• Nick

Reflections on Writing a Legal Research Thesis

A clever legal argument may sneak up on you some day, and you may be fated to endure the delightful tedium of a research thesis.

To write a thesis, you have to like reading, and I don’t mean be capable of reading. The ideal candidate has to thrive on finding things to read, reading them, and then forming opinions about particular areas of law that hold a special place in your heart. Once you have chosen an area of law and seized upon a particular perspective, all those who disagree with you become your sworn enemies in this life and the next. If this sounds like your kind of work then all is well, but there are some things you should know about it…

Get ready to research

One of the best parts of a research thesis is the research. Unlike normal courses, the reading you do is dependent upon what you believe is relevant. Nonetheless, you will be stuck with an incredible amount of potential material, and it is vital to start the process by deciding what you will read. If you don't put hours into your research strategy, you will probably read things that don't have much to do with your argument. Actually, that will probably happen anyway, but sticking to a plan makes you feel better about it. At least you tried?

Also, because you find your little legal world of wonders so fascinating, you become vulnerable to the Wikipedia effect. I noticed this particular phenomenon when I started reading a particular article or book, and followed the ideas and footnotes into different materials, which then seduced me into reading into their footnotes as well. Three hours later, you are completely absorbed into the migration habits of whales, or another unrelated and absolutely fascinating subject. Keep an eye out for it – it’s just as unhelpful as procrastination.

Don’t fall into research insecurity

As a result of the incredible stress and huge volume of knowledge to absorb, you won't find all the useful materials on your first attempt. You will encounter most of the good stuff along the way, and this process only adds to the hideous mass of words, notes, and tears which accumulate on your desk. If you do this for long enough, you may begin to think that there isn't enough time to cover all the material needed to properly treat your subject.

Although questioning how much you know is pretty useful, there is a point where you have to stop reading and start writing. Your thesis feels like your firstborn, and you desire it to be perfect in every way. Learn to say "good enough" and your future (very stressed) self will thank you for it.

Write your idea in ten lines

There were two suggestions put to me in the course of my work, which I feel made the most difference to the end product. The first was to wake up earlier and drink less coffee, and that was really hard to do.

The second was much easier and more directly useful, and that was to write up the abstract before attempting anything else. If your argument takes more than ten lines to summarise, is there a realistic prospect of proving it within ten thousand words? More precisely, are you sure you know what you’re trying to prove?

Hound your lecturers!

At the beginning, things seem wonderful and full of promise for both you and your thesis supervisor. During the enticing honeymoon of geeky legal adventures which the research thesis ideally symbolises, it is super easy to organise a meeting, go over some books, and flesh out possible arguments. As the semester progresses, both you and your supervisor will become horribly, wretchedly, unimaginably busy. If you want their attention at the end of semester, you must plan ahead. You want to finish your drafts at least two to three weeks before the due date, so that you aren't putting your supervisor under undue pressure.

Do the footnotes along the way

I never do this, even on major projects like my thesis. Because I was too busy being clever, creative, and brilliant, I deigned to leave the referencing for the end. With an essay that's only three or five thousand words, that's easy. 150+ footnotes is a different matter entirely.

Learn to back off from a line of argument

It's not your fault that you can't cover all the possible arguments within the word limit. It's also not your fault that the cafes on campus refuse to sell you any more coffee. You only have so many words, only so much time, and not nearly enough scope to say everything that you want to say all at once. If you have to choose between two different and equally awesome lines of argument, you must be ruthless and mercenary about your decision.

Think about all the journal articles you have read – did the authors say everything about their subject, or did they clearly and powerfully demonstrate few important points? There are other essays, and perhaps your whole working life to show people exactly what you mean and what you have learned. As such, recognise the research thesis for what it is, and make it awesome.

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