New Zealand Law Society - Jessica Palmer’s pragmatic approach to the classroom and being Dean of Law

Jessica Palmer’s pragmatic approach to the classroom and being Dean of Law

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Jessica Palmer
Jessica Palmer

How do you juggle teaching law while being Dean of Law, along with managing a busy family life?

Professor Jessica Palmer, who was admitted in 2002, was appointed Dean of Otago University’s Faculty of Law in April this year, replacing Professor Mark Henaghan. She is the first woman to be appointed Dean of Law in the university’s history.

However, as Professor Palmer points out, there have been female Law Deans in other New Zealand law schools.

“I hope that, like them, I have been appointed to the role because I show sufficient merit and potential. Nevertheless, I am very aware that my appointment is significant because it is part of the greater recognition and acceptance of women in positions of leadership and that is something that has been hard fought for by generations of women (and many men) who went before me. I am grateful for their commitment. Although I am the first female law dean at Otago, I am certainly not the first woman capable of the role, and in a sense it should not be a surprise at all, given how many women there are working in the law,” she says.

Professor Palmer has also been a recipient of the Law Foundation’s Ethel Benjamin Scholarship.

She says every cause needs champions and Ethel Benjamin was an important champion of opening up the legal profession to women.

“It took huge courage on her part to enrol in the law degree at a time when women could not be admitted to practice, and to forge her way in legal practice when so many expected her to fail. Her determination, her willingness to work hard and her compassion for her clients are all inspiring. I hope that the work I do as a researcher and teacher, and now as a Dean, reflect something of those same attributes. The Ethel Benjamin Scholarship helped fund my postgraduate study in Cambridge which was an important part of getting my academic career underway. I am a beneficiary of Ethel’s achievement and I guess I have sought to return the favour,” she says.

Often there is a family connection in law. It’s a career that tends to travel through generations.

Professor Palmer’s father is Professor Charles Rickett, who is Dean of Law at AUT.

It would be a fair assumption to make that conversation was never dull around their family dinner table.

“Yes, many interesting discussions around the dinner table, although more often than not frustrating for the other family members sitting at the table! Charles was one of my key teachers who showed me both how fascinating the law is, and how important it is to a civil and just society. There was never any pressure or expectation that I would follow him in to academia or in to the same fields of law but it has been a real privilege to be able to teach and write with him on a few projects. We don’t always agree on law, politics and life in general, but he has taught me an enormous amount about different ways to think about things,” she says.

While Professor Palmer has been with Otago University since 2005, she previously worked for Chapman Tripp and also as a judge’s clerk in the High Court before her academia career took shape.

She teaches contract law, and in the past has taught insurance, commercial law and equity.

Next year she’ll be teaching property law, wills and trusts as the faculty slowly replaces Professor Nicola Peart who intends to gradually retire over the next couple of years.

The switch to an academic career

An academic career was a path Professor Palmer had gradually planned. It was something she felt drawn towards during her last two years at law school in Auckland.

“Deeper analytical work and thinking about how different areas of the law connected or contradicted with other areas of law was something I found really interesting, so I was really keen on doing post-graduate work. At the same time, I had a really great study group and I often found that it was the teaching side of a small group that I really liked,” she says.

While working at Chapman Tripp and at the courts, she was also moonlighting as a tutor at Auckland University.

Academia was slowly but surely drawing Jessica Palmer in.

“I really enjoyed that combination of teaching and research. I realised that was what I wanted to do so I headed off to Cambridge to do more postgraduate work which was essential to becoming an academic.”

Professor Palmer has an impressive line-up of academic achievements including a BCom/LLB(Hons) (Auck), LLM (Cantab), LLM (Auck).

Making a difference

Teaching is fundamentally different to practising law, Professor Palmer explains.

“I love the privilege of helping students to discover areas of law and how intellectually fascinating it is. Equally, I like helping them see how much law has a direct effect on our lives in a just and civil society,” she says.

For Professor Palmer, her classes are not a straightforward case of students accepting every argument put to them. She wants her opinions to be scrutinised.

“They challenge me, and I love that fact. Part of that is creating an environment and atmosphere in your class where that is accepted and invited. It’s a lot easier to do that at the advanced elective class level. They’re almost lawyers. I love offering them my thoughts on how some areas of law click together or don’t. If they are inconsistent, is the inconsistency acceptable or is there a problem? I like to offer my own theory about these things and then encourage them to debate or rebut it,” she says.

Professor Palmer says her job is not to download or transfer information on to students but to get them thinking and challenging their own thoughts and views.

“It’s not really so much about whether they agree or disagree with me but the why. Why do you disagree with me and let’s see where we can go with this.”

Much of her work involves analysing cases and judgments.

“In a sense I’ll have a debate with the judge in front of them. It shows them that it is okay to debate things and question decisions. If I can question a judge’s decision then students can certainly question me,” she says.

Teaching students to think critically

One of her key roles, she says, is being able to ensure her faculty colleagues have the time and space to be able to have those magic moments such as being able to debate points of law with students.

“I see the Dean role as supporting the delivery of excellent teaching. Being the Dean does also enable me to talk more generally with students about what the overall aim of the degree is, and what we are trying to do as lawyers in general. I talk more about that than if I was solely a lecturer,” she says.

Professor Palmer makes it clear to law students that she is not interested in producing robots or automatons who can recite the law of contract.

“You can pick that up anywhere. I’m interested in putting out people who can think critically and be able to use those skills to apply them to contract law.”

Mixing the old with the new

In an information technology driven world, some argue as to why the legal profession holds on to the past so fondly and still teaches law utilising traditional methods.

Another criticism is that there is too much theory and not enough practicality and that some law students are underprepared for the real world of practising law.

Professor Palmer says reviewing as to whether they’re making room for emerging technologies is a constant consideration.

“Not just in the way we teach but in what we teach. So, in my contract law course, am I making use of modern day examples like smart contracting and bitcoin or am I still using the more traditional examples of Mr Smith selling oats for a horse? We use both examples because it’s about the underlying principles. Sometimes those principles are more easily conveyed by using an old fashioned form of transaction and then fast forwarding to 2018 and applying the same idea,” she says.

Professor Palmer says there’s a risk to dumping old teaching methods as it undermines the fact that law is an exercise of intellectual discipline.

“It’s not so much about the context in which it’s coming out, but the principles and ideas that you’re using. We’d be doing ourselves and the students a disservice if we divorced what they currently do from the tradition in which this has been brought up. It’s about instilling a greater appreciation for the history that is behind them. There are some amazing judges and academic writers who lived 200 years ago that we ought to listen to. We need to be careful of continually reinventing the wheel.”

Great outdoors

For Professor Palmer life outside of work is less about academic books and more about caring for and bringing up four young children.

Her husband is an information technology manager at a large law firm and the couple’s children are aged between five and 11. So, they have a good understanding of each other’s demanding professional roles.

Something they’re both fond of is the great outdoors. Being in nature brings a sense of calmness and normality to their busy lives.

“We used to do a lot of tramping before we had children and just recently we’ve started taking them out on overnight tramps. One of our ambitions is to get them on all of the great walks in New Zealand. We are slowly chipping away,” she says.

Jessica Palmer is an author of two leading textbooks in New Zealand on the law of trusts and on civil remedies (A Butler (ed) Equity and Trusts in New Zealand (2nd ed) Wellington, Thomson Reuters (2009; P Blanchard (ed) Civil Remedies in New Zealand (2nd ed) Wellington, Thomson Reuters (2011)). She is also a contributing editor to the New Zealand Law Review on Equity and Restitution.

Professor Palmer’s research interests include the Law of Obligations, Restitution, Equity and Commercial Law.

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