Former Vice-Chancellor Sir Bruce Williams KBE writes on the history of the Law School - The Law School Shift

The University of Sydney Law School was inaugurated in 1855. There were only two other faculties in the University at the time, Arts and Medicine. The Law School commenced its work in 1859, but this work in the main was examining rather than teaching for about 30 years.

In 1880 John Henry Challis, a merchant and landowner of Potts Point, NSW, died. Five years after the death of his wife in 1884, the substantial bequest of his real and personal estate began to pass to the University, "to be applied for the benefit of that institution in such manner as the governing body thereof directs". As a result of this bequest, eight University chairs, including those of Law, International Law and Jurisprudence, were founded, together with a number of specific lectureships, several of them in the Faculty.

In 1890 Pitt Cobbett was appointed to the first Chair of Law and became the first Dean of the Faculty. This marked the commencement of the Sydney Law School as we know it today. After Pitt Cobbett's resignation in 1910, Mr. J. B. Peden (later Sir John Peden) was appointed to the Chair of Law and became Dean of the Faculty. A second chair was created after World War I, and A H Charteris, of the University of Glasgow, was appointed Challis Professor of International Law and Jurisprudence.

The earliest lectures in the Law School, before Pitt Cobbett's arrival from England, were given on the second or the top floor of an old building called Wentworth Court, which ran from Phillip to Elizabeth Streets on the site of the former Government Insurance Office. Soon after Professor Pitt Cobbett's arrival in 1890, the Law School, with its 14 students and teaching staff of five, four of whom were part-time lecturers, moved a few doors along Phillip Street to the premises that Sir John Peden, writing in 1940, described as 'attractive quarters' in what used to be the Australian Pioneers' Club at no. 173.

In 1896 the Law School moved across Phillip Street to no. 174 Selbourne Chambers, a three-storeyed building on the site of the present Selbourne Chambers. It remained there until 1913, when it moved for a year to a 'cramped and noisy' upper floor in Martin Place, while Wigram Chambers (no. 167 Phillip Street) and Barristers' Court (to the rear, facing Elizabeth Street), both of which the University had recently purchased, were being converted into University Chambers for the Law School and tenants. Some time later, Barristers Court was resumed and demolished for the widening of Elizabeth Street, and in 1936 the University purchased all that remained of the original site. On this block, a 13-storey building was erected and opened in 1938. It was joined to the old Phillip Street Building, although the floors were at different levels, and it contained a well-appointed law library occupying three floors. The rest of the space was let. In 1939 there were 288 students and a teaching staff of 17 – two professors and full-time tutor (F C Hutley, later Mr Justice Hutley of the Supreme Court of NSW), and 14 part-time lecturers.

In the years immediately following World War II, there were some 1100 students in the Law School; the number fell to 650 by 1953. During the 1950s, three further chairs of law were created and another was added in 1969. In that year the Sydney Law School moved again, this time into a building of some 16 storeys bounded by Phillip, King and Elizabeth Streets. This was now known as the 'St James Campus'. The building contained nine lecture rooms, placed on two of the floors below street level which provided better air-conditioning control and reduced noise problems. Student amenities included a common rooms, games rooms and two squash courts. The library, which occupies four floors of the building, accommodated 450 readers, half in individual carrels.

In 2009 Sydney Law School relocated to the University of Sydney's Camperdown, occupying the New Law Building an award-winning complex located on Eastern Avenue in-between Fisher Library and the Carslaw Building. A state-of-the-art complex for Law research and teaching, its major components include a Moot Court facility; Law Library; Teaching Spaces; and Forecourt. In 2015, Sydney Law School officially resumed its CBD teaching activities in the University's new CBD Building located at 133 Castlereagh Street

The Law School now has approximately 1700 Sydney LLB and Sydney JD students, 1500 postgraduate coursework students and 100 postgraduate research students. There are now 24 chairs including the Challis Chairs of Law, Jurisprudence and International Law. The Dean of the Sydney Law School is Professor Joellen Riley.


  • 1890 - 1910 Professor Pitt Cobbett
  • 1910 - 1942 Professor John Peden
  • 1942 - 1946 Professor James Williams
  • 1946 - 1947 Mr Clive Teece (Acting)
  • 1947 - 1973 Professor Keith Shatwell
  • 1974 - 1977 Professor David Benjafield
  • 1978 - 1979 Professor Dyson Heydon
  • 1980 - 1985 Professor John Mackinolty
  • 1986 - 1989 Professor Colin Phegan
  • 1990 - 1992 Professor James Crawford
  • 1992 - 1993 Associate Professor Alex Ziegert (Acting)
  • 1993 - 1994 Professor Colin Phegan (Acting)
  • 1994 - 1997 Professor David Weisbrot
  • 1998 - 1999 Associate Professor Ros Atherton (Acting)
  • 1999 - 2002 Professor Jeremy Webber
  • 2002 - 2007 Professor Ron McCallum
  • 2007 - 2012 Professor Gillian Triggs
  • 2012 - 2013 Professor Greg Tolhurst (Acting)
  • 2013 to present Professor Joellen Riley