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Research Methods in Law – Musings of a PhD Candidate

by Mary Tumelty, PhD Candidate, School of Law

“To say that research methods and research methodologies are part of the hidden curriculum in the undergraduate law programme in Ireland is to perhaps overstate its presence… Even at completion of graduate studies, until recently, discussing methodology was dismissed as not really something lawyers did and was dealt with in a rather cursory manner at the early stage of a thesis.” (Cahillane and Schweppe 2016)

This epigraph to Dr. Laura Cahillane and Ms. Jennifer Schweppe’s edited collection on Legal Research Methods succinctly encapsulates the situation as it pertains to research methods in law. Whilst scholars of the social sciences are immersed in research methods and aware of their importance from the beginning of their academic careers, law students even at doctoral level can find themselves being left to grapple with the dreaded term ‘methodology’ and all that it entails.

In this light, the intention of this blog post is not to draw a roadmap of how to formulate a methodological approach, but instead to share with the reader my experience and growth from a novice researcher to, well, a slightly less novice researcher!

Exploring socio-legal research methods

Like most, when I commenced my doctoral studies I spent a substantial amount of time researching my thesis topic. However, I also spent a lot of time researching ways to research and whilst aware of various methodological approaches, I had no formal training. Commencing a PhD involves a time of transition, as one is essentially an untrained professional. Thus, I believed (and still do) that my job as a PhD candidate was to absorb knowledge and skills from as many places as I could.  Following consultation with my supervisors, I decided to complete MA modules in qualitative research methods which are available to postgraduate students at the University of Limerick on an audit basis. Essentially, this means we have the opportunity to attend and participate in modules available to masters students.

Was it a big commitment? Yes. Was it more work? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

I am now acutely aware that the importance of a strong methodological approach cannot be overemphasized. In my case, my methodology operates as a ‘blueprint’ for my research, which I frequently consult!

Research methods or a methodological approach is essentially the term given to the techniques and tools employed to answer a research question(s). So it naturally follows, that one chooses their approach based on their research question(s). My thesis explores the potential of mediation to ameliorate the problematic nature of medical negligence litigation. Thus, socio-legal methods were employed as I felt that this approach would allow me to articulate the extent and depth of the problems in medical negligence litigation. It is anticipated that this approach will provide a detailed insight into the social reality that exists behind the substantive and procedural rules.

The practicalities of ‘doing’ research

Whilst formulating a methodological approach is a challenge in itself, few (in the legal realm) speak about the practicalities of conducting empirical research.

Having completed MA modules in research methods, I felt ready to embark on my fieldwork. The courses focused not only on theory and vigorous writing-up processes, but also on the practicalities of research. Through completion of the courses I knew what a sampling framework was; I had practiced conducting an interview and even completed the dreaded subsequent transcription of such. I had spent hours immersed in my ‘practice’ data, coding and identifying themes. I had even signed up and completed workshops on Nvivo.

My next challenge was the ethics committee. Navigating the ethics application seemed initially daunting, but it in itself was a valuable task. Besides the importance of ensuring that your proposed study is ethical and that participants are protected, the process itself also prepares you for conducting fieldwork. The ethics application forces you to concentrate on the practicalities of your research and how it will be executed. Again, as a result of my newly acquired skills and knowledge from the MA modules, my methodology was strong and I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it.

Once ethics approval was granted I began to recruit participants, guided by my sampling framework. Participation is voluntary, so you are dependent on the good nature of people combined with their interest in the subject matter of your study. Welcome to the vagaries of research, by the way! In my case, I have been incredibly fortunate to have a high response rate from participants, who are senior and junior barristers specialising in medical negligence litigation. I have also found that a pleasant and professional approach has led to snowball sampling, which has been incredibly helpful.


I do not claim to be an expert in research methods, but the following are some useful tips I have gained along the way which may be of use to students interested in research methods:

  • Talk to your supervisor(s) about your methodological approach early on in the process and seek their expertise;
  • There are many ways to answer a research question, choose the approach that is most suitable;
  • Don’t fear your methodological approach, embrace it and remember motivations for using a particular research method should not be hidden from the reader;
  • Take advantage of the wide array of supports offered by the University of Limerick. For example, the workshops offered by the Glucksman library and the training days provided by the graduate school;
  • If committing to a module for a semester isn’t right for you explore other options. The Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences hosts the Winter School in Social Science Research Methods annually, which I would heartily recommend and is available to PhD students at the University of Limerick;
  • Engage with your colleagues from other disciplines. Sharing experiences and approaches can help us grow and develop;
  • Think about the equipment you may need to complete your fieldwork – do you need a recorder (the one on your phone does not count!) or an encrypted USB?
  • If you’re conducting interviews, ask a friend can you practice with them. This helped me identify my strengths as an interviewer, but also where I needed to improve;
  • Ensure to get consent forms signed, you don’t want to realise you’re missing some close to submission;
  • Be punctual, professional and pleasant – when conducting fieldwork you’re not only representing yourself, you’re an ambassador for your department and the University;
  • Finally, enjoy what you’re doing!

Mary Tumelty is a 2nd year PhD student in the School of Law, University of Limerick under the co-supervision of Dr. Eimear Spain, Ms. Jennifer Schweppe and Mr. Eoin Quill. She is a member of the Research Cluster of Emotions in Society.

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