As part of the Law degree at university, some schools may require law students to complete a supervised or completely independent research project in your final year, often termed a dissertation. This is to test your research, problem solving, critical thinking and analysis skills. This also further tests your soft skills such as your ability to prioritise, plan effectively and manage time whilst working on a time-taking project. I have created this five-part series as a guide to writing and presenting a very high-quality dissertation. Throughout this series, I intend to discuss various tips and strategies that worked for me whilst writing both my undergraduate and masters dissertation and getting a first. To this aim, I have classified all my strategies under four major headings: the planning stage, the research stage, the writing stage and the final stage. In this article, I discuss what a dissertation is, how it is structured and the process of choosing a topic.
As stated before, a dissertation is usually a research project, a topic either chosen by you or chosen from a range of topics, which usually lasts between 4 to 6 months, depending on the program (LLB or LLM). Depending on the institution, the length of a general dissertation or research project may vary between 5 000 words to 15 000 words. An undergraduate law dissertation usually varies between 10 000 to 12 000 words, while the masters dissertation ranges between 10 000 to 15 000 words. This expected length is enough evidence of the type of coverage you should be aiming for on your dissertation, as well as the nature of your dissertation’s content. If done properly, apart from attaining a first-class mark, the dissertation is an entire experience which allows you really delve into a law topic or area in more depth and analysis.
In my experience, this was perhaps the hardest and most exhausting part of my dissertation, especially from my undergraduate dissertation. There’s a wealth of areas of law that you would have studied right from your first year to the final year. For me, it was quite challenging trying to sift through all these areas, particularly the area I’d enjoyed and choosing a topic or even an idea that I’d wanted to build up from and actually write a dissertation on.
Choose an area of law that interests you. This is most likely something you’d hear quite a lot during the early stages of your dissertation or even before you dive into your first ‘dissertation’ lecture. It is very important to choose an area that you’re interested in or that you find very fascinating as this would determine the pace and effort you put into researching and writing. You do not want to find yourself stuck with a topic you have zero interest in as there may be no motivation to properly delve into the topic with as much depth as it requires. Doing this requires a lot of reading and researching. This could range from researching current legal news or developments, a new area of law or an area that is newly developing, or any changes or development to case law. I’d recommend creating a list of the areas of law you’d enjoyed throughout from your first to second year. Additionally, you could also just create a general list of areas of law you’re interested in, regardless of whether you’d studied it at university or not. From here, you can now write out topics you’ve covered that you find interesting or topics under these areas that you may consider writing your dissertation. This would give you an idea on the particular issue or problem you’d want to uncover within the topic you’ve chosen.
Research. One key tip whilst researching is opening up your mind and thinking outside the box. While thinking about my dissertation topic, I’d done a module in my second year called ‘Law and Society’, this introduced me to the idea of the liberal legal subject in Law. This was my starting point for my dissertation as I’d connected this with ‘reasonableness’ in law and drawn this to certain principles in jurisprudence. I’d also carried out research on this possible line of thought and realised it was possible to discuss the ‘loss of control defence’ from criminal law and ‘gender’ all under the heading of reasonableness (the short story of how I’d chosen my topic). My realisation here was that I was able to merge different areas of law whilst researching for my dissertation topic.
Ask Questions. Don’t be afraid to meet your tutor or lecturers and ask questions about the idea you have for your dissertation. Be intentional in who you approach and the manner you ask questions relating to your potential topics. Ask open questions that allow the person you’re asking form an opinion or to allow you see the approach with which they analyse and think about the question. No question is too ‘silly’ or ‘irrelevant’ as you never know, some of your dying questions may end up forming a part of your research objectives. And who knows, the professor you’ve met may end up becoming your supervisor!
Understand what is expected and required from you when writing a dissertation. This is also highly important when choosing a topic. This would allow you determine the approach you want to take with the various possible topic options. You can decide to discuss broadly on the area with a real-life situation as your case study. Alternatively, you could decide to use a piece of legislation or case law to draw out reasons and arguments why your chosen topic is relevant enough to be researched on. The approach you take is highly dependent on your level of understanding of the dissertation expectations and what you personally want to achieve. Think about who your audience is. Who are your target readers? What do you want them to take out of reading your dissertation?
In the next part of this series, I will discuss the ‘planning stage’, what to expect and know from this stage and my approach to this stage of my dissertation.
Article by Oluwabunmi Adaramola.