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Three problems students face when writing a dissertation – and tips to address them

updated on 27 October 2020

Professor Paula Moffatt, director of external engagement at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University, provides some advice and guidance for dissertation writing.

In September, we welcomed our new Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Barristers Training Course (BTC) students onto campus at Nottingham Law School, Nottingham Trent University. 

As always, the autumn term is exciting and busy. For those of you on the GDL, you will be beginning to get to grips with the seven foundation law subjects. For those of you on the LPC and BTC, you will be adapting your existing legal knowledge into the practical application of the law. 

Over the next few weeks, most of you will be needing to think about the title for either your research project or – if you are on an LLM programme – your dissertation. For some students, this can be a daunting prospect: where on earth should you begin?

This article addresses some of the “dissertation-panic” issues that so many students face, starting with a discussion of possible topics for your dissertation or research project.

The single most important thing to do at this stage of the academic year is to start to get yourself organised by thinking about your dissertation now. By drawing up a plan for its execution, you can make writing your dissertation as stress free as possible and even - I hope - enjoyable!

Problem 1 – “I don’t know what to write about!”

This is a common theme for students who are busy trying to get to grips with a large quantity of new material at the same time as meeting new people and – in the current pandemic – working out how to use technology most effectively to complete their assignments. It’s exhausting!

Fortunately, there is a rich seam of material for you to draw on if you just turn on the television, listen to the radio or scroll through social media. A case in point is the workings of the current UK government (HMG) and its Internal Market Bill, which was widely reported in the press during September. There are so many angles to this story that I challenge you not to write about some part of it. (In fact, it is a gift that keeps on giving as we shall go on to see).

So what is actually going on here?

It all began when Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, announced in Parliament that HMG was going to break the law in a “specific and limited way”.  The reason why HMG was doing this, was because the Withdrawal Agreement that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had signed with the EU on behalf of the UK and claimed as a “triumph” in December 2019 no longer suited his purposes. Consequently, HMG had taken a deliberate decision to breach international law if it needed to do so to meet its objectives.

Both the Attorney General, Suella Braverman (who published a document entitled “HMG LEGAL POSITION: UKIM BILL AND NORTHERN IRELAND PROTOCOL”) and the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland said that this was a perfectly acceptable legal position.

The corollary to HMG’s position is that it is widely viewed as a breach of the rule of law.  Many lawyers have struggled to understand how the attorney general and the Justice Secretary can actively support an explicit intention to breach an international treaty signed in good faith only a few months ago and consider HMG’s position to be untenable. 

The controversy led to the resignation of both Sir Jonathan Jones, permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department and the advocate-general for Scotland. The advocate-general’s resignation letter explained that he had failed to find a “respectable argument” that could justify HMG’s actions. 

HMG subsequently revised the Internal Market Bill so that action to breach international law can now only be taken if there is a Parliamentary vote. 

The argument nevertheless remains that legislating with the possibility of breaking the law at a future date is still a breach of the rule of law.

Problem 2 – “I know what to write about, but I don’t know what angle to take”

At the time of writing, the Bill is in the Lords awaiting its second reading, but by the time you read this article, the legal debate will most probably have moved on. Nevertheless, the issues raised provide rich pickings for those of you interested in this area of law and keen to find a topic for your research project or dissertation. So here are some angles you could think about when drawing on this material:

  • Constitutional. What is the rule of law? What is the separation of powers? Why does it matter that Parliament and the executive are held accountable? What does Parliamentary sovereignty mean? You could draw on the discussions of the prerogative in the Gina Miller case (R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (2017) and HMG’s decision to prorogue Parliament, subsequently held to be unlawful by the UK Supreme Court (R (on the application of Miller) (Appellant) v The Prime Minister (Respondent) (2019)).


  • Jurisprudential. This would be a wonderful opportunity to revisit the 1958 Hart/Fuller debate which pitched positivism against natural law in a series of articles in the Harvard Law Review. Laws such as those of Nazi Germany and the South African apartheid regime were positive laws that were enforced by their respective governments, but they lacked a moral component. What kinds of laws do we want HMG to be making in the UK today?


  • Historical. The expressions of “my word is my bond” and pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept) have been key to global trading relationships since the middle ages as traders left city-states such as Venice and Genoa to market their wares (think Lombardy Street in London). Why are these concepts considered to be so important for international trade? You could explore the development of the law of agency in this context.


  • Professional. What does it mean to be a lawyer today? Solicitors are required by the Solicitors Regulation Authority to act “in a way that upholds the constitutional principle of the rule of law, and the proper administration of justice”, and the independence of barristers is critical to upholding the rule of law. So why have some senior lawyers felt it necessary to resign over the Internal Market Bill whilst others have not? You may want to write about the importance of professional ethics.


  • Criminal law, surveillance and privacy. If HMG is prepared to break the law in a “specific and limited way” what will stop individuals drawing on this as a defence to their own breaches of the law? Why should citizens comply with the law if HMG does not? This could be examined in the context of the “Rule of Six” HMG response to the Covid-19 pandemic: the Home Secretary recently suggested that two families of four who meet in the street should be reported to the police for “mingling” and breaching the rules. You could consider the example of the Stasi in East Berlin during the Cold War, or the implications for the police in the resources needed for this kind of activity.

I would stress that the suggestions discussed here form only the minutest fraction of the examples of potential ideas and angles amongst an almost inexhaustible range of possible topics for your research project or dissertation. 

My next piece of advice is therefore that you should not be afraid to ignore all of the ideas considered here. 

Lawyers in practice need to have the backbone to stand up for what they believe in and to face down those who are acting lawlessly. 

By the same token, you must develop the skills of being bold enough to ask your own questions and to follow through on your own ideas. After all, this is your dissertation and a rare and wonderful opportunity to find out more about those aspects of the law that you think most important and interesting.

Problem 3 – “I’m running out of time!”

Planning your dissertation at an early stage will help you to avoid running out of time and having a last-minute panic. 

Listen to any dissertation lectures and read any guidance carefully. Make sure that you know the timeline you are working to and – critically – immediately diarise the submission deadline.

Make sure that other key dates are in your calendar, so that you know when you have to finalise your topic, when you have to submit a draft outline, and when you have to meet your supervisor. Put a reminder in your calendar one or two weeks ahead of each of these dates. This will enable you to give serious thought to your draft, make the most of your discussions with your supervisor and benefit from constructive feedback on your draft.

Once you have a clear plan for your work, set yourself a series of dates by which you hope to have completed a quarter, a half, and the whole of your dissertation. Set this last date two weeks before the real submission date. If you have stuck to your plan, you will be able to submit early. Even if you haven’t, the good news is that you will still have two weeks left within which to finish it, ensuring that you can submit on time!