A leading New Zealand academic says law school students play a key role in closing the justice gap - and that requiring them to do pro bono work will be a huge bonus to their future employers
Canterbury University Law School Dean, Dr Chris Gallavin, who has initiated a program whereby students will be required from next year to complete a minimum of 100 hours of pro bono work, believes the program serves two purposes: It provides students with practical experience in a work environment and helps bandage the justice gap in a city which has reached “crises point”.
“The justice gap is, I believe, the most significant challenge to the integrity of the New Zealand justice system than perhaps it has ever faced,” Gallavin tells NZ Lawyer. “It’s off the charts. People are finding it increasingly difficult to engage with the justice system. And whatever is a challenge to the integrity of the justice system is also a significant challenge to the integrity of the social system as well.”
He says it’s now “rare as hens’ teeth” to find a family lawyer who runs their practice on legal aid – particularly in Christchurch.
“Community law centres around the country are now being inundated en masse by those seeking advice about family law matters and community law centres are not funded to give advice on those matters,” says Gallavin. “So they’re all desperately struggling and having negotiations and talks with the MOJ to see how they can equip themselves with the structures that they need in order to be able to meet that need within the community.”
However, while the problem is immense, the opportunity for students is equally great – and not just for those looking to pursue careers in criminal or family law.
“The thing about Christchurch is that there’s not one aspect of civil society that isn’t completely under pressure at the moment, he says. “[Some of] the clinics that we’re going to be running at Canterbury; there’ll be an entrepreneurial clinic, there’ll be a small business advice clinic, there’ll be a franchising clinic and there’ll be an insurance clinic. You don’t really get more hard-core commercial-orientated.
“This is not all ‘bleeding-heart liberal’ stuff. Anyone who thinks pro bono work is a liberal service to the poor; they really need to empower themselves with some information.”
However, Gallavin is quick to point out that his intention is not to challenge law firms – rather, it’s to provide them with higher-quality recruits.
“Pro bono work and community engagement of students ought not to be seen in any way as a challenge, least of all a financial challenge, to the work of hardworking practitioners.”
Gallavin says that in his conversations with law firm management and HR teams, a key concern has been a common lack of practical skills in graduate lawyers.
“All the employers that I’ve spoken to…have said ‘we need graduates who are not merely able to tell us the latest Supreme Court decision, but are able to communicate with real people…who are going to turn up at work at 8am instead of just waltzing in at 9:30; who are going to dress appropriately; who we can actually bring to a client function and who can actually talk’. These are not really heady things, which, in a sense, employers take for granted that when you’ve come from university you can do the heady things.
Gallavin believes that legal education has now entered a “new age” and that a time will come when other law schools adopt similar programs.
“[Other law schools] are going to have to catch up. You can throw a blanket over all of us law schools in New Zealand in terms of quality. But if you come here, you’re going to get your hands dirty with real people and with real problems.”