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Writing Your Master’s Dissertation in Law – All the Tips and Tricks

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❶The research that you conduct will depend on the purpose of your project and how you conceive your methodological approach. Check with some of your peers or recent graduates and get some advice.

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Generally, writing a dissertation is not compulsory. But for law students in particular, it may be worth considering. I wanted to find out what the law had to say about such a contentious topic. Luckily, at most law schools you can be flexible with the focus of your dissertation. A fellow student at City Law School wrote his on the exception of parodies to copyright law. While others in my cohort wrote about humanitarian intervention against Isis, and the practice of child marriage in Bangladesh.

Having the chance to explore an area of law outside the seven core modules, and become reasonably knowledgeable in it, can give you an edge in job interviews. Writing a 10, to 15,word thesis also enables you to develop transferable skills that will be useful during any law career. First, there are the obvious research skills. Jones says the practical research skills he gained was one of the biggest benefits of writing a dissertation.

These include the ability to locate sources efficiently, sift through case law and assess expert opinion. In addition to research skills you learn to write well. Dissertations require succinct arguments and you learn to reduce complex pieces of information into concise sentences. This is useful when advising clients or writing skeleton arguments. Structure and organisation are also crucial. You will have to use chapters, subsections, headings, and include a contents page.

This is essential in the legal profession when compiling bundles and other files. Rachel Tandy, a barrister at Henderson Chambers, compares the dissertation-writing process to that of preparing a case. Critical thinking and deep reading are very important because not every piece of work you read will itself be entirely rigorous or up to date — so it is important for you to make up your own mind.

Consider the context in which a writer is writing: Can you enter into the assumptions and viewpoints of someone else and think through what is required to convince him or her? Critical thinking means being self-critical. Thus you have to examine your own assumptions and try and make them explicit and justify them.

Show awareness of nuance and complexity; avoid broad statements about e. At the same time do not use complexity or nuance to hide behind: Do not shy away from strongly worded conclusions if these are justified the stronger the conclusion the greater the justification required.

We are really looking for a distinctive approach, that you are speaking in a distinctive voice your own! You should think carefully about anything you read or write. Is it clear, accurate and precise Paul and Edler 54, ? Some statements may be an unfortunate slip of the typing key: Try to include specifics rather than generalities. Avoid purely descriptive pieces.

Look through your papers — which parts are quotes, description, summary, background; which parts are your actual arguments or evaluations. Avoid inserting material simply because it somehow looks relevant. It may well be relevant but you need to be explicit about how it contributes to the argument. Be careful when summarising. Do not do too much summarising i. See Cryer et al for discussion of these different ways of describing what they call methodology Cryer et al It follows though from what we have said about critical thinking that we can and must say more than this.

For instance, even if you wish to take a doctrinal or black-letter analysis, you still need to think about how to approach questions of interpretation or precedent. Lawyers disagree about how to approach these questions and have numerous and different ways of analysing rules Twining and Miers If you want to consider a project concerning policy or law reform you need to consider why a particular policy should be favoured.

This takes you into normative and empirical questions. Comparative pieces can be tricky. When choosing your approach, consider whether you have an adequate grounding in the approach.

It would be a high risk strategy to adopt eg a deconstructionist approach if you have no prior experience with deconstruction.

You need to devote some thought to how you will work on your dissertation. A dissertation is a substantial piece of work — even just in terms of sheer length a dissertation may be twice the length of an average journal article in a UK law review.

To address such a challenge it is necessary to start planning and thinking and reading and writing early. It will be a more manageable task if you start early and break the project down into components that are doable.

Meet with your supervisor early in the project. If you plan to do any sort of empirical work —interviews, surveys, site visits — it is especially important that you start planning early. You may well have ethics procedures to comply with, and the practicalities or arranging interviews, visits etc can take a considerable amount of time. And again, you need to consider the timetables of other people. This is why consideration of referencing and plagiarism is important.

Similarly, you need to consider whether your research might do any harm. You should consider whether there are any equality dimensions to your project: Has allowance been made for this in the research design?

More onerous ethical obligations arise if you want to do empirical work involving interviewing other people. The ethical obligations will generally escalate as the contact with human persons becomes more sensitive. There are ethical issues involved in interviewing professionals and expert for instance. Greater obligations exist if one wishes to interview ordinary people and even more so vulnerable groups.

Probably not relevant if you are doing a law dissertation but most institutions will have very elaborate requirements for any work involving human tissue or experimentation. The research that you conduct will depend on the purpose of your project and how you conceive your methodological approach. It is important that everything coheres in the dissertation. Sometimes students form the impression that they should use a particular research method eg surveys or interviews or a Derridean analysis because this will look impressive.

This is a high risk strategy. If the research method is not suitable to your purpose and approach, or if you have selected a method which you do not firmly understand then the project may have serious flaws. So assess you research methods in the light of your purpose and approach.

Having said that, markers will generally want to see that your research is wide ranging, thorough, up to date, well judged and appropriate to your purpose and approach. You should consider a wide range of different types of sources. Try not to over rely on any one source or type of source i. You should consider the range of relevant official documents parliamentary committee reports, white papers, Law Commission papers, departmental consultation documents, etc.

It will be important that you show familiarity with, and engagement with, the range of academic writings relevant to your project. It is important that you go beyond relying on a small number of textbooks. You should also consider whether there are monographs or edited collections relevant to your research.

Crucially you will need to show that you have sought out journal articles, especially from peer reviewed journals. Material published in peer reviewed journals may well be more up to date and more focused than some other sources; if the journal is peer reviewed then the article will have been examined by one or two experts anonymously prior to publication, so there is a guarantee of quality.

Again, depending on your purpose and approach, you should consider going beyond legal, official or legal academic sources provided always you show judgement. You may want to rely on material from philosophy, psychology, literature, history, politics, etc. You may want to use news media sources, or reports from nongovernmental organisations. You might want to refer to but be cautious here blogs. No one can be expected to read and synthesise everything, especially not for a dissertation; similarly it would be unreasonable to expect a detailed re-write of a dissertation because of a court decision two days before submission.

Nevertheless, your marker will expect your work to be thorough and up to date. It can be disastrous if a student relies on an out of date court case — if for instance, you devote your dissertation to an extensive criticism of a High Court judgment but do not realise that it was reversed on appeal, then this is a serious problem. Sometimes the problems stems from a tendency to round up a few textbooks and read through them. However textbooks may be out of date — it is important to do your own research into both the primary and the secondary sources.

If your dissertation is related to a topic covered in a module, then check the relevant module syllabus to see which sources are considered important. If a module syllabus clearly indicates that a particular court case or treaty or statute is relevant to the topic then consider carefully including it.

Use a range of search techniques to sweep up the relevant sources: If you rely on Lexis searches for instance this may mean you miss material only available on Westlaw or HeinOnLine. Search the databases relevant to your research carefully and patiently. If a particular source is key to your argument then take some time to see what has been said about it, eg if it is a case has it been disapproved or applied?

You could find the Westlaw case analysis useful for this but do not rely just on that tool. You ensure that you are thorough and up to date by reading carefully the material you acquire: Your thinking and specifically your thinking about your purpose and approach needs to feed in to what you read, research and write. You must show judgement about which sources you rely upon and show an understanding of their relative importance.

Show a sense of judgement about what is important. There are thousands of cases on Article 6 and delay in the Italian courts — if discussing the problem of delay you do not need to mention every single case! It is not easy to be prescriptive about what cases are important: This does not mean you will never be interested in first instance cases, and some scholars recommend more attention be paid to what happens in the majority of courts, rather than just the top court.

That is also fine — what matters is that what you read and write about makes sense in light of your purpose and approach. You need to be especially carefully when relying on web based resources. While the web is a valuable resource for research, it also contains much that is bad or ugly as the Internet Detective puts it. I once had a student who unfortunately relied on a Neo-Nazi website; the student was hardly to blame as the website was disguised to portray itself as an academic resource.

The point is that you need to be sceptical about material found on the web. Always consider carefully whether the material is reliable. You may want to rely on blogs as a resource. Certainly these should not be a major source in your dissertation. There are some excellent law blogs run by well established academics.

These provide useful insights, especially in relation to very recent developments where the law journal articles may not yet have had time to appear. Even so, remember what we said above about the range of sources you should use. It is important that you get into good habits when it comes to note taking and in particular referencing early in your research.

This is important for several reasons. Second, academic integrity requires that you give credit to others for their work. Third, good habits are essential to avoid unfounded accusations of plagiarism or academic malpractice. Good practice here means that you should take a full citation note of anything you read, and make sure to take down all the relevant details. I lost a week at the end of my LLM because I had to check the Library for the first initial of every author I had read.

Check what citation system you need to use early on in the project and keep the relevant details. Where to keep the details? You may simply want to keep them listed in a word document. Another option you might consider is storing them in a spreadsheet or database programme, though it may not be easy to create references for insertion into your dissertation.

The most advanced solution is to use bibliography software to manage your references. Some of these are free to use and rely on a web based interface Refworks, or Mendeley , while others are more expensive and may require loading a programme on to a particular machine Endnote.

Some universities offer training in the use of one or other of these packages. Refworks works well with Harvard referencing but is often unsatisfactory if you want to use footnotes in your dissertation. See the Tech tips page for more on these programmes. When taking notes, be selective, do not write everything down. As noted above, your thinking should inform your research reading so read bearing in mind your purpose and approach.

Similarly, when making notes ensure that you write down the appropriate pinpoint page reference or paragraph reference ; this will save you needlessly having to re-read everything six months later. Plan to give yourself time to draft, redraft, redraft, redraft, redraft, etc. There are no good writers, only good rewriters Tredinnick Style is a very individual matter, and people may reasonably differ over what is an appropriate writing style for an academic dissertation. Try to keep your writing style clear.

You should try to make everything transparent to the reader. If your meaning is unclear then this may well indicate that your thinking on the subject is unclear. Keep your language concise: Consider carefully whether every chapter, section, paragraph, sentence and word is necessary to convey your meaning. If not then delete it. Avoid wordiness, verbiage, trying to look too smart. By all means mix different types of paragraphs and different types of sentences Tredinnick , but avoid having too many short paragraphs or too many long sentences.

Avoid too many short paragraphs in an essay. Some people find it helpful to take a journal article that they find insightful, and sit down and think why they find it insightful. What characteristics about the article make it worthwhile?

Then try and develop those characteristics in your own writing. Avoid inventing unusual abbreviations of your own that defy accepted conventions e. Normally put footnote references at the end of a sentence outside of punctuation.

It is also acceptable to put them inside punctuation provided you are consistent. When proofreading, you may want to proofread in stages Goldstein and Lieberman , ie proofread once to check the overall flow of the narrative; proofread a second time to check how paragraphs link together; proofread a third time to pick up on spelling and grammar; proofread a fourth time to check citations.

You need a certain distance from your work in order to proofread it properly. This is a strong reason to start your dissertation early — this means you can give yourself a few days or a week or so between finishing an advanced draft and then proofreading it carefully. Or you may be able to ask a friend or family member to read the dissertation.

Many people when proofreading find it useful to work off a hard copy rather than the computer screen. Avoid the passive voice. Consider your structure carefully. A dissertation will normally be structured around chapters or maybe sections , including introductory and concluding chapters. Within chapters headings and even sub-headings may be used. In addition to the chapters there will usually be a bibliography and possibly tables of cases, statutes, etc , a table of contents, a title page, an abstract page and an acknowledgements page.

If there are no University guidelines as to formatting then see if you can get ahold of a copy of a good quality dissertation example to see how it is laid out. Just as the chapters must be logically structured, so must the paragraphs. Each paragraph should develop a distinct idea — use a new paragraph for a new idea.

Your paragraphs should follow logically. If you are finding it difficult to see the logic of your paragraphs try underlining the key word or sentence, or writing the key point beside the paragraph.

See then if the order of the paragraphs makes sense. Use signalling to help the reader understand how the chapters, sections, paragraphs are linked.

Thus the beginning of a chapter might want to refer back to the previous chapter and the overall argument; the end of a chapter might want to allude to the next stage of the argument. Similarly check each paragraphs: Does it link to the next paragraph? It is an old piece of advice but it remains true: As these create the first and the last impressions on the reader it is important that they be well crafted.


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In a legal dissertation, by “scene” is meant the bits of law that are relevant to set up key arguments in the main body of the dissertation. With this example dissertation, the target readership was, for various reasons, international private law experts.

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Writing a law dissertation introduction. The hardest part of writing introductions is explaining what you are going to do in a way in which it sets your work out as an important piece of legal research, and so engage your reader without giving the whole plot away.

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Generally, writing a dissertation is not compulsory. But for law students in particular, it may be worth considering. It was last year’s conflict . Writing a law dissertation book by Today in class my english teacher used my name in a essay. the sentence was "valrie was very furious" this guy said "valrie fast&furious".

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Legal dissertations can be very complex and incorporate all of the sources of law: judicial precedence, academic writing in the form of journals and books, legislation and now of course European Law and, where relevant, International Law. In a legal dissertation it is most likely that qualitative research will be conducted. There are ways to do quantitative research (eg survey of cases perhaps) but it is likely that most legal dissertations will be derived from either scholarly journals/books or statute.