean of the Law faculty at the University of Otago for a lectureship position, mainly teaching Tax and Financial Market. The level of flexibility that an academic career offered appealed to her at the time when the idea of flexible working was reasonably unusual 20 years ago.

Despite accepting the role, she had always set her mind on returning to practice in one form or another. However, Shelley has found her work as an academic intellectually stimulating and dedicated her career to it ever since.

“As we are now living with uncertainly on a big scale, it’s crucial to be both intellectually and personally adaptable and to learn to invite what comes along even when they are unwelcomed,” she says. Shelley also encourages youngsters to learn mathematics at school as it will help broaden future career options.

Recent initiative on the Diversity Project

Led by Dr Maria Hook and Research Fellow, Metiria Turei, Shelley is currently involved in the Diversity Project, an ongoing collaboration with the University’s student groups that aims to increase diversity within the Law students who have past the first-year cohort, making sure they feel welcome and included. A draft action plan has been produced recently and she is looking forward to taking the project further in the near future.


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