Writing Law Dissertations



Why Should You Read This Book?

Since you have opened this book, it is probably safe for us to assume that you are either thinking about researching, or have already started to write a research project or a dissertation. At the outset, we need to point out that this book, in common with all textbooks, cannot guarantee you success in terms of your results. However, what it can do is provide you with advice and guidance, which we hope will make the process of writing your dissertation a more enjoyable and rewarding learning experience.

Students undertake research projects for various reasons. For example, you may be required by your degree regulations to write a dissertation, i.e. it is a compulsory element of your course. Alternatively, you may have certain motivations for opting to engage in research. Perhaps you like the idea of self-managed study with the added bonus that you do not have to turn up for lectures or prepare for seminars! There is nothing intrinsically wrong in choosing to do a dissertation for tactical reasons; it is now a fact of life that students have to ‘juggle’ numerous demands (academic, domestic and employment related) and therefore need to apportion their available time. However, irrespective of the impetus for your research project, you must accept that it will be necessary to devote at least the same amount of time to researching materials and writing drafts, as you would do in seminar preparation and assessment revision for any ‘taught’ module.

Our overall aim in this book is to provide you with help and guidance in understanding the process of constructing a dissertation. This includes, choosing an appropriate way of conducting your research and maintaining a productive relationship with your supervisor. Throughout the book, we shall also point out some of the common pitfalls that you should aim to avoid. Engaging in research is a very individual undertaking. You choose the topic and methodology, manage the available study time and, at the end of the day, are responsible for the entire research project (and the mark that it ultimately achieves). Such individuality will necessarily generate diversity and in many respects the advice we give in this book is generic, i.e. of general applicability to all dissertation research and writing. In saying that, it will be easy for you to adapt the advice given in the chapters to fit your own particular study circumstances and choice of topic.

If you need some encouragement at this early stage, here are a number of positive aspects of dissertation writing. Firstly, in terms of academic success, we have found that generally, students achieve higher marks in courseworks and dissertations, as compared to unseen examinations. In some respects this may be due to the fact that whilst dissertation research does require students to locate and analyse relevant legal materials, it does not require that all this information be committed to memory. Secondly, on the whole, students rise to the challenge of undertaking a project which is very much within their control in terms of the choice of topic, time-management and creativity. In other words, students tend to enjoy the academic freedom that dissertation writing brings. Thirdly, when engaged in their research, students often discover wider and more controversial dimensions of the law, including cultural, economic and political aspects, that taught modules and courses may not necessarily highlight. Students often find these wider aspects of the law to be particularly stimulating and thought-provoking, at least with respect to a topic in which they are personally interested.

In addition, there are many personal benefits to be derived from undertaking and completing a dissertation. Assuming the responsibility for producing a piece of work which is based on one’s own research, as distinct from rote-learning materials handed out by lecturers, can help to generate or improve academic confidence and self-esteem. Furthermore, the process of writing a dissertation hones time-management skills and fosters the ability to be self-motivated and disciplined.

In summary, successful completion of a dissertation reveals evidence of the ability to:

  • identify a subject which actually warrants research;
  • undertake research on an issue by carrying out a literature-based search and/or fieldwork;
  • locate pertinent sources and select, organise and prioritise information from those sources;
  • formulate and analyse various arguments contained within the available academic literature;
  • write in a clear, critical and logically structured fashion;
  • analyse data (quantitative and qualitative);
  • present a persuasive argument.

These transferable skills are highly valued by many employers and you can legitimately include references to their acquisition in your curriculum vitae. Indeed, you should consider the ability to carry out legal research, and to bring your research project to a successful conclusion, to be an essential skill with a much wider scope than the academic context.

Why Did We Write This Book?

As experienced supervisors, we wanted to produce a book that would provide students with a realistic picture of what dissertation writing actually involves in practice, both generally and also specifically in terms of the implications of adopting one methodology rather than another. One key aspect of this book is that the advice proffered is not based on a tutor’s perspective alone but, rather, on the ‘real life’ views of a sample of our students, whose individual dissertation  diaries1 contained accounts of their feelings, worries and exhilarations as they experienced the process of writing their dissertations. We should add that, in accordance with the principle of ‘informed consent’,2 students who chose to participate in our research were advised that we would publish verbatim extracts from their diaries but would do so in a manner that guaranteed anonymity.

Our experiential research indicated that a major problem which students experienced whilst writing a dissertation was not a lack of commitment or academic ability or motivation; instead, many of the perceived problems lay rather in students’ unfamiliarity with planning and adopting a strategy for writing a longer piece of work, including the choice of overall approach. Given this, we highlight tactics that you can adopt, and measures that you can take, to ensure that you are better prepared to undertake the long haul, particularly with respect to avoiding some of the methodological pitfalls!

Why Is There a Need for This Book?

Although there are many books on different aspects of legal research skills, this book aims to be different in terms of its scope. It focuses on the practicalities of dissertation research and includes guidance on adopting an appropriate method and methodology. Further, we have based a great deal of the material on our experiences of supervising undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation students, together with the results of our research into this aspect of legal education. This book therefore incorporates a real-life dimension and, as a consequence, you may find that you are able to identify with some
of the dilemmas, issues, and high and low points revealed throughout.

Ideally, we would like you to read this book at the very moment you start thinking about doing a dissertation since we have included practical advice on choosing a research topic. On the other hand, we would hope that the chapters on specific methodologies will be of use at different stages of your research, including those periods when you reflect upon the implications and limits of any methodological approach you choose to adopt. This particular aspect of your research is important in relation to avoiding claims that overstate the implications of your findings, i.e. as if those findings were produced from the ultimate perspective to end all perspectives!

Chapter 1 is devoted to some of the more practical elements of dissertation writing. Included in this chapter are a series of activities. These are designed to help you focus on and address specific points in the research process. Engaging in these activities will enable you to build a ‘reflective journal’ in which you will be able to see how your research skills and academic profile develop as you progress through the dissertation. You may find this information helpful in terms of charting your personal achievements, and particularly useful when completing applications for further study or employment. 

Chapter 2 discusses the importance of setting up the supervision relationship in a manner that best allows you to get the most out of such guidance. There are activities throughout the chapter to help you in this respect. It also addresses an equally important issue: that of negotiating a productive relationship with your supervisor in which both sides are aware of each other’s likely expectations.

Chapter 3 discusses the importance of dissertation students reflecting upon and justifying their choice of methodologies. It emphasises the importance of  explaining and justifying the approach you have decided to take to the conduct of your dissertation research. In other words, you must select the most appropriate way of setting up relevant questions, defining the scope of the topic and analysing various issues. 

Chapters 4 and 5 contrast two different research methods and methodologies that you can adopt and adapt to the demands of your particular dissertation topic: traditional black-letter and more recently developed sociolegal studies approaches to the conduct of legal research. Each of these methodologies is defined and then discussed in some detail, with particular emphasis on their requirements and limitations, whilst the general strengths and weaknesses of each are summarised. Some but not all of the strengths and weaknesses will apply to their possible application to your particular topic. The final chapter, Chapter 6, discusses the nature, and pros and cons, of adopting comparative and historical approaches to the conduct of dissertation research. It considers those types of historical analysis that are compatible to both black-letter and sociolegal approaches to legal research. It is important to note that different universities will have different requirements for dissertations, e.g. with respect to a bibliography and citation styles, which students should familiarise themselves with. We strongly advise you to check with your own department/supervisor for information on custom, practice and guidelines relating to these
particular requirements. Many institutions supply students with a handbook in which such guidance is given.

In summary, writing a dissertation may initially seem to be a formidable task. In your taught modules, you will probably have been given reading lists which direct you to the relevant primary and secondary sources. By contrast, when writing a dissertation you will be responsible for locating and prioritising relevant and up-to-date materials. Depending upon your choice of methodology, this can require you to consult a certain type of relevant primary and secondary source. It may be necessary to locate and analyse policy issues and theoretical arguments. You may also choose to carry out smallscale empirical research on how one aspect of law is actually operating in practice.

Given the personal effort involved, it is not surprising that many students develop a strong ‘bond’ with their dissertation. To illustrate, using the words of one of our students when handing in the completed dissertation, ‘it was like sending my child off to school for the first time’. However, you do need to be able to ‘stand back’ from your work from time to time. This is necessary in order to engage in critical reflection on your propositions and arguments and, also, on how your approach to the conduct of research is assisting you in making and supporting your overall argument. It has to be said that this is always easier said than done! This book aims to help you with this reflective work and various other difficulties that you may encounter, e.g. when selecting your methodology, and in
carrying out and writing up dissertation research. In conclusion, by the time you have finished your dissertation, you will have developed your own unique style of engaging in and managing your research. This is a skill which can be utilised in many aspects of your future academic and employment careers

Just one final point, we would both like to wish you every success with your adventure into legal research. Enjoy!

Michael Salter and Julie Mason