Law v Students

Law v Students

The irony of Otago’s law-breaking lawyers-to-be

Students often break the law. Common offences include drug use and distribution, disorderly conduct, theft, wilful damage to property, arson (à la couch burning), and pretty much every initiation that’s ended with a Proctor’s meeting. But when was the last time you thought of your living room collection of road cones and stop signs as a crime scene? Under the Crimes Act, last Saturday night’s heist of that couch could (in theory) result in spending three months in a cell. The fact this activity is illegal is often an afterthought to students. If you saw your mate smoking a joint, you’re probably not going to view them as some gnarly criminal. 

However, despite the pristine, mildly stuck-up vibe that law students sometimes exude, they can be just as criminal as the BCom breatha. This creates an ironic situation. Law students could, in theory, convict others for the same crimes they indulged in while studying to obtain this power. But in order to do so, law students need to receive a certificate of character from the New Zealand Law Society declaring they’re a “fit and proper person” to practise law. So, what does a fit and proper person even mean? Do law students have a responsibility to restrain from letting loose? Or are they, too, entitled to a few hedonistic years? 

Legal Minds, Lawless Nights 

Irony doesn’t hold law students back from student degeneracy, fifth-year Ethan* included. Law genius by day and high-functioning drug enthusiast by night, Ethan’s lifestyle is criminal, at least on paper. Name any letter of the alphabet and if there’s a drug that begins with it, he’s tried it – sometimes all together in an alphabet soup involving marijuana, MDMA, shrooms, acid, ketamine, nangs, and cocaine. As you can tell, Ethan’s drug activity is vast and regular: “Sometimes I have a plan, like I’ll snort a line today. But sometimes it just appears in front of me.” Later at a SOULS event, Ethan admitted to Critic he was high during our interview with him. 

Despite his criminal credentials, Ethan doesn’t question the irony of his drug use in depth. “As a law student, you don’t have to approve of the law. You just study it and how it works, and how it applies to situations,” he claims. “I think it's a simplification to be like, law students have to follow the law. No, we learn the law.” 

Ethan reckons law students shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than others, telling Critic that breaking the law has no bearing on someone’s ability to give quality legal advice. And perhaps Ethan’s right, insofar that his illegal activities have in no way prevented him from excelling at his degree. In fact, Ethan’s academic credentials are so bizarrely impressive we can’t reference them without running the risk of making him identifiable. 

This risk is even higher given crime-committing law students aren't the norm, at least according to Ethan. “[I break the law] a lot more than the average law student. Law students are uptight, and they’re full of themselves. They’re not built the same as my BCom friends. My law student friends will be like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be a massive night tonight!’ and then be in bed by like 10:30pm. It’s kinda disappointing.”

Second-year law student Ruth* adopts a similar devil-may-care attitude when dabbling in recreational drugs. “You don’t really think about the consequences in that situation, ever, because everyone else is doing it,” she says. Ruth cites the mantra of “work hard, play hard,” claiming it’s especially resonant in Dunedin. “It's hard to get a law degree. We’re cramming it into five years. You have all this pressure. Then you’ve got [...] the little devil on your shoulder that is a Saturday night and the availability of drugs. You almost justify it to yourself that it's [work-life] balance.” 

Law at Otago is laid out in a much more gruelling manner than other degrees, with entry into law school infamously riding on two 50% exams at the end of first year. While Ethan reckons law students are tame, Ruth disagrees, telling Critic that out of all her friends the law students take the most drugs. Her theory? “I’d say having a really highly demanding degree contributes to [it].” 

Not only does Ruth suggest that the intensity of a law degree can push students to snort stress-relief – she reckons it can also help them to get away with it. “Knowing about the law gives you a heightened sense of awareness around the way everything works,” she tells Critic, clueing law students into the culpability of their weekend (or weekday) activities. 

But despite her casual attitude towards drugs, Ruth is self-aware: “There is this very ironic aspect of it that we’re studying to be facilitators of the law yet we continuously break it.” Ruth says she and her friends often talk about the irony of students “crossing the line of what’s legal while we’re studying to enforce the line” – perhaps as they pass around a joint. Discussions of this irony, however, hardly seem to make it out of the blunt rotation: “It's interesting, but it's not something that would ever cross my mind once I’m about to rack up.” 

The Class Divide

Law students' ability to break the law they study may have something to do with privilege, if the backgrounds of Ethan, Ruth, and countless other law students are to suggest. 

As the daughter of a judge, Ruth is familiar with the role privilege plays in her lifestyle. Ruth explains whenever she was sick from school growing up, her father would drag her into work, where she’d sit in a courtroom and watch people get sentenced. “Ever since then I realised I want to sit where my dad is sitting. Not next to my defence lawyer.” 

Ruth says that being the daughter of a judge makes her “significantly” less likely to end up in front of a judge herself. “If you're a judge, you’re obviously not going to be in a lower socio-economic class for one thing. Secondly, you see from a young age where you don’t want to end up. That shit ruins your life. I need to be careful [because] there are real world consequences if you do get caught.” 

Otago law lecturer Metiria Turei (Ngāti Kahungunu, Āti Hau nui a Pāpārangi) has felt some of these consequences. In 2017, Metiria – then Co-leader of the Green Party - sparked controversy throughout the country after confessing to benefit fraud during an AGM speech. She revealed that whilst she was a law student and solo mother struggling to make ends meet, she’d lied to Work and Income NZ about her living situation. While Metiria respectfully declined to be interviewed for this feature, she explained in a Guardian op-ed that despite all the support she received as a law student two decades prior, “I did not have enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table. And so, like many – but not all – people faced with that choice, I lied to survive.”

The speech was part of the party’s announcement of plans to reform New Zealand’s welfare system, aiming to illustrate the difficult circumstances that beneficiaries can find themselves in. Metiria wrote that she felt it was her duty as someone in a more privileged position with a public platform to speak up for the “thousands of other New Zealanders who are on the benefit and don’t have that. In fact, they’re routinely silenced, marginalised, and persecuted for the mere fact that they are poor.”

Despite her good intentions, Metiria’s political career was pulled out from beneath her as she became the centre of a media scandal. Following the speech, Metiria was given the (political) cold shoulder by her colleagues, and deemed a criminal by opposition parties. Then-Prime Minister Bill English even claimed she was effectively "advocating breaking the law." Asked by the NZ Herald whether she thought beneficiaries in a similar situation should lie to the authorities, she stated she’d neither encourage nor dissuade them. 

Metiria eventually resigned as the Green Party Co-leader. Despite the “unbearable” and “traumatic” hate she and her whānau received following the speech, Metiria told The Spinoff in 2019 that she didn’t regret her words: “I’m really proud of the speech and always will be. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do, and I always will. And I’m proud of the activism that it created.” She recounted stories she has since heard from “scores of people, mostly single mums, who have had to make the same choice I did [...] That reaction was unexpected but has been quite amazing [...] it has broken the silence about how awful life on a benefit really is.”

It’s undeniable that Metiria committed a crime. However, almost everyone reading this will know of one person who has used Studylink course-related costs to buy booze, or been on job seekers for a bit longer than they should have. Throw in the struggle of being a solo mother from a working-class background amongst a sea of wealthy classmates, it’s easy to see why some might suggest law students in Metiria’s position deserve far more grace than Metiria herself was later given from Parliament, press, and the public alike. 

Crimes of Necessity?

Snorting lines and committing fraud are not the only crimes law students have been known to commit. Student activism has played a key role in student life for essentially as long as there have been students and activists. While it may be hard to believe given the dismal student political engagement of recent years, Otago Uni has its own powerful history with student activism. In the ‘90s, Grant Robertson himself mobilised a “raucous protest” that ended with riot police and the arrests of thirteen students. Law student Adam* has followed in the footsteps of our incoming Vice Chancellor, bending the law in his mission to better the world while simultaneously studying it. “I've been involved in pretty hardcore activist spaces,” he tells Critic. “I haven't personally been arrested, but I have been involved with things like [illegal] blockades and non-violent direct action.” 

Adam started a law degree explicitly to become an activist – like a tertiary mole. By studying law, he says that he aimed to understand institutions “which are often quite violent and oppressive” and get to the bottom of “their limits and what the loopholes are.” Adam admits that he isn’t your average law student, saying that most are “pretty mainstream and just wanna stick with the status quo and [...] earn lots of money. There’s not too many radicals amongst us. But that being said, there's definitely a good solid number.” 

Asked whether he has any regrets over less-than-legal protest activity, he said, “For me personally? No. We need people going to big lengths.” This is helped by the fact that, according to Adam, law students are good at compartmentalising what they're studying from what they're doing in their off time. “I see your point about there being kind of an implicit irony there, but it's not something that most people spend enough time thinking about [...]  if anything it's just more useful to have a legal background in those [activist] spaces.” 

Adam echoes Ruth’s comments on the benefits that his degree has given him when coming up against the law. “[It’s] definitely useful for things like knowing what your rights are and being able to actually speak up for them, especially if you're getting approached by cops or whatever,” he says. This “training” came to the forefront recently when he was involved in an illegal sit-in. Reflecting on the event, Adam says his knowledge of the law was “useful when cops showed up 'cause they were looking to arrest me as well.” He got away handcuff-free. 

While Adam has a “sense of awareness” on the potential implications of any illegal action on his future career in law, he says, “It hasn't stopped me from doing janky shit.” But unlike smoking a cheeky cone or two, Adam’s brushes with the law could be seen as being for the greater good – or even a crime of necessity, like Metiria. Whether illegal protest activity is a necessary or an immoral method of advocacy, depends, of course, on who you ask. 

“Fit and Proper”

Whether law students should be allowed to indulge in breatha degeneracy or respect the spirit of their degree is a question that Associate Professor Selene Mize is qualified to address. Selene is the lecturer for Otago law school’s legal ethics paper, which is required for admission to the profession. She’s also a point of contact for Otago law students wondering about their chances of being deemed “fit and proper” enough by the New Zealand Law Society. 

According to Selene, crimes of a dishonest nature, commissioning other crimes, and plagiarism are especially bad records for any aspiring lawyer. However, Selene also says attitude can be very relevant. “There was one case that involved […] somebody who didn't show up for interviews with the Law Society and who didn't provide documents that they were meant to provide, who took the attitude that they were above having to go through those procedures [...] There's a possibility that they could be denied a certificate of good character [...] on that basis.”

But like most legal tests, the application of the “fit and proper person” test varies case-by-case. “It’s a big contextual decision. Certainly they would take into account [...] the youthfulness of the person at the time of the offending. If the person was 35 when they did the offending, they're less likely to get a pass than if they were 20.” 

And as with all cases in the legal realm, there are arguments to be made against and in defence of Ethan, Ruth, and Adam being considered “fit and proper” to practise law. In order to truly make sense of the irony that infests Otago’s law school, Critic Te Ārohi decided to put our interviewees to the test. We showed Selene anonymous profiles of Ethan, Ruth and Adam to find out whether they would, in her opinion, be able to obtain a ‘certificate of character’ from the New Zealand Law Society. 

Disclaimer: Selene does not control the outcome of law students obtaining a certificate of character. 

Ruth: Likely Admitted

Upon hearing Ruth’s profile, which involves low-level recreational drug taking, Selene points out that Ruth falls on the much lower end of offending. “There’s different drugs, different levels of use, and different levels of dependence. If a person hasn't been arrested, they don’t have any convictions and has a very good academic record, it is unlikely to come to the attention of [the law society] unless [she] discloses it.” Furthermore, by the time Ruth practises as a lawyer, Selene predicts cannabis use may even be legal. “I've just been in the United States where cannabis in so many jurisdictions has been legalised, and not just for medicinal use. It has become much, much more widely accepted. I would not be at all surprised if that happens in New Zealand.” 

Adam: Likely Admitted

Even though he currently shows little interest in practising law like Ruth and Ethan, Adam likely would be admitted to the profession despite his illegal protesting. “There's many things that you can do in protest [...] you can take an axe to a storefront in protest, or you can just do a sit-in.” Selene believes Adam’s actions may even be seen positively by the law society as “lawyers have really very strong feelings of protection for freedom of speech.” In Selene’s personal opinion, Adam “would not have trouble getting in [...] there is tolerance to some extent for this [activity].” 

Ethan: Unlikely to be Admitted

If Ethan were to disclose his philosophy that he doesn’t have to apply the law in his personal life to the New Zealand Law Society, Selene says that he’d “unlikely” be able to obtain a certificate of character. “Respect for the law and a willingness to follow the law is something that they're particularly looking for. Lawyers are given a privileged position to some extent in our society. And judges want to be able to rely on the truth of what lawyers say [...] [and for them] to be beyond reproach. As a lawyer, you have a responsibility to uphold the law.” The extent of Ethan’s drug use was another red flag, particularly if his high-functioning ways were to fall through. “Having a substance-abuse problem does tend to be associated with – for want of a better word – being a bad lawyer, [being someone] that clients can't rely upon, that miss deadlines, that are negligent in their work.”

So, who should be a lawyer? 

Whether or not someone should become a lawyer is a nebulous topic, which comes down to a lot more than your personal life (otherwise, we wouldn’t have a law school). It’s a job with specific responsibilities, just like any other. A doctor is not expected to have made 100% healthy decisions in their lifetime, but we do expect doctors to have an overall respect for health, including their own. A lawyer (the intended career of many law students) is expected to, at bare minimum, respect the legal system; which includes being a law abiding citizen. 

But should law students despair of ever being admitted because of an incident in their past? Selene says, “Absolutely not. Most people are admitted, or only held up for a time.” In fact, it’s unlikely you'll ever even be called for an interview by the New Zealand Law Society. Selene tells Critic that “if there's no information about your character, they assume that it's a good character. So they only act on negative information to keep people out of the profession.” Innocent until proven guilty extends beyond the courtroom, it seems. However, something to keep in mind, she said, is that “they're looking for certain attributes, and one is respect for the law.”

Selene advises Otago law students to think about the potential ramifications of their actions to maximise their chances of being admitted to the profession. Her top tip for those with an unflattering track record? “Don’t hold things back, because [the New Zealand Law Society] cares a lot about disclosure. It's not just what did you do, but now how willing are you to admit what you did and then address it. In many cases, that means showing that you appreciate that it was wrong and that you're not doing it any more.”


“If you want to know the law and nothing else,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “you must look at it as a bad man who cares only for the [...] consequences.” Maybe Holme’s philosophy is the reason for the Fight Club rule that surrounds law camp. Or maybe greater knowledge for the law, and empathy for those who encounter it, can be gained by being the “bad man” every so often, in a safe space where students are able to bounce back from their mistakes. 

Respect for the law is important, and must extend beyond the exam script – or so the New Zealand Law Society hopes. But the personal lives of Ethan, Ruth, and Adam suggest this respect manifests to varying degrees. While a Burrows textbook will teach you theory, perhaps it’s the real-world encounters with the law – whether that be through protests, the tenancy tribunal or drunk chat with cops on Castle – that sharpens Otago student’s legal minds the most. We’d just recommend putting down the textbook for lines of dialogue, rather than lines of… well, you know. 

*Names and identifying details changed

This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2024.
Posted 8:19pm Sunday 5th May 2024 by Monty O’Rielly and Iris Hehir.