Law Dissertation for Postgraduate Level

Actual Dissertation:

  1. How long should a law dissertation be: Regulations usually specify that this type of dissertation is 15 to 20,000 words long. This excludes footnotes and any bibliography. It should be typed in double-spacing and properly referenced.  
  2. The Dissertation’s Structure:

The following is the usual structure for a LLM Dissertation:

Cover or Title Page: This page should concisely describe the research topic or subject matter. The title could be made up of just one phrase, e.g., “Controlling Hazardous Works Undertaken by Overseas Enterprises in Developing Nations.” or it can contain a short and a long title such as, “Problems with Globalisation – Cases Involving Personal Injury Claims of a Transnational Nature Against Multinational Businesses”.

A dissertation’s abstract: This chapter is a brief summarization (usually a 200-word summing-up) describing the dissertation’s purpose, the primary hypothesis to be tested, the research methods and questions being used for this purpose, any empirical data found during research, and the writer’s key conclusions.

The paper’s contents list: This is a list that outlines the paper’s primary chapters along with the primary sub-sections.The list also shows the page numbers as well as lists of any figures, tables and, if applicable, any appendices.

The dissertation’s main chapters: You may structure your dissertation in any way that clearly presents the paper’s subject matter. You might want to ask your course supervisor for advice on this matter. In any case, your paper should adhere to the principles applicable to good organization and strucrure, e.g., along the following lines:

  • The introductory section should:
    • Say what issues the dissertation will address – this includes any theories or hypotheses being tested
    • Describe the research problem or question covered in your paper and as part of you hypothesis testing.
    • Provide a review of available literature to show you have read all topic-related materials.
    • State how your research will contribute to the subject or field you are investigating.
  • Historical or background information. As well as an introduction, it may be necessary to provide a more detailed explaination about the contextual nature of your work. You may, for instance, want to sum-up the main futures of a political or institutional regime related to your topic. Therefore, if your dissertation relates to, for example, the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) rules on dumping, it may be appropriate to briefly describe these rules before discussing the particular controversy or case study that your work is focused on.
  • Substantive matters or issues: Discussing the different substantive matters you are exploring in your work is the next stage of organization. This discussion can comprise of a number of relatively discrete sections or it may be part of a greater whole. How many of these chapters you include are of little importance, but it is essential they are divided in a clear, coherent and logical manner. Additionally, you need to make sure that chapters flow from one to another in a way that shows continuity. This can be achieved by a) providing a few introductory sentences in every chapter explaining what you intend to demonstrate in that paragraph or chapter and b) summing-up your findings at the close of every chapter, offering conclusions on these, and linking each chapter to the next to show how chapters relate to each other. Bear in mind that you are essentially relating a story, telling readers about your topic, and so your narrative must be intelligible and logical just as would happen in any story. Moreover, you should keep subheadings to three levels – no more – since too many can confuse readers. 
  • Summing-up and writing a concluding chapter: The last part of a dissertation involves bringing all key findings and conclusions from previous chapters together into a cohesive final chapter that relates these to the broader issues covered by your work. Essentially, this chapter is the “contribution” your dissertation makes to existing knowledge in a given field. The two most important things to take account of here are:
  1. Substantive matters
  2. Summarization and research conclusions
  • At this level i.e. at LLM, it is not expected that a new and original contribution is made to existing knowledge as would be the case with, say, a PhD, even though a good dissertation is likely to do this in any event. Insead, what is expected is a well-written and well-organized critical examination of ideas that already exist in your subject area. This shows your mastery of your subject (i.e. it is why “Master’s” degrees are awarded) to the expert level of someone who is professional in their field. This implies your concluding chapter should show your ability to critically comment on existing knowledge in your area of specialization as evidenced in any primary source and any secondary source materials you studied while researching the topic for this dissertation.
  • When it comes to “summaries” and “dissertation conclusions,” a lot of students are prone to summarizing too much and not concluding enough! It is necessary to properly balance these two parts in the concluding section of your dissertation.
  • Appendix or Appendices: These are not needed in every case, but they may be needed if you have important material that you cannot easily include within the main body of your paper. For example, you may have extracts from important research documents, statistical data, or interview details that your readers may not otherwise be able to easily obtain.  
  • Reference List or Bibliography: You should record any source materials you used in a reference list or bibliography. Entries should include all primary sources, e.g., statutes, legal cases, political debates, official correspondence/reports, and so on, as well as any secondary source materials such as articles, books, and the like. Every source should be properly listed according to the KLS Style Guide i.e. the style manual for Postgraduate Theses and Dissertations.  

Basic Requirements for Research

Planning Your Dissertation and Organising It:

Below are the key steps involved in the planning and organization of a dissertation:

  1. Familiarize yourself with your local or college library and various databases you can access online. This is something you should do at the beginning of your course!
  2. Your topic will need to be defined, a process that is quite difficult. It is essential you choose a topic that is a) sufficiently interesting and important for you to research it, b) capable of being completed within the time allowed (usually an eight-month period i.e. February until Septmber), and c) capable of being completed with the available resources. What this means is not just that the library and/or online database(s) you use can provide supporting material on your topic but also if any additional materials are needed and if you can locate these in the allocated time.
  3. Your research will need to be designed: Once you have initially read some related materials, it is likely you will be able to develop a title for your work – a working or temporary title. The next step is creating an outline with the main headings, which should represent the key research problems or questions you intend to address. This stage requires focusing your work along the following lines:
  • You should begin by developing a hypothesis that you can test. This is, essentially, a well-considered statement setting out variables for testing. A hypothesis is different from a general statement about a particular problem. For instance:
    • Statement 1: “Are people from ethnic groups the subject of discrimination when candidates are being slected for English-speaking college courses and, if so, to what extent?”
    • Statement 2: “It is likely that people from ethnic groups will find they are discriminated against when candidates are being selected for English-speaking college courses.” It is possible to test this hypothesis by developing a specific set of research-related questions and by answering these. In essence, the questions will provide a thoroughly researched answer to the initial problem statement.
    • Develop a set of relevant and appropriate questions related to your research topic. The questions you formulate should help you answer the precise issues raised by your hypothesis or problem statement. The most noteworth points about a research question are that it should be:
      • a) Capable of being undertaken (e.g., what data do you have about the criteria for gaining entry to English-speaking colleges? Should you focus your research on a specific college or on a sample that represents all colleges?
      • b) Comparative over a time period, between different groups, and so on (in the example provided here you could obviously compare people from different ethnic groups with each other (or from one specific group) or compare candidates from ethnic groups with native American applicants.
      • c) Indicate the field or area of study (in the provided example, you should define what an “ethnic group” is according to any available literature and your evaluation of this. Likewise, you will need to define what “discrimination” means in this particular context. What ethnic groups does the discrimination affect? What ethnic groups will you cover in your study?
      • d) Say how your work contributes to existing work in this field i.e. how does the empirical research work you are doing on potential discrimination in the admissions process fit with wider-ranging debates on discrimination in professional fields?
      • What order should you apply to your work? This type of work does not have a definite order that you must follow. You can develop a set of specific questions for your research work either before or even after you have formulated the hypothesis you intend to test. What is important is that you develop a clear design for your research work i.e. a design that allows you to clearly understand the problem you intend to research, that you have developed a hypothesis you can test, and that you have formulated all the questions that need to be answered so that you can comment upon and discuss your hypothesis.
      • Is it important for you to prove or to disprove your hypothesis? The answer to this is no. Valid research can demonstrate a hypothesis to be either correct or incorrect. The crucial thing is what the results of your research indicate about the particular issues or questions you are investigating and, additionally, about the broader field these relate to.
      • Prepare a plan for your work. There are several forms this can take. The recommended plans in this guide are aimed at PhD candidates, but you might want to create your own plan – along the same lines - to suit the eight months you spend researching. It is important to remember your plan is likely to need revising as your work progresses. Sometimes, it will not be possible to meet every single target you intended at the outset. Likewise, you should not view your plan as a completed work and wait until the eleventh hour. You need to work in a steady manner for the duration of the eight-month period. Moreover, keep in mind the supervision routine as set out in the KLS Student Guide, e.g.:
        • Topics are usually chosen in conjunction with one’s course supervisor.
        • Meetings should take place between a student and their supervisor at mutualy agreeable times throughout the eight months.
        • The first completed draft of your dissertation - typed with footnotes and a bibliography - should be shown to your supervisor in early September. This first draft will be the subject of comments and discussion at the last meeting with your supervisor at the end of September.   
        • Your final draft – including revisions - should be ready to submit by the final deadline in September.

Actual Research

Below are the activities involved in researching a topic for complete a dissertation:

  • The Topic or Literature Review:

Recommended reading: Check out “Undertaking a Topic Review” by Stephen Potter (Ed) ch.5.

As a matter of necessity, you should put your dissertation research in its proper context, e.g., a) within the broader literature on the same subject – any background or related theory covered on your program or course, b) any particular literature that addresses your topic. (Recommended reading: “How to Get a PhD” written by Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh (Pub. Open University Press ch. 6). Although it refers to PhD studies, this particular chapter should be useful to any postgraduate student writing a dissertation.

It is obvious that it is not possible to read absolutely everything about your topic. This is too much for even a PhD candidate or other leading experts in any field!   

Therefore, you should focus on reading all the main primary sources and any academic work that is relevant to your topic. Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with any notable controversies that pertain to your subjet area, especially where these may affect how your thesis develops.

The primary purpose of a literature review is to equip you with the knowledge you need in your field so that you can produce a critical and important text. Undoubtely, it may be that you require a little guidance beyond what your supervisor gives you to read. However, it is also important to remember that it is not that person’s job to do your research. You will need to find your own literature and do an initial review of this. Additionally, it is essential you do not write an overly-simple summary of the material you read. Instead, you should provide an analytical, critical, and properly-structured evaluation of all relevant legal source materials and existing literature.

  • Collecting Data and Analysing It:

This stage involves gathering any primary and any secondary source materials that deal with the specific focus of your particular dissertation, rather than on any focal or background theory. Therefore, you need to find and analyze all statutes, cases and any other primary sources materials that relate to your topic. Similarly, you need to find any scholarly articles and/or books that can yield any important information.    

Essentially, analysis involves relating a case study with any background or focal theory you found while you were reviewing available literature.

  • Writing Your Paper:

Recommended reading: “The Writing Process” by Andrw Ward in Potter ch.4.

You should be continuously writing all the while you are working on your dissertation project. It is important you keep writing drafts of the various chapters and making notes while reading. The really intense writing, however, comes when you are producing your first final draft for the last supervision meeting with your supervisor.

You should use a word processing system so that you can type your paper as you go along. These days, hand-written texts are not acceptable.

Ward has a lot of practical and useful advice to offer, especially on the mechanical aspects of writing and, especially, about “writer’s block” and how to overcome this.