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Resilient Canterbury School of Law moves ahead

30 June 2017

As Christchurch rebuilds and develops, so too does the University of Canterbury’s School of Law. Building on a long-standing reputation for scholarship and teaching, it has quickly evolved to prepare its students for the requirements and challenges of law in the 21st century. LawTalk asked the Dean of Law, Professor Ursula Cheer, how the School is faring.

The Canterbury earthquakes have had a profound effect on all aspects of living in Christchurch. What changes have they brought about at the School of Law?

It would be true to say that Canterbury School of Law now looks completely different from that which was hit by the big earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and the thousands of quakes that continued in Christchurch for years afterwards. Before, male staff outnumbered females and we had no female professors. The age demograph of the staff was older and we were not as diverse. We were known as an excellent black letter law school where the lecturers and researchers wrote most of the leading texts that dominated the national market. Visitors often remarked at how collegial, warm and friendly our staff were.

Head and shoulders photo of Ursula Cheer

Now, while still an excellent law school, we are uniquely a law school which is led by a female double act: I am the first female law dean in Canterbury’s history and our Head of School is Professor Karen Scott, my colleague and friend. I am proud to say we have equal numbers of female and male professors and almost equal numbers of male and female staff.

Given that approximately two-thirds of our students are female, I believe this is a step forward for the teaching of law in New Zealand. Furthermore, we have nine new staff, over half of whom are in the younger age bracket. These new staff come from all around the world, including Ireland, the US via Wales, Sri Lanka via the US, South Africa, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

We have retained our strong backbone of superb legal doctrinal research but we are also now leading significant longitudinal research into teaching. In a first for New Zealand, we have obtained funding from Ako Aotearoa for a large longitudinal project which is a study of student aspirations, expectations, and satisfaction in their law degree. The study is unique in New Zealand in that it has taken a cohort of students from three law schools (soon to be four) and is following them from entry into law school and out into the workforce. We are now following students in their fourth year of study and our data becomes richer every year.

Annual results in the study have prompted changes in the teaching by members of the law school, and have also attracted interest from other law schools and the Council for Legal Education, as well as the national law student body. This leading work has also been presented at teaching conferences in Australia and published throughout Australasia.

We have strengthened our clinical offerings so that there is increased focus on teaching skills to our students that will make them more employable. We now offer many internship opportunities and a clinical legal skills course within our clinical programme, run in conjunction with the Community Law Centre and with other interested services, such as the Office of the Ombudsman and the police.

We now offer the only Criminal Justice Law degree in New Zealand, a collaborative degree which runs across the Law, Arts and Science Colleges in the University, and grows year by year. Many students now do double degrees combining both Law and Criminal Justice.

We have strengthened our international law team, which now has special strength in environmental law and indigenous and human rights.

We continue to be a happy, collegial law school, but we have additional resilience because we have coped, and continue to cope with the outfall from the quakes.

What would you highlight as the benefits of studying law at Canterbury?

Canterbury prides itself on being a lively, warm, personable law school where staff make themselves available to students and get to know them as they advance through their degree. We have recently instigated a programme to support vulnerable students by the appointment of a new staff member who monitors student performance and ensures those who are struggling receive support and advice where needed as soon as possible. Canterbury is a very stable law school where students do not feel lost in very large classes and know staff are approachable and friendly. Added to this is excellent research-led teaching by those who are recognised experts in every area of law, who enjoy teaching and pass that passion on to students.

What skills and attributes do you want to see law graduates leaving with?

Like most law schools, and with the assistance of our Ako Aotearoa research referred to above, we are developing our own law graduate profile which lists these skills and attributes.

To summarise our profile thus far, the first skills Canterbury graduates have is knowledge. This means they can reflect on the nature of ‘knowledge’ and ‘norms’ and demonstrate an understanding of a coherent body of knowledge including legal knowledge, the New Zealand legal system, and underlying principles and concepts, including global and comparative contexts. They also understand the principles and values of justice and of ethical practice in lawyers’ roles.

Their thinking skills include identifying and articulating legal issues, using legal reasoning and critical analysis, thinking creatively and they also have some ability to exercise professional judgment.

Research skills mean Canterbury graduates can identify, research, evaluate and synthesise relevant factual, legal and policy issues.

Our graduates are biculturally competent and confident and can apply this in a legal career.

Their communication skills are effective, appropriate and persuasive for legal and non-legal audiences, and include written and oral skills and the ability to collaborate.

Canterbury graduates are also self-managers who can learn and work independently, reflect on and assess their own capabilities and performance, and make use of feedback, to support personal and professional growth.

While a lot of graduates never practise law, how well do you think the School of Law prepares those who do become practising lawyers?

Yes, the figure that is bandied around is that about 50% of law graduates do not go into practice, however, most, if not all of them, do find jobs. As to those who do go into practice, I believe that Canterbury prepares its graduates reasonably well remembering that the professional providers are meant to focus on particular skills needed for work in a law firm and it would be pointless to overlap with what IPLS and the College of Law do.

However, we are offering increasing skills teaching, as I have mentioned above, and our teaching research has also prompted some of us to offer more skills-focused teaching already, such as oral skills, real legal practice simulations and legal file-based teaching. We also run mooting and client interviewing and mediation and negotiation competitions.

There is, indeed, increased emphasis on skills now, and the government in particular is interested in providing tertiary funding for graduates who are employable. However, we are not reacting to the pressure being exerted on the tertiary sector generally in a knee-jerk fashion by just guessing what skills law graduates might need more of and laying those on – we are actively researching the issue.

So, our longitudinal study I have already described also includes a survey of potential employers of law graduates, including those outside practice. This part of the project is seeking views and experiences of employers of law graduates and one focus of that work is whether the skills law graduates come with are adequate and what skills are missing. That survey has been piloted by in-depth interviews with some employers and the larger survey has just been run this year on a national basis. Once the data is analysed, we will be in a very good position to determine what additional skills teaching our law school should be offering, and we will be able to design it well and implement it effectively.

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

Well, I believe we will still be the excellent law school offering a warm, personable and unique experience for our students, and our collegial staff will still be turning out really top notch research. However, I think in five years’ time, we will be looking very closely at what new technology is doing to how law is practised and adapting our knowledge and skills based teaching accordingly.

I think the Council of Legal Education will need to turn its mind to this in the next five years, and we will all need to work together on this difficult issue. I also think all law schools and the CLE will be in the thick of dealing with all of the issues that go with fully recognising law has become a strongly female profession, and I hope we will be graduating students who have the confidence to deal with things like unconscious bias, and to ask for changes around how the law is practised so that real work/life balance can be achieved.

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

Although I have to work very hard, the variety of work as Dean makes the role very enjoyable and fulfilling. Undoubtedly the loyalty, hard work and support of my colleagues makes it worthwhile and rewarding. Someone said quietly the other day when I had been away ‘Good to have you back’ and that really touched me.

The other fantastic side of working at Canterbury is our students, who are generally just inspiring, hardworking and fun. When I read out their names at graduation I look them in the eye and hope they are as proud as I am of their achievement. It is much harder to get a degree now than in my day, with fees, the need to work and uncertainty about the future. So I celebrate with the high achievers, the strugglers and everyone in between. A law degree carries such a power to do good – I really hope we have taught them that and how to use it.

Last updated on the 30th June 2017