Writing a Postgraduate Dissertation in Law at Masters Level.

This page is intended to offer guidance to law students about to write a postgraduate dissertation on a taught Masters programme. This complements the page on writing law essays but is intended more for postgraduate law students on  a Masters programme  who are writing a substantial 10-20,000 word dissertation. As well as the page on law essays you may well find the Further Reading page useful.

  • As ever, bear in mind your supervisor, school and university will all have their own requirements and you should heed these.

I am grateful to colleagues and students at the University of Lancaster, Queen’s University of Belfast and Ulster  University for their advice on these issues over the years.


Introduction: Thinking, Research, Writing

When approaching your project, remember that there are three core elements to any project: thinking, research and writing.

These elements are not separate, but each element influences the others. Thus your thinking should inform both your research and your writing, but similarly your research will stimulate your thinking and assist your writing. Your writing will also help develop your research and your thinking. So all the elements are mutually reinforcing.

Nevertheless, we will stress the thinking element as this tends to be ‘invisible’ and is thus forgotten about. Understandably a student will want to feel that he or she is doing something; writing a few hundred words, reading a paper (or even downloading it) all feel like work. In that context it is easy to forget that thinking is essential for a dissertation (or indeed any) project. Of course thinking great thoughts is not sufficient either! The great thoughts must be based on information and knowledge (research) and must be reduced to written form.

Before getting down to these requirements, let me stress two points.

The dissertation is the culmination of your degree. It is premised on the idea that you have been participating in seminars, reading for your courses, discussing law with your colleagues and tutors. All of these experiences provide the environment in which you develop your skills. The readings, seminar questions and discussions have been designed to prepare you to write an independent piece of research. If you have a doubt or a query in the dissertation process try and reflect on what you have learned from the experience so far.

Second, enjoy your dissertation: this is a project based on something you have chosen presumably because you are interested in it, and it is a project where you get to design your own research approach. It is very much about you and your interests, so enjoy.



The dissertation or research project needs to show that the author has thought deeply and thoroughly about the project. This is manifested in a number of ways. Has the student chosen an appropriate topic? Does the student have a clear purpose? Does the student demonstrate critical thinking? Has the student thought through his or her approach? Has the student planned appropriately?


Choosing a topic

You may find it helpful to choose a topic in which you have an interest, or some experience; or where you have studied some aspect of it in a module. You may have the possibility to choose a topic which has no connection to a module you have chosen. Whatever topic you choose remember that you will have to devote several hundred hours to it, so it should be one which will sustain your interest.

If choosing a topic about which you are passionate, do stop to consider whether you might not be too passionate or involved in the topic: you must still be able to exercise critical judgement and if you are too close to the topic this may be difficult.

When choosing a topic be aware that some topics are very popular. This does not mean that you should not do them, but you should consider how you can bring a fresh perspective. You could for instance take a more socio-legal perspective or take a different theoretical approach.




A dissertation, even more than an essay, is not simply a long document about a topic. It is important to realise that a dissertation does not just describe, or examine, or analyse, or study a particular area of law. A dissertation must have a purpose to it; there must be a point to the dissertation. This is sometimes expressed in different ways.

The most common way of expressing this requirement is to say that a dissertation must have a research question.  Or there may be a requirement that a dissertation have a central thesis. Or that it have a central argument, though it is important to note here that argument has a technical meaning. ‘Argument’ here means that it is reasoned answer to a question. The following are not arguments: background, introductions, quotes, descriptions, summaries, explanations, examples, questions, rhetorical questions, statements of opinion/ agreement / disagreement (Cottrell 2005 Ch. 4)

You should reflect on what your purpose, or research question, or argument is. You should try and make this explicit, both to yourself and to your reader. Making this purpose explicit to yourself will assist you in choosing research approaches and methods, in how you read, and in structuring your dissertation. Making it explicit to your reader will help the reader understand your dissertation. Furthermore the assessment of your dissertation will largely turn on how successfully you answer your research question, on how convincingly you develop your thesis or argument. If your purpose is unclear to yourself or your reader, then it is likely that the dissertation will be confused.

The language of ‘research question’ or ‘thesis’ highlights an important point. Your dissertation must be based on an open-minded approach, one that makes judgements based on evidence, even if the author does not instinctively like the conclusion. This requirement is also implicit though in the academic understanding of what an argument is. All of this goes to critical thinking that we will discuss soon. The term ‘argument’ does highlight other important aspects of the dissertation exercise: your dissertation must come to a conclusion (based on evidence) and this conclusion may involve taking sides.

Thus essays which start off with ‘I will examine what the Court has said on issue X, explore the advantages and disadvantages of the Court’s approach and then come to a conclusion’ will rarely get high marks – they tend to become descriptive and lack a clear point. Presumably the hypothetical author intends to be open-minded and balanced; this is good but you write the essay after having done the open-minded and balanced research. You should be able to give some clearer indication of your conclusion.

Try and make your purpose / research question / argument as precise as possible. In particular avoid very general or vague statements of your purpose. Your purpose should not simply be to ‘describe the law pertaining to the use of force’ or to  ‘examine the law relating to privacy’. Rather your question might be ‘has the Iraq invasion established a new rule on the use of force in international law?’ or ‘how can the law effectively protect privacy in the Twitter age?’ (For more on trying to make your question precise, see Finch and Fafinski, Ch 13).


Critical Thinking

In your reading, your writing and of course your thinking, you must demonstrate critical thinking. Critical thinking is one of the most important, if not the most important, skill you should develop at University. See the Further Reading page for more reading on critical thinking.

Critical here does not mean ‘negative’ much less ‘nihilistic’. Be a ‘critic, not a cynic’ (Paul and Elder 2001: 381). Critical here means that one exercises independent powers of judgement; that one has the courage to think for oneself (Kant, What is Enlightenment?). Borrowing again from Kant, we might say that critical thinking requires an ever unquiet or restless reason; that is to say a questioning attitude. Critical thinking is all about asking the right questions (Browne and Keeley 2007; see also this poster). We often say we are looking for ‘deep’ thinking rather than ‘surface’ thinking, i.e. show that you are engaging with the material, questioning it.

These questions may go to understanding what someone is saying (what is the author’s purpose here? Can I restate it in my own words?), but should also involve substantive points: what is the evidence for a position? Are the reasons for this position convincing? Is there other evidence that needs to be considered? Question whether the evidence and reasons are accurate, consistent, relevant, convincing? Is there a better interpretation of the evidence? Are there implicit assumptions and if so are these justifiable? Do not take anyone’s views – treatise writer, judge, tutor – for granted. Demand evidence and reasons for any position.

Read court cases carefully – make sure to read minority or dissenting opinions as these often give great insight into alternatives to the majority approach. When discussing court cases with more than one judge, consider the status of each judge (is the judge giving an individual opinion, a dissenting opinion, an opinion in which other judges concur?). Be careful relying on the first speech – it may be a dissent or partial dissent (e.g. Lord Bingham in Al Skeini). Remember that judges frequently summarise others’ views, eg counsel before them; judges in previous cases; other judges in the same case. Do not assume that everything a judge says is his or her own view.

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: a view from Jennings in 1954 may not be accurate when describing the situation in the 21st Century. It is better to make your own mistakes trying to use your own understanding rather than repeating others’ mistakes!

Critical thinking also requires that you think from the viewpoint of others (Paul and Elder 2006 refer to this as ‘wide’ thinking).  If you are writing a dissertation about the Iraq invasion and want to argue that it was illegal, think carefully about how the matter would appear to someone who did not agree with you  (an advisor to the UK Government, an academic who has defended the invasion, a member of the Iraqi opposition). 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.   Avoid ‘wishful thinking’ (Grünfeld et al 2010 suggest human rights scholars are prone to this). Do not attack ‘straw men’ i.e. anonymous unidentifiable people with whom you disagree.

Show awareness of nuance and complexity; avoid broad statements about e.g. broad statements about a specific culture or religion’s respect for human rights. Be careful about reductionist arguments or ‘either-or’ (black/white or Manichean) thinking. At the same time do not use complexity or nuance to hide behind: you need to give a clear precise answer to the question (even if it is a complicated answer).

Be wary of terms that are question-begging or loaded (‘undoubtedly’ ‘obviously’ ‘it is clear that’, ‘that view is absurd!’), that encourage complicity (‘we all know’, ‘no sane person would’), appeal to fashion (‘it is no longer the 1950s!’), or that are vague or vacuous (‘quite’ ‘very’ ‘fairly’). Do not shy away from strongly worded conclusions if these are justified (the stronger the conclusion the greater the justification required).

Whilst at the upper levels of the marking scale, we speak of ‘originality’ this is a very high standard, more commonly associated with PhDs. We are really looking for a distinctive approach, that you are speaking in a distinctive voice (your own!), maybe looking at a fairly small area that has not been well covered before, and showing a sense of judgment.

You should think carefully about anything you read or write. Is it clear, accurate and precise (Paul and Edler 54, 128)?

You need to avoid broad statements or generalizations that may oversimplify matters:

  • Human Rights Law. ‘The ECHR protects only civil and political rights’ is so broad and simplistic as to be wrong. Better: ‘The ECHR explicitly recognises mainly civil and political rights, but also includes the prohibition of forced labour, the right to respect for family life, the right to form trade unions, the right to marry, the right to property and the right to education’.
  • Constitutional law. ‘Conventions are unwritten practices which evolve over time’ is again too broad and simplistic. Some conventions can be written down (ministerial code) and some can be created at a specific moment in time (eg Sewell, Salisbury).

Some statements may be an unfortunate slip of the typing key: ‘other international treaties such as the UDHR’ is misleading and wrong. Similarly if you write that the ECtHR banned the Turkish Welfare Party in the Refah Paritisi case you are wrong (the Turkish constitutional court banned it; the ECtHR held that the ban was compatible with Turkey’s obligations under the ECHR). Similarly ‘the PSNI was required to be 50:50 Catholic: Protestant’ is wrong; what should be said is that ‘there was temporary quota requirement that 50% of PSNI recruits be Catholic’. Again, ‘Article 3 of the European Convention protects the right to vote’ is wrong: ‘Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention protects the right to vote’ is okay.

Try to include specifics rather than generalities. For instance, do not say ‘Few countries have ratified Protocol 12’ but rather ‘As of 21 October 2009 only 17 countries of 47 COE member states have ratified Protocol 12’.

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.e. demonstrating knowledge)– we are really looking to see more than knowledge –  understanding,  application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation (see Bloom’s Taxonomy, discussed in Finch and Fafinski; for a poster, click here).




This is probably the aspect of dissertation writing that tends to intimidate students, especially when framed in terms of ‘methodology’, ‘theory’ or ‘framework’. See Cryer et al for discussion of these different ways of describing what they call methodology (Cryer et al 2011: 5).

Law students and indeed academics sometimes react to questions about methodology by saying that this is what other disciplines do, that lawyers just ‘read cases and books and then come to conclusions’, or even that they use a ‘legal’ methodology.

It follows though from what we have said about critical thinking that we can and must say more than this. To say that one has a ‘legal’ methodology implies that the lawyers, judges, academics and philosophers who have contributed to the millennia old debates about law were mistaken in thinking that there was any controversy.

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 2010). 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. Or you could take an approach which is more explicitly critical of the law; eg you might want to take a feminist or Derridean or queer  theory approach or a comparative approach.

Comparative pieces can be tricky. Think about why you are comparing – is it to find a ‘better solution’, is it to understand something about the nature of law, is it to understand something about different legal cultures? Be cautious about ‘better solution’ comparative law – it is not necessarily easy to transplant legal rules or institutions from one jurisdiction to another.

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.

For more on these different approaches see Salter and Mason 2007; Cryer et al 2011.



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.  You can’t  just sit down and write 10-20,000 words but you can sit down and identify what you need to read, locate it, read it, write notes, do a chapter outline, write  first draft of a chapter section, check your references, write a first draft of the next three sections, etc.

Meet with your supervisor early in the project. You should have some idea as to what you want to talk about  -and ideally some sort of dissertation outline (see Finch and Fafinski Ch 13) – before you approach your supervisor, but do not leave it too late. You will need to factor your supervisor’s schedule into your own, especially if your dissertation needs to be completed over the summer.

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.



Any research project has ethical dimensions.

The responsibility to give credit for others’ work is an ethical requirement. 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: eg is there a difference in how men and women experience the phenomena being examined? 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.)

Check your institution’s ethics policy.



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.


Wide-ranging research

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.e. don’t just refer to Steiner et al text book on human rights; examine the primary sources and secondary sources;  do not just refer to books – show you have researched the journal articles as well).

For legal research you should consider the full range of primary legal sources (statutes, cases, treaties, EU law, etc) and also other material like ‘soft law’ documents (eg international declarations, etc). 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.


Thorough and up to date

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.

To ensure your work is thorough and up to date, use several strategies.

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: do not just rely on one research technique. 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 writing about the ECtHR then you will need to spend  time working with the HUDOC database for example. 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: if you are reading the material carefully this will hopefully mean you pick up on what others think is important.


Well judged and appropriate

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.  Thus if you want to make a criticism of (say) John Rawls, you need to consider whether you are relying on an introductory textbook, or an article critiquing Rawls, or whether you have read Rawls’ own words to form your judgement.

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: generally if a higher court says something that is new and changes the understanding of the law that is very important. Accordingly you may well be especially interested in judgements from the ECtHR Grand Chamber or the highest courts such as the UK Supreme Court or (eg) the Constitutional Court of a country.

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.

Be clear about which jurisdiction  / area you are writing about. If you are writing about the ICCPR then be careful about citing US cases or ECHR cases. If you are writing about US policy in Guantanamo, you should not talk about violations of the ECHR (the USA is not a party to the ECHR).

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.


Note taking and referencing while reading

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. First, you will have to manage a large amount of material  – a system of post its, scribbled pages and random emails won’t enable you to do this. 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. None of them are ideal for legal sources or OSCOLA referencing though. 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. When making notes, ensure that, if you write down a direct quote, then it will be obvious to you in 3 or 6 months time  that it is a direct quote.

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.  papers.  There are no good writers, only good rewriters according to Tredinnick (2008: 10).



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: avoid unnecessary words or phrases. Consider carefully whether every chapter, section, paragraph, sentence and word is necessary to convey your meaning. If not then delete it. Consider:  is ‘the ECHR does explicitly recognise’ any different from ‘the ECHR explicitly recognises.’

Avoid wordiness, verbiage, trying to look too smart. I have occasionally read essays in which in the course of a paragraph, a judge ‘opines’, ‘pronounces’, ‘declares’ – sometimes judges might just ‘say’ something.

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.

Abbreviations/acronyms. Write these out in full the first time and put the abbreviation/acronym in brackets afterwards. Later you can just use the acronym/abbreviation. Avoid inventing unusual abbreviations of your own that defy accepted conventions (e.g. by convention we do not abbreviate ‘Lord’ to ‘L’ when discussing the Law Lords.)

Footnote references: 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.

‘Ibid’ refers to the immediately preceding footnote reference.

When proofreading, you may want to proofread in stages (Goldstein and Lieberman 2002), 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.

You may also find it useful to swap your dissertation with a colleague’s and to red-pen each other’s work. 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. So if you have spent 100 hours in front of the computer screen now may be a good time to print a hard copy and read through it – take it to a park or a café and sit down and just read it.

Avoid the passive voice. Indicate the subject of your sentence-  this is usually clearer, more specific and more forceful. Compare  ‘Not every payment made by the state to an individual will be regarded as a social security matter in the Strasbourg Court’. ‘The ECtHR does not regard every payment made by the State to an individual as a social security matter’.



Consider your structure carefully. Your purpose (/research question/ argument) will likely determine your structure.

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: devote extra attention to your introduction and your conclusion. As these create the first and the last impressions on the reader it is important that they be well crafted. A strong (or weak) conclusion can determine the result of what has hitherto been a borderline dissertation.

Your introduction should entice the reader if possible, but should more prosaically give some background, provide a road map of the dissertation, and indicate the purpose of the thesis. It is often useful to indicate what your argument or conclusion will be in the introduction.

It is sometimes difficult to write a conclusion; especially if you have concluded your argument or answered your research question in the last substantive chapter before the conclusion. The best advice I have seen here is that the conclusion should ‘thoughtfully’ bring the dissertation to an end.

Check that your thesis reflects your title and vice versa.

As with all the guidance here, check your university documentation to see if there is specific guidance as to expectations. This may detail matters like placement and format of title page, anti-plagiarism declaration, abstract, acknowledgements, table of contents, content of thesis, bibliography, appendices, etc.



When reading material always keep a note of the proper citation of what you are reading. Make sure you include pinpoint page or paragraph numbers. Make sure that if you write down direct quotes in your notes that you use quote marks (or later you might forget the words are someone else’s and inadvertently commit plagiarism).

There are many different citation styles which differ according to discipline, country, even journal! Use a recognised citation style and use it consistently. Make sure to use a consistent citation system.

Do not try to invent your own citation system. If directed to use a specific style (eg OSCOLA, Harvard) use it correctly.

There is no official citation system for legal sources, but the OSCOLA systems is increasingly used: http://www.law.ox.ac.uk/publications/oscola.php There is a great one page summary which you should keep to hand when writing. There is also an excellent tutorial at https://ilrb.cf.ac.uk/citingreferences/oscola/tutorial/index.html

It is important that you cite any source you use. Do not say ‘Someone says’, ‘academics think’ ‘It is thought’, etc. Say (eg) ‘Chalmers and Anderson argue that …(fnref)’.

Citations must be full and they must be precise.

By full that means the reader needs to know:

Book: author, title, year of publication and the publisher

Article: author, title, year of publication, name of journal, volume of journal, page reference within journal

Case: name, Neutral Citation, year, volume, law report, page within the report.

By precise I mean that if you refer to a source in your text, give the exact page or paragraph where the author or judge or whatever says what you claim s/he says. (Always think of the reader – is it possible for the reader to doubt this claim? Then give him/her the precise page or paragraph where he/she can find support for the claim.)  This is called pinpoint referencing.

Where someone does not provide a full or precise citation, the marker may assume that s/he has not really read that source, but is just taking it from somewhere else.

Be careful when cross-referencing in footnotes – it is easy to make mistakes. It is probably better not to cross reference but to give the full reference in the first footnote and then a short reference in subsequent ones. If you do cross reference make sure this is the last thing you do and do not change any footnotes afterwards!



You will usually be expected to include a bibliography. Again each institution may have its own version of how this should be presented. A few matters to bear in mind:

Any bibliography should distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

As there are many different types of primary source you will probably need to distinguish between eg ‘UK case law’, ‘Case law of the CJEU’ ‘Acts of the UK Parliament’ etc.

Make sure you use the citation system precisely and consistently.

Some markers will have a strong preference that a bibliography should only include material you have actually referenced in your work. (However this may differ depending on the academic culture or discipline, where you may be expected to have a comprehensive bibliography)




Different universities will define plagiarism slightly differently. In some instances the difference between plagiarism and bad academic practice is unclear.  However you should strive to avoid all bad academic practice anyway!

Remember plagiarism (or bad academic practice) can include more than just passing off someone else’s words as your own. It can include any instance where you do not give credit to someone else for their information, ideas and words. This can include failing to give credit to other students or indeed to yourself if you rely on work previously submitted. It can include paraphrasing others if you do not give an appropriate reference, and it can include lifting footnotes from other sources.  It may happen inadvertently.

Plagiarism may also consist of using another student’s work, using your own work or even purchasing a paper from elsewhere.

There are useful on-line tutorials on plagiarism for students. See, for example:  http://library.acadiau.ca/tutorials/plagiarism/.

The key to avoiding plagiarism or bad academic practice is to get into good habits when it comes to note taking and referencing. Avoid the temptation to paraphrase material (changing the words only slightly). Be very careful when ‘summarising’ what others have said. Is what you have written recognisably yours, or someone else’s?

The penalties for plagiarism can be severe and may seriously hurt your professional career.


Finally, good luck and enjoy!




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COTTRELL, S. 2005. Critical Thinking Skills: Developing Effective Analysis and Argument, New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

CRYER, R., HERVEY, T., SOKHI-BULLEY, B. & BOHM, A. 2011. Research Methodologies in EU and International Law, Oxford, Hart.

FINCH, E. & FAFINSKI, S. 2009. Legal Skills, Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

GOLDSTEIN, T. & LIEBERMAN, J. K. 2002. The Lawyer’s Guide to Writing Well, Berkeley, University of California Press.

GRÜNFELD, F., KAMMINGA, M. T. & COOMANS, F. 2010. Methods of Human Rights Research: A Primer. Human rights quarterly, 32, 179-186.

KANT, I. 1991 [1784]. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? . In: REISS (ed.) Kant: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

PAUL, R. & ELDER, L. 2006. Critical thinking : tools for taking charge of your learning and your life, Upper Saddle River, NJ, Pearson/Prentice Hall.

SALTER, M. & MASON, J. 2007. Writing Law Dissertations: an Introduction and Guide to the Conduct of Legal Research, Harlow, England ; New York, Pearson/Longman.

TREDINNICK, M. 2008. Writing Well: the Essential Guide, Cambridge ; New York, Cambridge University Press.

TWINING, W. L. & MIERS, D. 2010. How to do Things with Rules: a Primer with Interpretation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


See also https://conlawfiles.org/furtherreadingskills/


Usage: © Rory O’Connell, 2014. Please feel free to link to this page or make use of it for teaching purposes provided the source is acknowledged.