Undergraduates in their final year may offer a dissertation in place of one of their five papers. This involves writing a 12,000 word dissertation – which typically works out as about twenty to thirty pages. This may sound a daunting prospect, but every year, students find that after they have read and thought about a topic which interests them all year, the difficulty is not coming up with 12,000 words but keeping down to the word limit!
Students preparing a dissertation for the Law Tripos are not simply given individual supervision in the way that those in other faculties may be, but instead work within a supportive seminar group structure. This means that not only do they have personal contact with a member of academic staff (one of the seminar leaders) who provides them with guidance about reading and on the structure and content of their work, reading and commenting upon a partial draft, but they also have the opportunity, each in turn during the year, to give a work-in-progress presentation to the group on their own research, receiving feedback from the seminar leaders as well as from other students working on similar topics.
The seminar options are intended to be broad umbrellas, giving students scope to choose, from within an expansive field, any topic which particularly sparks their interest.
My own seminar, for example, is entitled ‘Women and the Law’ and participants may choose to research any aspect of law from a gender perspective, from rape as an international war crime, through reproductive rights, to feminist critiques of pornography and obscenity laws. One student this year even wrote about the Traditional Courts Bill in South Africa and its potentially adverse impact upon rural women there.
The seminar courses on offer vary slightly from year to year so it is important to check the Faculty website for precise details, but other options currently include, for example, Law and Economics, Ethics and the Criminal Law, the Family in Society, and Justice and Human Rights.
Most undergraduates who choose the dissertation option find it one of the most rewarding elements of their Law degree, because they get to study in depth some aspect of the law which they themselves have selected. It is also enormously valuable in educational terms, giving students experience not only in producing a sustained piece of legal writing, but also in researching a topic independently. After all, when you start work at a law firm, you won’t be handed a reading list!
Dr Rosy Thornton