Writing a law dissertation methodology

The research method or methodology you adopt will depend partly on the topic you have selected and partly based on your own interests and/or preferences. Factors such as the amount of time and resources that you can commit to your research is also likely to factor. Conversely, if you have a particular methodology in mind from the outset, this may dictate your topic under consideration.

The most traditional approach is that of the 'black letter' methodology, which takes its name from the tendency of legalistic approaches to concentrate solely on the 'letter of the law'. This method of dissertation research aims to reduce the study of law to an essentially descriptive analysis of a large number of technical and co-ordinated legal rules to be found in primary sources. The primary aim of this method of research is to collate, organise and describe legal rules and to offer commentary on the emergence and significance of the authoritative legal sources in which such rules are considered, in particular, case law, with the aim of identifying an underlying system.

This process requires the student to interpret each case on the basis that it forms a system of inter-related rules rather than a stand alone decision. Once a rule has been identified, it needs to be further generalised as binding, taking its place in a coherent way. To meet the requirements of this methodology, students must learn to emulate how particular lawyers conduct legal arguments and in so doing demonstrate that they have learned the ability to 'think like a lawyer'.

This is not always an easy skill to acquire. With black letter analysis the focus is on primary sources, namely case law and statute and to a lesser extent, academic commentary. As such, it focuses on the law in books rather than the law 'in action', thereby overlooking the sociological and political implications. Such an approach may well appeal to the 'traditional' law student although it does inevitably mean that that moral and political discussions will always be marginal to the dissertation, appearing perhaps only in the conclusion. If you are pushed for time or have limited financial resources this may be the methodology for you in that the majority of your research can be undertaken either on-line using a reputable legal database or from a good quality law library.

An alternative methodology is to adopt a sociological approach, which is likely to include both qualitative and quantitative research methods, to look at the impact of the law in action and the role played by public policy. This methodology may appeal to those students from a social sciences background, those with a prior background in legal practice or those not working towards a 'pure' law degree. A sociological approach seeks to gain empirical knowledge and an understanding of how the law and legal proceedings impact on the parties involved. It often fills a gap in the understanding of 'law in action' found in black letter methodology perspective.

One immediate problem of this approach is in providing a single and conclusive definition of the nature and scope of the study, a problem which arises out of the sheer volume of studies that have been undertaken within this tradition. Students opting for this approach need to be alive to the possibility of ethical issues arising such as informed consent and confidentiality. Students therefore need to familiarise themselves with any statement of ethical principles for the conduct of research that their own institution may adhere to. The more sophisticated forms of sociolegal research require a high level of methodology awareness in that students may be required to justify their choice of methodology. Such a methodology does give rise to a wide variety of ways in which to approach the topic including research on lawyer-client interactions stemming from interviews, public opinion polls commissioned by lawyers' organisations and reports from lawyers' disciplinary studies. It should be appreciated however that such research is far more time consuming that the traditional black-letter methodology referred to above.

Students who have experience of the operation of law in other jurisdictions may find the comparative analysis approach of interest, particularly if this allows them to make use of their pre-existing knowledge. The increasing availability of cases, statutes and articles on other legal systems on line has resulted in an increase in popularity with this particular methodology. It can be used is areas for potential reform as diverse as the impact of technology on conveyancing or the introduction of no-fault compensation schemes. A comparative historical approach could be utilised within the human rights field, considering for example changing attitudes to slavery in social and economic history. Such research does however presuppose some knowledge of the past.

As can be seen, both qualitative and quantitative methodologies can be adopted in a legal dissertation. Careful consideration must be given to what is the most appropriate one in all the circumstances taking into consideration the topic under investigation, personal references and resources available, both in terms of time and money. If in doubt, we at Law Teacher are happy to help both in terms of research topics and choice of methodology.