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Juris Doctor: The Nitty Gritty of Thesis

You’ve probably seen students typing intently on their laptops, poring over ancient law books, flipping through white-paged softbound papers, or sitting at the library’s computer terminals while busily writing down notes. No, they did not shift courses. They were doing their thesis.

The thesis experience truly embodies the saying that “nothing in life worth having comes easy.” Thesis writing is not just an academic endeavor. It is a test of character. The law student will face a lot of obstacles. The first of which is the search for that elusive thesis topic. This calls for great research skills—the ability to sift through books and other materials to spot not only an interesting, but also a novel legal question. People skills will also matter, since you will need to consult with professors, lawyers, and friends. Secondly, the topic must also address a legal issue. This will require analysis of pertinent legal provisions and jurisprudence relevant in your chosen field of law. Lastly, the student will have to go through an oral defense before a panel of experts—the final step towards the coveted Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.

To better prepare for all the possibilities, it is important to know the nitty-gritty details of the Ateneo Law School (ALS) J.D. thesis program.

Thesis Committee
The Thesis Committee supervises the thesis program for both Juris Doctor and Master of Laws students. It is composed of the Director—Atty. Amparita Sta. Maria currently heads the Committee and also sits as Chairperson—and two other members designated by the Dean. The Committee’s functions include the “fixing of deadlines for submission, setting of schedule for oral defense and coordinating administrative work under the program.”

Under the Revised Thesis Rules, the Committee can reject a thesis proposal submitted by a student either in Fundamentals of Thesis Writing (FOTW) I or II during the Third Year. The Committee, together with all professors of FOTW I and II, deliberate the topics submitted by all third year students. According to Atty. Sta Maria, the main purpose of the deliberation is to eliminate the problems of lack of legal issue and topic duplication. After assessment of thesis topics, the Committee will then release the results during summer. Last year’s thesis deliberation results required students to consult with specific professors, or approach and negotiate with peers who have similar topics.

Thesis Adviser
Students have the discretion to choose their thesis advisers. The Rules only require that the adviser is a member of the law school faculty. The thesis adviser exercises general supervision over the student’s work, which must be at least 50 pages long. He or she can set an earlier deadline for the thesis draft, or conduct a mock defense ahead of the actual defense.

It is important that the adviser certifies that one’s thesis is ready for defense. In case the adviser gives a grade below 75%, he or she can require a revision of the thesis. When the adviser feels that the thesis already meets the academic standards of the law school, he or she will indicate his or her approval on the thesis adviser form. The adviser’s grade should also be written on the Thesis Adviser Grading Sheet, which must be submitted to the Thesis Center. The components of the grade are: 50% for Substance and Content, 30% for Form and Presentation, and 20% for Novelty of the Issue. This grade makes up for 1/3 of a student’s over-all thesis grade.

Defense: Not your Ordinary Recitation
The thesis defense is the culmination of all those months of preparing and writing one’s thesis. For most law students, not knowing who their panelists are and what will happen once they set foot inside either Room 1 or 2 of the Thesis Center are enough to cause sleepless nights—even weeks—before their scheduled defense.

The Oral Defense Panel is composed of three members, at least two of whom must be part of the law school faculty. The Committee chooses from a pool of professors under different faculty clusters. Atty. Sta Maria explained that, “[‘y]ung departments dito may clustering na rin. Halimbawa, ’yung Commercial Law Department nakahiwalay ‘yung Intellectual Property Department. Alam mo may pool ka, kung saan ka kukuha.” She added that they also invite practitioners to become panelists if they think the topic falls under the latter’s area of expertise. “Sometimes, we do invite ‘yung mga alam namin na gumawa rin ng thesis on that,” she said.

The defense schedule depends on the topic’s field of law. For example, students with thesis topics under tax law will defend during a given period. Atty. Sta Maria mentioned that they “also look at the schedule of the faculty para isang puntahan na lang sila. Mahirap ‘yung iba-ibang topic sa isang araw.”

Each panelist will then grade the student according to the following: 60% Oral Argumentation, 30% Form and Written Presentation, 10% for Novelty of Issue. For Oral Argumentation, the panelists will take note of how the student “defends the position taken in the paper, the accuracy and relevance of cited authorities and the persuasiveness of the thesis summary and recommendation.” After the defense, the student will be asked to step out of the room while the panel evauates his or her performance. A number of assessments are possible: no revisions, major revision, minor revision, grade withheld, or re-defense.

Dati kasi ‘yung thesis, after you defend, it’s either you pass or fail. The rule [was] if the panelist [thought] that the thesis as it is written and as defended [is okay], may average kang at least 75, then okay na ‘yun. Whatever suggestions [they give] would be optional,” Atty. Sta Maria said.

For students required to do major revisions, Atty. Sta Maria remarks that this usually occurs when the student has undergone several changes in his/her thesis topic or when the student failed to develop the topic into an academic thesis. “Mayroon naman fundamentally flawed na,” she noted. In such a case, the Rules state that the Panel can “either withhold the release of grade, which cannot be higher than 75% at the end of the defense [and] subject to release only upon submission of the thesis duly revised; or it can issue the final grade, (which cannot be higher than 75%) only upon submission of the thesis as revised, without need of further re-defense.”

For minor revisions, Atty. Sta Maria observes that “[s]ometimes the topic is really good pero mayroon talagang kulang. Nanghihinayang sila minsan sa development ng topic.” To further improve the paper, the panel may suggest that the student do minor editing such as adding a chapter to supplement an important idea in the thesis. The Rules state that if the revision is only considered minor, the panel will then give a grade at the end of the defense.

Atty. Sta Maria said that grade withheld is like a provisional grade.
“The experience is, some professors, nanghihinayang talaga [sila]. They [would] rather give a provisional grade. They feel that especially when the student has defended well. They want to be assured that what you argued there, ilalagay mo doon [sa thesis],” she said. The student’s grade will be released only upon showing that the revisions, as suggested by the panel, were truly complied with.

However, the ultimate aim after one’s oral defense is for the panel not to recommend any revisions. For Atty. Sta Maria, students must take the initiative to excel in their thesis. “If you don’t take it seriously, it’s very difficult to come up with a thesis topic. But if you thought it through, you may not have a thesis topic right away, but it beats someone who gives a topic that is not well-thought out and later on realizes na hindi pala ito pwede,” she said.

Plagiarism as a Form of Cheating
The Committee takes plagiarism very seriously. It is considered not only as cheating, but also as an affront to the whole institution and must not be tolerated. According to Atty. Sta Maria, they can discontinue the defense upon showing that the student committed plagiarism. “Kapag ganoon kasi mockery na ‘yung defense. Sa [panel], hindi na importante ang sinasabi mo kasi huli ka na,” she said. The Committee can fail the student who committed plagiarism, without prejudice to other sanctions. The Committee can also file a disciplinary complaint and the Dean will then convene a committee to address the matter.

Based on the Ateneo de Manila Code of Academic Integrity, “[n]otwithstanding any jurisprudence to the contrary, and in accordance with the exercise of the constitutionally recognized ‘academic freedom,’ plagiarism is identified not through intent but through the act itself: the objective act of falsely attributing to one’s self what is not one’s work, whether intentional or out of neglect, is sufficient to conclude that plagiarism has occurred.”

Atty. Sta Maria even recommends the use of the plagiarism checker for all written works of students. “I’m proposing na even during the first year you have to sign something that [states that] everything would go through a plagiarism checker. May nahuhuli hindi lang sa thesis, pero wala pa akong alam nanag-file ng disciplinary case. It‘s just the thesis committee that has actually filed cases. So dapat mas ma-enforce pa ‘yun not only for the thesis but [also] for all the written assignments that you have,” she explained.

Path Towards Excellence
The thesis program is geared towards ensuring exceptional written outputs from all its J.D. graduates. This is in line with the law school’s pursuit for academic excellence and intellectual rigor, the ability to express legal conviction in forceful written communication.

The thesis experience of each law student is certainly a fascinating—if not cringe-worthy—story to tell. Ask any ALS graduate about their thesis and they will regale you with interesting after interesting experience. After the seemingly endless research, writing and dreaded footnoting however, one’s feeling of satisfaction after finally printing that last page of bibliography will be something to look forward to and a high that will truly be beyond compare.

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