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October 5, 2009 | by  | in News | [ssba]

Legal practice invaluable, students really need to sit up straight – Sir Geoffrey

New Zealand’s law schools need to do more to ease the transition from being a student to being a practitioner, according to Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

The Head of the Law Commission and former Prime Minister made the comments during an address to Victoria’s Law Students’ Society (LSS) last Tuesday.

Sir Geoffrey, the LSS’ first patron, said that while most law graduates finished their degrees wielding an impressive set of analytical skills, they were not as ready as their predecessors for legal practice.

“I doubt that many who come out of the professional course today will be competent to defend people in the district court the moment they finish.

“I sometimes feel that the professional legal education that we had equipped us better than what is available to you now as professional legal education. The way the professional education is handled now does have an air of unreality about it,” Sir Geoffrey said.

Admitting he favoured law being taught as a three-year postgraduate degree, Sir Geoffrey said improvements needed to be made in easing students into their careers after graduation.

“There needs to be a system of supervision of young lawyers that insures that they are not unleashed on the public without safeguards.

“The time I spent in a law office firstly as a law clerk and then as a young barrister and solicitor was invaluable to my legal career. A few years in a law office is a wonderful piece of practical education,” he said.

The former Prime Minister also warned law students against following a particular legal path because of its supposed financial benefits.

“I think a lot of students make bad choices because they want lucrative careers. Whatever you do in the law, you have to have passion and enthusiasm for it, and then you will succeed.

“Students are in the unenviable position of knowing little about the effects of the choices they will make on their subsequent careers, and what choices they do make will almost bound to be wrong […] You’ve got to use your education as a sound background for all the things you cannot predict.”

Inviting those in attendance to ask him questions on “anything you like,” the former Prime Minister said he was unsure whether compulsory membership of student associations was a violation of the tenets of freedom of association.

“I don’t think that’s an absolute easy question to answer; it depends on the circumstances as to whether it’s a violation of the right of freedom of association. I don’t know what the attitude of the students is on this. I would think it’s quite possibly split!”

Sir Geoffrey was a Professor of Law at Victoria University. Since then he has served as the New Zealand Commissioner on the International Whaling Commission since 2002 and President of the Law Commission since 2005.


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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    The debate between USM (“Universal”) and ESM (“Exclusive”, i.e. “Members-only”) can, perhaps, be considered within the following context:

    “[I]n the society of the social compact, citizens–as persons–are equal at the highest level and in the most fundamental respects. Thus they all have the same fundamental interests in their freedom and in pursuing their ends within the limits of civil freedom. They all have a similar capacity for moral freedom–that is, the capacity to act in accordance with general laws they give to themselves as well as others for the sake of the common good. These laws each sees as founded on the appropriate form of deliberative reason for political society, this reason being the general will each citizen has as a member of that society.

    But how, exactly, is equality itself present at the highest level? Perhaps in this way: the social compact articulates, and when realized, achieves, a political relation between citizens as equals. They have capacities and interests that make them equal members in all fundamental matters. They recognize and view one another as being related as equal citizens; and their being what they are–citizens–includes their being related as equals. So being related as equals is part of what they are, of what they are recognized to be by others, and there is a public political commitment to preserve the conditions this equal relation between persons requires.” [Emphases mine]

    This fundamental “relation”, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly what ACT is aiming to change through its actions in the House of Representatives. It is, of course, an intensely ideological move, and has significant public implications that extend far beyond VUWSA.

    (~ John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, “Lectures on Rousseau”, p247.
    [Highly recommended reading for Rousseau’s influence on Rawls’s formulation of his two principles of justice, and more generally, for the relationship between “freedom” and “equality”.] )

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