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Top Ten Tips for Writing Your Thesis

26 November 2019

Our alumnus and former counsel Toni Malminen has a Master of Laws and a Licentiate of Laws degree, and Doctor of Laws degrees from the University of Helsinki and a Master of Laws from Yale Law School, in addition to which he has studied at Stockholm University and Harvard University. He has also lectured at different universities in Finland and overseas. Below, you will find some of Toni’s best tips for thesis writing.

1. Think about your reader

When writing, keep the presumable reader of your thesis in mind. You should be writing to your thesis supervisor, not to a client of a law firm, the general public, the scientific community, or a regular person. Then, think about what you can do to impress this reader. Figuring out who you are writing to can help you assess how much you can expect your reader to know, what style to use, and whether to stick with legal doctrine or explore legal theory as well.

2. Pay attention to the quantity and quality of your sources

Your sources are an indication of how well you know your subject, although listing a lot of sources just for the sake of it is not something to aim for. You should pick your sources and literature with care and aim for versatility.

3. Be constructive in your criticism

You can demonstrate critical thinking in many other ways than just criticising other scholars (or courts or other authorities). However, when there is reason to criticise another (more experienced) scholar, remember to do it in a diplomatic way. At this stage, it is safer to build upon what others have already said than to imply that you disagree with practically everyone in the field. It is also advisable to present any criticism in connection with your main research question, which is where you should generally present your own contributions and where the reader will expect to learn something new anyway.

4. Aim for systematisation

The two main elements of legal research are interpretation and systematisation. The best, most timeless studies include systematisation and try to develop general findings. These types of studies stay current longer than studies that merely “explain law”, as they expire when the examined law is repealed. However, your goal does not have to be as ambitious as, say, coming up with a new concept for ownership. In a master’s thesis, it can be the categorisation of certain phenomena (e.g. non-compete clauses forbidden or permitted under case law), conceptual classification (e.g. the weak or strong form of a right), a group of typical examples, or something similar. In short, you should aim for an idea that stays relevant even when legislation is amended.

5. Link your study to general concepts in the field

A legal study should be linked to the general concepts and principles in the field. Your supervisor will know their field of expertise well. However, a master's thesis will usually focus on a very specific current theme that may not have been studied before, so your supervisor may not be all that familiar with your specific area of interest. At its best, a legal thesis explores the subject more deeply than anyone ever before, all the while proving that the theme is also important on a broader scale. To illustrate, you could argue that a legal concept does not, as such, fit a new technological or economic frame of reference very well.

In addition to preparatory legislative works and case law, another thing to consider and weigh when interpreting law is legal principle. Concepts and principles are the core of legal research and are thus of interest to the reader regardless of whether they are familiar with the specific questions addressed in a certain study.

6. Find a point of comparison.

Your thesis should not attempt to imitate a legal memo, judgment, or authority decision. The point of a thesis is to prove what you know, which is why you should rather look at doctoral dissertations for reference. However, attempting to do research at the level of the top studies within the field is not realistic and can result in a writer's block. As a starting point, you can use a thesis written within your field of study within the past couple of years, which your supervisor has graded either laudatur or eximia. This is an ambitious yet realistic target level, which can even be exceeded without the completion of your thesis being delayed.

7. Invest in the introduction, conclusion, and main chapter.

The introduction serves as the first impression when it comes to the quality of your thesis. The conclusion, again, is what your reader will remember of your thesis. At its best, a conclusion shows that you are able to consider the importance of your theme on a broader scale. Thus, your conclusion should not just be a capsule summary of the previous chapters but rather a summary combined with a look at the current themes in the field or new things you could extend your study into. The main chapter is the core of your study, in which you should include your main arguments and engage in deeper academic discussion.

8. Show what you know

Umberto Eco's ‘How to Write a Thesis’ is a fun and educative book on the traditions and genres of an academic thesis. According to Eco, the point of a thesis is to show the reader what you know. Thus, you should really make an effort when it comes to footnotes. In the footnotes, you can discuss things that relate to your topic but are not essential in terms of your study (historical reviews, comparative legal analysis, explaining a certain scientific, technical, or economic phenomenon) to prove that you have studied your subject thoroughly.

9. Add an interdisciplinary element

Try to link your topic to a discourse taking place within another discipline (economics, sociology, philosophy, etc.) that has a natural connection to your theme. For instance, you can combine discussion on the protection of privacy with Michel Focault’s notions of micro-power and repression, liberal social philosophy, or technology. This way, your thesis becomes more than just a memo and is more likely to be of interest to others than just those who study the same questions.

10. Aim for conceptual rather than descriptive

Instead of a descriptive approach, you should aim for a conceptual one. If you discuss the Supreme Court's case law on a certain topic, make sure not to cover the cases in a chronological order. A better approach would be finding an (apparent) conflict, such as two conflicting decisions, according to which different cases can be categorised. This type of approach is more interesting than going through cases in a chronological order. After this, you can try to prove that the case law is genuinely inconsistent or that there is a factor that explains the different outcomes. You will probably come across the division between descriptive and conceptual when studying EU Directives on a certain topic or statements of the Constitutional Law Committee — or, in fact, any other academic topic.


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