Writing a law dissertation literature review

Legal academic dissertations at all levels now typically incorporate some type of 'literature review'. Generally this is incorporated in an early section in your dissertation.

The following is a guide to help you through the mind field of your literature review. It is by its very nature general in its advise and you must always check the specific requirements of your own institution to maximise your chances of success.

The most effective literature review will be a critical review of the work of established researchers. This is something which a student new to research in the subject area may struggle with, feeling that they are not in the position to criticise the work of experienced researchers. It should be remembered that a critical review is not restricted to a criticism of the work of established researchers but also represents an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are capable of thinking critically and with insight as to the issues raised by previous research. Conversely, if the area of law in question has evolved or significantly changed in light of a recent decision, do not be afraid to claim that the research has been superseded or indeed is no longer 'good' law.

A literature review can serve a number of purposes including: indicating the current level of thinking on the topic or indicating gaps within current knowledge; to provide background information to provide an overview of the topic to the non-specialist reader and to show your own grasp of the topic. Your aim should be to correctly balance the use of quotation from the work of others with a critical review and evaluation of your own. It is far too easy to liberally sprinkle references about with little or no consideration as to how these fit in to topic under consideration.

You should only include in your formal literature review those research projects which are closely related to your chosen topic. It should not be used to document all that you have read on that topic. If in doubt, concentrate on the most recent papers although you should aim to include key studies which have been widely cited elsewhere regardless of how old they may be.

It is advisable to check with your tutor whether you should refer to a range of relevant projects representing a variety of research methods or whether you should concentrate on those which have adopted the same methodology which you intent to adopt. If you opt for the first option, take care not to concentrate too heavily on one particular methodology unless it represents one which you intend to adopt.

If you are struggling to find any materials close to your chosen topic, you may wish to widen your search to include less closely-related studies or perhaps shorten the length of your review. Your tutor or supervisor may well be able to help. Do however ensure that the search you have undertaken for relevant papers and books has been adequate.

When starting your search for initial reading materials, do make good use of the staff in your institution's library who will be able to help you locate relevant articles both in specialist academic journals, both in print and on line. These should be regarded as an essential resource even if you are studying at undergraduate level. Only obtain your sources from approved online resources such as LexisNexis, Westlaw and the like. Do not use sources which do not include details of the author and date and under no circumstances use Wikipedia. Start with more general texts to provide you with an overview of that current thinking in the area before moving on to more specialist texts. Take detailed notes as you go along and do not bank on the paper source you used at the outset being available throughout your period of study, particularly if the topic you have selected one is popular one with your peers or if your library only a few copies of the text.

The key to success at this point is planning together with a clear structure to your review by means of headings and subheadings. You should at all costs avoid your review turning into a list of disjointed description of your sources. The use of subheadings will help you keep on track and provide a sense to proportion to each of the contributing texts.