Learning law in New Zealand

By Otto Stockmeyer

I have the privilege of accompanying 20 American law students to New Zealand and Australia as part of Cooley Law School’s Foreign Study Program.

Now in its 15th year, the program combines the study of one Cooley course, which I am teaching (Equity & Remedies), with an array of international courses taught by faculty members at Down-Under law schools.

The program’s duration is co-extensive with Cooley’s Hilary Term (January through mid-April). Among the advantages: it’s summer down here.

Cooley’s Foreign Study Program is newly affiliated this year with the law school at the University of Waikato.

The university is located in Hamilton, New Zealand’s fourth largest city, located in the Waikato Region of the North Island.

The law school was founded in 1990 on the principles of professionalism, biculturalism, and the study of law in context.

On its 20th anniversary, it was renamed Te Piringa — Faculty of Law. Te Piringa in the Maori language translates as the coming together of people.

The name links the law faculty to the region’s Maori heritage. The Maori are New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian population.

New Zealand teaches law as an undergraduate subject, as do most Commonwealth countries. The degree awarded is the Bachelor of Laws (LLB). Six New Zealand universities have law schools or “law faculties.”

Most of New Zealand’s law schools follow an open-entry policy; any student enrolled in the university may elect to study law, usually after one “intermediate year” of university course work. Of those who elect to study law, about 20 percent make it past the first year of law study.

The University of Waikato follows a different admission practice.

Students apply to the law school directly from high school and only those deemed capable of law study are admitted to the program. There is no open entry and no intermediate year.

The law school admits about 250 students a year. Law courses (“papers”) in the first two years are year-long , so entering classes are admitted only once a year, at the beginning of the school year each fall (late February or early March).

Currently (mid-January) a limited selection of summer-school papers is being offered for third- and fourth-year students.

Students who cannot find a summer law clerkship can accelerate their graduation by taking summer papers.

The Waikato LLB degree usually requires four years of study. It takes 480 “points” (credits) to graduate.

Most papers carry 15 or 20 points; 100 points must be earned in papers other than law. Students who have completed a prior degree or other college-level study can earn the LLB in three years.

Law course offerings have familiar names: Contracts, Torts, Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, Evidence, etc., although Equity consists primarily of the study of trusts and wills.

I have not visited classes at Waikato, but my perception at other Down-Under law schools has been that law is taught and tested like other undergraduate courses.

That is, teaching is by readings and lectures, and examinations are more expository than analytical.

Waikato law students are advised to expect to commit at least one hour of study and review for every hour of class.

In the U.S., this expectation would be unrealistically low by a factor of two or three.

No New Zealand law school sponsors a legal clinic at present, although Waikato is exploring the possibility.

Practical skills training at Waikato comes from intensive competitions (“moots”) and internships. All students are required to compete in Negotiation, Client Interviewing, and Witness Examination moots. Students are offered other mooting experiences as well, including inter-school competitions.

Law school graduates can join the 11,000 lawyers currently practicing in New Zealand as barristers and solicitors (most lawyers are both) by completing a post-LLB professional legal training course of 13 to 19 weeks’ duration.

This qualifies them for admission to the High Court of New Zealand. The oath of admission is refreshingly succinct: “I, ___ , swear that I will truly and honestly conduct myself in the practice of a barrister and solicitor according to the best of my knowledge and ability.”

The final step is to obtain a practicing certificate from the New Zealand Law Society.

No bar examination is required for New Zealand law graduates.

But overseas lawyers, like you and me, seeking admission to the New Zealand bar are subject to a four-day New Zealand Law and Practice Examination.


Otto Stockmeyer is an emeritus professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he has taught Contracts and Equity & Remedies for 35 years.