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A law degree can help make a positive difference to NZ

Chris Gallavin, speaking at a poetry gig at Hiruhārama, Jerusalem up the Whanganui River

Tens of thousands of New Zealand university students headed back to campus this month after a long break because of the covid pandemic lockdown.

Massey University pro vice-chancellor Professor Chris Gallavin is offering advice to the thousands of tertiary students getting back to a law degree, starting a law degree or thinking about doing law.

By Chris Gallavin

Opinion: Many things may not be the same again for some time, but law is an amazing degree to do at any university. For Kiwi students thinking about doing law, here are some thoughts. 

Forget the adage that law is what wanna-be-lawyers study. It is for everyone. Law opens up so many pathways and is particularly important for those who want to make a real difference in society. At base, you learn how to critique society and from that, to understand its weaknesses and its nuance. 

Not only highly valued by a myriad of employers, the skills you obtain from studying law will turbo charge your focus, effectiveness and gravity in a world that might otherwise structurally and operationally look to marginalise you.

When I look back on my life, it was my time at university that marks the most poignant change in the way I think and see the world; my curiosity for life and knowledge and my lifelong journey of knowledge discovery – it was this that burst from famine to flame at university.

The world of the law school is as torrid as it is invigorating. You’ll want to be accepted and popular and the temptation to comply will be strong.

Resist, and walk you own journey but importantly, also recognise that you cannot do this alone. Mum, dad, brothers and sisters as well as your fellow students will be vital to your success; you are not an island – they all, in their way, take this journey with you.

Recognise that law school is not all that you are. Retain independence at every opportunity you can but ensure to lean into the paradigm of law in which you will find yourself surrounded.

It is hard to dabble and succeed – you must fully commit. Dive in, you’ll find the water tepid and perhaps a little hot at times, but you can handle it – don’t let anyone lead you to think you cannot.

Your world will be exponentially expanded through the logic of law – but it is only one paradigm. Always be curious about other ways of thinking.

Having said that, if you master it, the world will greatly value your skills – the analytical precision that you apply through your legal training will serve you amazingly well in all that you do for the rest of your life. 

Discipline of the mind has been the key to my success. I didn’t see it at the time, but my time at law school acted to train my mind. It gave me the confidence to do things later that I never would have thought possible – things completely unrelated to the law.

I found that using as many of my senses as possible to digest the material was incredibly important.

What I mean by that is, sit down in a quiet place and study (of course), but also talk about it with your family. No matter how successful you have been at high school, its university where you will really learn how you learn.

Learn how to self-manage stress. Mindfulness, prayer, sport, music, dancing, partying – whatever works for you and doesn’t lead to self-destruction (go easy on the drink for example).

Just figure out what it is that you need to do to chill out and do that – lots. Get involved. Join all clubs. Make lots of friends. Grow your independence from mum and dad and think for yourself – not the way you might think your lecturers want you to think. 

You might think that success at law school is just figuring out its version of painting by numbers, but true success comes when you realise it is much more than that.

Undergraduate study is a window into the world of intellectualism and deep thinking – these things have now come to define me, they are things that I derive great enjoyment and fulfilment.

I hope you too discover your own passion for knowledge and learning. Law school is hard, but you will never know what you are capable of until pushed beyond what you think are your limits.

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Note: Professor Gallavin is deputy pro vice-chancellor at Massey University and was previously the Dean of Law at the University of Canterbury. 

For further information contact Make Lemonade editor-in-chief Kip Brook on 0275 030188


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