How to get Honours in Law
This is an article for all you later-year students currently trying to work out the mysterious world of the law school honours system. But that’s not all it is. It is also a plea to earlier-year students to think about getting organised. Here are the ins and outs of getting that little (Hons) next to your LLB…
Without sounding like a member of the crack Honours Recruitment Squad, undertaking an honours thesis is a great way to knock off a couple of law units, to pursue an interest in a particular field or area of law, to work closely with a an academic, to develop your research skills and hopefully to produce a piece of work at the end that you are proud of. And hey, it might even get you published.
It gives you something you can show to potential employers or include in applications for postgraduate study. It also sets you just that little bit apart from the rest of your LLB cohort, which can only be a good thing, right?
What It’ll Get You
Some cynics may say ‘not a lot’ or ‘four little letters’? However, this is not entirely true. Apart from a warm fuzzy feeling and new knowledge, honours in law also has some tangible, practical benefits, especially if you’re thinking of completing a Masters. Honours is almost always a necessary requirement for entrance into Masters programs the world over, especially in the UK (Oxford and Cambridge usually require a first-class, and many others a high-second) and usually in the US.
The Honours Scale
A.k.a. ‘the great confidence crusher’. Well, not for everyone, but perhaps for some. This is more directed at the many of us who have trundled along through law school, going from subject to subject, relatively happy with the number of credits on our transcripts and most probably only slightly guilty about a couple of grades that don’t look so good.
Don’t panic, but the honours grading system works a little bit differently to that of your run-of-the-mill law subjects. But surely a P is a P and a D is a D right? Wrong.
Forget about the nice neat 10-point grade bands that have so far defined your degree. When you look at how your honours mark is going to be assessed, it becomes increasingly obvious that there is a difference between a 52 and a 53, and between that 79 and a possible 80.
I’m talking about your GPA or WAM. It depends on the uni, but typically your GPA or WAM will need to be at a certain level for you to be able to submit that all-important honours thesis proposal.
Things to Avoid
Not everyone needs to worry about their grades not making the cut for completing honours, or whether they’re going to scrape a 1st or 2nd at the end of it. However, for those who may be a little concerned and still have a few subjects left to complete, there are a few things to avoid that can help make you look tastier in the eyes of the honours scale.
Avoid law exchange like the plague. I was lucky enough to do a semester exchange in my third year and completed four law subjects. At the time I thought it was wonderful – who wouldn’t want to do fewer law subjects at home and make life a little easier on returning? Well, the problem is, as interesting and excellently run as they were, I can’t count those courses on my transcript as anything but course credits. Which is a shame really because that means that four of my best marks are excluded and four other law courses need to take up the slack when it comes to determining my final mark. The way I figure it, if you’re contemplating honours, you should definitely do an exchange – take that time away and enjoy it – but maybe do it in the other side of your degree. (Economics and Arts exchanges are excellent too!)
Timing your run too late
It’s easy to forget (when you’re bragging about scraping a credit in that second year course where you didn’t attend lectures and only opened your textbook at 10 the night before the exam, in a bar) that every mark (except your very worse few) counts. This means that a lot of people realise that they want to take honours near the end of their degree might not have time for a glorious, blazing run of academic achievement to hoist their marks up.
Finding a Supervisor
If you want to write a thesis, you need a supervisor. Start searching early. Some members of staff will have filled up all their honours supervision spots a year or more in advance. So, I repeat: start searching early. Start thinking about possible topics as soon as you can – it helps if you’ve done enough electives to know where your interests lie and which staff members you might want to headhunt for supervisors (see above about not doing law exchange).
Start talking to them early and express your interest. But remember, staff members won’t help you choose a topic and can’t accept students unless they have already fleshed out a reasonably refined proposal.
And there you have it. Hopefully the above will help you in your honours trek and make your journey just that little bit simpler. So, good luck, and go forth and put your newfound sense of honours to good use!
This is an adaptation of an article that previously appeared in Peppercorn, a publication of ANU Law Students’ Society. Reprinted with the permission of ANU LSS.
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