Briefcase: The leading law school, leaky litigation and more

You can hear the angst in the voices of concerned parents up and down the land: “What is the best law school for Jazmyn?” (Remember, most new lawyers are now women and the figure continues to climb for some reason known only to Mrs God).

The answer, as if you hadn’t guessed it, is actually anyone’s guess. A brouhaha arose after the publication of the PBRF rankings, based on research performance of academics and the comments made here last week when I indicated that Otago was No 1 in the rankings for law schools.

Victoria University law faculty communications adviser Nicky Saker pointed out that my calculation was only based on the “law by subject” ranking in the tables, rather than the tables used to measure law school comparisons.

After wading through tables A64-A69 and not focusing just on A24, a bleary-eyed analyst can see that the actual “faculty comparison tables” points out, as Ms Saker modestly proclaims, that  “Victoria and not Otago is the leading law school”.

But notwithstanding my own claim about Otago, can PBRF rankings be anything other than BS when measuring VUW against OLS or anyone else?

Of course, as a VUW graduate who actually dropped out of a voluntary study group lead by Ms Saker’s ferociously intelligent husband Justice Mark O’Regan, I always knew Victoria was the best university. We all do. 

I had mistakenly thought his study group might be an opportunity for chit-chat and possibly to indulge in some illicit Irish whiskey drinking at the O’Regan home, not the highly organised venture into Diplock J’s judgment in the American Cynamid case and similar. Hence my departure.

What a difference 0.1% makes
Laying claim to being a “leading law school” is always a fraught issue. In the US it has also become a highly litigious one as class actions and various claims encircle law schools that trumpet their rankings to get student bums on law school seats when the universities know they will unlikely ever be seated behind a desk at a law office.

One source close to the academe succinctly said that the PBRF rankings “weren’t worth a crock of sh*t”. Many distrust  “research-based” rankings upon which universities can hang their funding hats.
In fact, the rankings Ms Saker refers to in the PBRF table shows Victoria all of 0.1 per cent ahead of Otago.

The actual rankings:
VUW - 6.4
Otago - 6.3
Auckland - 5.8
Canterbury - 5.6
Waikato - 5.2
AUT - 3.6

In the subject area of law, the University of Otago was ranked first law with a quality score of 6.3, while Victoria came in at 5.9. And that, according to Victoria, was an erroneous comparison.

The Henaghan response
Otago Law School dean Mark Henaghan comments that the reason for the TEC table for legal research is that each university is assessed in different areas of research.

He says: “The table, which you accurately portray, makes it clear that in the field of legal research Otago University is first by some margin. TEC ranks fields of research against each other and law as a field was ranked in the top 10 at 7th place.

“TEC does not release tables comparing faculties because the emphasis is on disciplines and university wide assessments of them. The nominated academic unit sections of the TEC report are not comparative tables across universities as the discipline ones are.

“There is good reason for this. The words ‘nominated academic units’ mean that each university can within its own ranks nominate who they want to go into this internal score comparator. PBRF is all about research in particular disciplines and as you have correctly said Otago is ranked first in the field of legal research.”

Research, anyone?
The more important question is overall law school quality. And that doesn’t necessarily equate to research particularly. Good teaching practices involve more than arcane research projects that might benefit no-one other than the dollar-seeking university. 

Academics such as Dr Henaghan, with an overt passion for justice and the law, has inspired more leading lawyers than any research paper into gender studies or gang culture that might emanate from somewhere like, say, Waikato, where the graduates are more likely to wind up warming seats at the Human Rights Commission or the New Zealand First “research unit” than in serious jobs.

As legal consultant Ashley Balls says: “When I left school in the UK, 7%-8% of school leavers went into tertiary study. Today more than 40% do – result being that more than five times the volume of search output.”

He then points to the more salient issue for everyone to consider is lawyer numbers, an issue we will look at next week.

Fellow consultant Ron Pol points out that while rankings may be useful indicators the “scramble for pole position” they miss the bigger picture of what either students or parents may actually want from a university.

“The best indicators should also focus on ‘outcomes’ not just the easy measures of ‘inputs,’ such as the research funding dollars or ‘outputs’ such as published articles.”

Further, as Mr Pol and many lawyers in the firms who recruit students will first tell them: law schools don’t produce lawyers.

“Firms spend vast amounts of time and resources re-educating law student how to be lawyers… It’s much easier to stick with a relentless focus on the ‘outputs’ of arcane rankings based on ‘results’ and 'research quality,’” he says.

As one senior Big Law partner tells his fresh-faced recruits on their first day: “The first thing you must do is forget everything you learnt at law school. This is where the training starts.” Read more at Lawfuel

Leaky litigation
The Ministry of Education’s lawsuit against James Hardie has got leaky home lawyers watching intently. Leading leaky litigator Paul Grimshaw told me the case will be interesting and also a long fight that will go the distance with appeals from whoever wins at first instance.

The likely government claim will be that the system was negligently put together, while James Hardie, which is usually represented by Chapman Tripp’s John McKay, will doubtless blame the cladding contractors and point out the company cannot be held liable solely with the benefit of hindsight. 

What is also going to be interesting is how the individual cases proceed, he says. Unlike a class action, each school will need to be treated individually rather than treating them all as a “class”.

John Bowie is publisher of LawFuel

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