Stuart McRobbie is currently a Diploma student at the University of Dundee. He has accepted a traineeship with Stronachs LLP to commence in September 2016 and is set to become the first lawyer in his family.
Writing a dissertation as part of my LL.B was undoubtedly the most challenging thing that I have had to do at university, but it also turned out to be the most rewarding.
Like many, I was initially quite apprehensive about writing such an extensive piece having found 3,000 word assignments difficult enough. Universities recognise this and will provide students with detailed structural and formatting guidelines, as well as some high-level guidance with regards to being original and analytical. However, I found that there was a lack of practical advice from those who had been through the process and so I thought it would be good to share some wisdom from my own experience and that of others.
1. Choose a topic that inspires you
Students are likely to be given a list of potential questions to aid them in their search selection process. My advice would be to generally steer clear of these. It’s unlikely that you’ll feel truly inspired by a set question, however they can be useful as a basis for tailoring or simply generating ideas. From speaking to students that achieved the highest grades for their dissertations, it’s clear that they all had a genuine interest in what they were writing about. Creating a unique question encourages original analysis and is likely to be more interesting from a marker’s perspective.
2. Start your research early
The law library can become a bit like something out of Lord of the Flies as people turn their attention to reading everything that has ever been written about their chosen topic. Ordinary library rules of borrowing and returning may appear to go up in smoke and it can feel like every person for themselves. The earlier you start your research, the less likely it is you’ll encounter any problems. Whatever forms the basis of your research, ensure that you keep track of it. A great way to do this is by completing a bibliography as you go, rather than at the very end. There is nothing worse than forgetting in which case or by which judge you read a great dictum (hint: it was probably Lady Hale or Lord Denning!).
3. Make the most of your time
It is oft said that the human brain can only focus for 30-40 minutes at a time, however students are often guilty of ignoring this in favour of cramming for hours on end. This is likely to have a negative affect on the quality of your research and writing. I found that breaking my time up into 40-minute periods, with 20-minute breaks in between, increased my productivity. I also found that setting myself achievable daily targets made the task of writing an extended piece seem less daunting: 15,000 words to be completed in 3 months suddenly becomes just 170 words a day! Leave time for reviewing your finished dissertation and make sure you beat the queue at the local printing and binding business.
4. Get in the zone
It is vital that you create and work in an environment that is conducive to productivity and creative thought. That doesn’t mean installing soundproof walls and non-reflective surfaces à la Kanye West. Everyone is different but I found that sitting at a desk with just a pen and paper to jot down ideas, whilst Buddy Holly played in the background, was a great way to focus. Temporarily blocking certain websites might be a good idea, otherwise the temptation to binge-watch ‘Making A Murderer’ again will always be there!
5. Make the most of your supervisor
Supervisors are a great resource and can be a fantastic sounding board for ideas. Whilst there is only so much a supervisor can do, they may be able to point you in the right direction and they are likely to be au fait with the most appropriate resources and current trends in thinking. Supervisors are also likely to be incredibly busy with teaching commitments and so you need to establish when and how to approach them.
6. Think about the bigger picture
The law doesn’t operate in isolation. Many students make the mistake of simply writing about what the law was or what the law is without necessarily considering the wider social, political or economic consequences of the legislation or case law. Consider, for instance, section 172 of the Companies Act 2006 which requires directors to act in the best interests of a company’s shareholders. Such a rule doesn’t affect just shareholders; it also has wide-ranging consequences for the rest of society in terms of the payment of corporation tax, wealth and health inequality, the growth in atypical workers and access to justice. In order to establish these links, it was necessary for me to draw upon financial textbooks, reports from charities and studies conducted by economists – not just legal resources.
7. Know the law
This goes without saying, but one of the major problems that students come up against is the evolutionary nature of the law. You will begin researching months before the submission date and there are likely to be some changes in that time. It’s therefore essential that you read relevant publications, bulletins and updates on the area of law you are writing about. Reading blogs by law firms is often a good way to keep track of any changes. Every couple of weeks I would also check on Lexis that the cases I had referred to were still good authority for the points I wanted to make.
8. Challenge authority
Lord Reed recently gave a talk at the University of Dundee in which he encouraged solicitors and advocates to challenge authority. The same holds true for students in their writings. In analysing case law and legislation, it is important to understand the historical context within which those decisions were made. Society in 2016 is vastly different to society 50 years ago. Even just one or two years can see dramatic changes in social values, technology and the economy. An excellent way to gain an understanding of the context in which certain pieces of legislation were passed is to consider any discussion papers issued prior to an Act being passed and to review Hansard.
9. Talk about it
Becoming isolated from friends and family as you focus your full attention on your dissertation is not good for either the quality of your work or your general well being. A great bit of advice I was given was to pair up with another student to allow us to talk about our projects and bounce ideas of each other. Speaking with people who aren’t law students, be they students of other subjects or even just family, will allow you to tap into the life experience of others and gain an insight from a perspective you might not have considered. Always allow time to socialise: a game of pool, watching a game of football with friends or geein it laldy on the karaoke will clear your head and allow you to refresh.
10. Finally: keep a notepad under your pillow
And another one on your person at all times! Given the amount of focus and effort that you put into your dissertation, random moments of insight are likely to arise as you carry out daily tasks. I would sometimes find myself returning home from work with something that resembled a sleeve tattoo drawn by a toddler. Better to avoid hastily scribbling notes on your arm and carry a notepad! Now and again I would also be awoken from my sleep by an idea and would have to write it down. Admittedly I would often find that the notes I had scribbled in a semi-conscious state were either illegible or just completely bonkers, but my final dissertation contained at least 3 points that came to me in my sleep. Maybe I’m just a bit weird!