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Law (HE): Dissertation help

This guide is intended to help you as you plan your research right through to your final submission.
It covers using Commentary such as Westlaw Topics to identify the key issues and suggest Primary sources, and suggests sources for secondary materials such as reports, journal articles and other research. as well as covering ways to keep track of your information.
For general help with Study Skills, click on our guide to books and online resources here.
The most important advice is to find a topic that interests you.
You may have seen legal stories that have been raised in the media. It is important to follow these up in the legal databases to see if there is enough research there for you to work with. 
If you are unsure of exactly which question to ask, there are a number of places you can look for inspiration and ideas.  Identify areas of uncertainty in the law or areas which being looked at with a view to being reformed (for example, Textbooks often have a section at the end of a chapter covering current legal issues; Westlaw Topics covers broad topics and includes information on areas of complexity, uncertainty and future developments.  You could also look at the Law Commission website and look at the parliamentary debates as reported in Hansard.
There are a number of current awareness services which report on the most recent legal issues - you could try looking at: 
You might decide to compare the law as it stands in other jurisdictions.  Use Westlaw International to find the law in the US, Australia and Canada.
You can see how a particular case or a piece of legislation has been interpreted by the courts.  Use Annotated Statutes on LexisLIbrary and Westlaw, or create email updates to a case or piece of law.  Academics writing in journals, and organisations such as the Law Commission produce reports which review areas of the law and provide commentary on new legislation. 
Current Law Monthly Digest (available in the library) also provides summaries of recent developments in the law. 



Once you know exactly which legal topics you are looking at, start with textbooks and hand-outs to read as much as you can on your subject. These provide a general overview of your topic and help you identify the key primary materials you need to know.

Use law dictionaries, indexes in books, and Westlaw Topics to identify the key issues and legal terms. 

Break down your dissertation statement into sections - mind maps may help organise your thoughts.   Identify the knowledge that you are lacking – “Know what you don’t know”.  This will help you identify what you next need to find out. 

Click here to access our Interactive Tutorial called Skills for Study for more exercises and ideas on writing your dissertation, critical thinking, reading and note-taking.

These 5 steps will help you to plan your search strategy when looking for information to support your assignment. 

Step 1: Identify the main ideas or concepts in your dissertation. 

'The Law of England and Wales should allow children to exercise more influence over their medical treatment."

Concepts:  Children AND Medical Treatment AND Influence

Step 2: Identify keywords. You can direct library databases to look for your keywords in the title, abstract, keywords and subject headings of an article, which means that your results are more relevant than if you were searching for your terms anywhere in the full text.  To get the best results, you need to find the best terms possible.  Spend a bit of time identifying synonyms or related terms that best describe your topic. Think of the broader topic - eg Medical Law, and narrower related concepts - eg. Medical Negligence, Capacity or Consent. 

Synonyms / Related Terms: Children OR Young People.  Medical OR Clinical.  Influence OR Consent. 

Step 3: Decide which database to use.  We recommend that you use both Westlaw and LexisLibrary, which between them cover the main series of case reports and journals.  LexisLibrary is particularly good for Family Law and Personal Injury.  It is usually best to click on the tab that searches for the type of information that you are looking for. For example if you are looking for journal articles, click on the Journals tab. 

Step 4: Use the Advanced Search function. This allows you to choose which fields to search for your results.  For main topics, use the Keyword / Subject box in Westlaw, or click on Add Terms in LexisLibrary. You should be prepared to run your search a few times to get the best results. Use speech marks to search for a phrase. Be aware of the use of American terms, for example Westlaw uses "Clinical Negligence" where we might use "Medical Negligence".  Use brackets to list more than one similar term, and use AND to combine searches. 

Advanced Search: 

(Children OR "Young People") AND Consent AND (Medical OR Clinical)

Step 5: Check your results.  If you have too many, narrow by adding more search terms to focus your search, or restrict your results by date, document type (article, case comment).  You should also look at the subject terms that are used to describe the best results, and re-run your search using those terms. 

Remember - you can save your search if you set up an account with the database, or keep a note of your terms.  You can also view your search history and combine different searches until you get the best results. 


Here are some ideas to find material for your dissertation. 

Primary sources (cases and legislation)

LexisLibrary and Westlaw UK provide the full-text of cases and legislation.  The Advanced Search should always be used for any subject searching, and it is worth taking advantage of the List of Terms / Add Topics to Search help. Follow up any useful links or references to expand your research.

Secondary sources (e.g. journal articles)

These can offer a variety of different perspectives on your topic, and be more up-to-date.  Use the main two legal databases, and use the Law Databases list to try out alternatives. If you find a really useful article, see if it has been discussed elsewhere.  Always remember to check the bibliography of any book or article you find useful. 

For wider research, you can use Discover which will search journals in the areas of Sociology, Police, Criminology, Psychology. 

International Material can be found by searching the main databases which all provide access to some International Law journals.  However, Westlaw International is a database which specialises in cases, encyclopedia and journals from the US, Canada, and Australia.  Click here for a guide. 

Government publications & related bodies

The Home Office, the Law Commission, The Law Society and other organisations all publish reports and consultation papers.  The law links on the Law Resources page in Moodle list some relevant organisations.

  • News (Gale OneFile):  you may want to limit your search to The Times and The Independent, since these newspapers both have good legal content.
  • Using the Internet.  You must always evaluate information from the web.  Check the currency (is it recent?), authority (who has written it?), reliability & accuracy (could it be biased or misleading?) and keep a note of the URL and date of access.

Use Westlaw & Lexis folders to save important documents. 

When you log on to Westlaw you will see a link to Folders at the top of the screen. Use this to save and organise all your legal research on Westlaw UK. This can include case reports, legislation, or any articles you find. You can also set up Saved searches, which run daily, weekly or monthly to update you on new items which match your search terms;  and Subject Alerts which alert you to new content on your chosen subject - for a guide click here

When you sign in to Lexis you automatically have access to My Documents (in the top right of the screen).  You can add documents here which will be saved for one month. 

Use reference management software.  Referencing software allows you to:

  • Collect, store and manage references in folders
  • Manage via a web account which is accessible via any device linked to the Internet
  • Easily cite references and create bibliographies in a range of reference styles
  • Link directly to the full-text or PDF of the document. 
  • Add personal notes or highlight text

View the box below for more information. 

Ask yourself - is your research appropriate and relevant to your study?  Use your findings to create your own logical and concise argument, illustrated with examples from real cases and judgements, and supported by your wider reading.


There are many tools to help you organise your work.  You can save references in Word which can be easily imported as citations or into bibliographies. You can create profiles in Discover to save items to view later, and export citations (this will include Emerald references).  If you have a large number of articles, websites and book records to keep track of, we recommend you start using referencing software.  Using something like Menderley will allow you to create your own online library, where you can store and manage everything you want to keep in one place, saving you time.  Referencing software allows you to:

  • Collect, store and manage references in folders
  • Manage via a web account which is accessible via any device linked to the Internet
  • Easily cite references and create bibliographies in a range of reference styles
  • Link directly to the full-text or PDF of the document. 
  • Add personal notes or highlight text

Some referencing management tools also have social networking features. 

Which referencing management tool is best for you?  The chart below may answer some of your questions, or click on the tabs for more detailed information and guides. 

Name of Software Use this for Notes
Microsoft Word - References tool                                                   Adding citations and references to your Word document as you write. Add details of the publication using a simple form with source types such as Book, Journal Article and Website. Select the output style (eg.Harvard). Can also generate bibliographies.  Good for shorter assignments and encourages you to keep track of all your references.                                      
Discover and Emerald folders Saving articles to folders which can then be easily accessed at any time. Create hierarchical folders to organise articles by module and topic. Provides a Cite feature so you can copy and paste references in the correct format.  Citations can be exported into Menderley or Zotero.  Good for easily retrieving articles which are available from Discover.
Menderley Adding documents that you have saved on your computer using drag-and-drop, or install the web importer to directly import from the web.  Organise articles into folders.  Menderley saves PDF versions where available so you can have an online library. You can also save directly to Menderley from Emerald.  Saves PDFs and offers a number of social features.


This is a very useful tool within Microsoft word and is worth getting familiar with as soon as you start writing your first assignment. 

In-text citation

Along the top of your Word document you will see tab called References (you may be familiar with using this to add footnotes).  To add an in-text citation, put your cursor at the point where you want your reference to appear. Click on References and choose Harvard.   Select Insert Citation.  Choose Add New Source. Choose the type of source that you are citing - book, journal article, web-site etc. Then fill in the details.  Once you have saved your citation, the information will be available for you to use again. 

Bibliography / Reference List

Once you have added your citations, you can create a bibliography with that information. Put the cursor where you want the bibliography to go, then select References and choose a format. Then click on Bibliography and click on Insert Bibliography.

Adding new citations

If you add new citations to your document, you can update your bibliography by right clicking anywhere in your list and selecting Update Field. 

What are folders in Discover?

When you search Discover (or any ESBCOhost database such as SocIndex or Business Source) you will notice that a small folder icon appears next to all your search results.  This icon allows you to save your results into folders which you can access any time you log into any EBSCO database.  

In Discover you also have the option to save and re-run searches, and set up search and journal alerts so you can keep researching even when you’re not logged in.

Saving items to your Folder

Start your search.  Remember you can limit your search by Date of Publication, by Source (Academic Journals, Magazines, Trade Publications, Books), and by Subject, Language, and more.


To save individual records, click on the Add to Folder image next to each record. If you have already created folders, you will be given the option to save the record in any of those folders. Otherwise, just save to My Folder. 

Viewing your folder

View your folder by either clicking on Folder View in the top right of the screen, or the My Folder icon in the top bar.  You should see a list of all the records that you have saved and you can access the full-text from here.

The My Custom feature provides the ability to create numerous folders, each on a particular topic, in which various results can be stored.  You can also create sub-folders to manage more results.  Click on the New link to the right of the My Custom link. You will see a Create New Folder Screen to enter your topic name and a description if you wish.

You can now move your results to the new folder by clicking in the box beside the title of the result, and clicking on the Move To drop down list. You will see a list of your folders displayed.

From Folder View, you can go back to your search results by clicking on the back button.

For more information on Folders, click on the Question mark next to your name in the top left of the screen.

Printing, Email and Saving Your Results.

You can Print, Email, or Save your results.  You can also export to referencing software such as Zotero and EndNote Web. If you have Mendeley Desktop on your device, you can also download to there.   Click on the icons to the right of the screen.  .

About Menderley
Before you get started, this terminology from the Menderley help site is very useful.
  • Mendeley Desktop: Mendeley Desktop is the downloaded part of the software installed onto your computer. Download Mendeley Desktop here.
  • Mendeley Web: This is the Mendeley website where you can access the web version of your library, edit your profile and search for papers, groups or people. You can also access Mendeley's social features.
  • Sync: The process of synchronizing your Mendeley data across devices.
  • Web Importer: The browser bookmarklet that lets you quickly import documents from anywhere on the web.
  • Word Citation Plugin: A plugin you can install that allows you to create and format your citations and bibliography according to your chosen style.

Starting Out

  1. Create an account at, download Desktop to your main PC or laptop and sign in.  
  2. You will see the Desktop interface - the main window is your 'library'.  From here you can drag files from your computer or add them from the File menu, create folders and organise records into different folders, and open PDF documents directly within the library.  
  3. Add the Web importer.  This will allow you to add documents from anywhere on the web.  All new documents will go directly into the Recently Added folder but you can also select a pre-existing folder if you have already created one. 
  4. Remember to sync documents to send your library to the cloud, so you can access all your content from other devices. 

The Mendeley video below is a 1 minute introduction to Mendeley.  More help videos are available on their YouTube site here

Uploading articles from Discover

If you find an article you want to save in your Discover results, click on the Export option in the right hand column.  Click on the first option (Direct export in RIS format) and select Save.  You will see the export file download (and which will also appear in your downloads folder):  click on that and the reference will be imported into Mendeley Desktop.  Note that Mendeley doesn't need to be open but it does need to be installed on the machine that you are using. 

Uploading webpages or PDFs from the Internet - in progress

Creating citations and bibliographies - in progress

Find Related Research - in progress

Collaboration and Sharing Tools - in progress