Glasgow Alumni, ‘Holly McKenna – Research LLM’

As part of one of the Law Review’s projects this year we are undertaking written interviews with various law graduates to showcase the variety of career paths available to law students.

For the third edition in this series, we have Holly McKenna, who graduated from the LLB in May and has gone on to pursue an LLM in Research, looking specifically at jury trials in rape cases. 

What were your motivations for undertaking the LLM by research?

I realised about halfway through the LLB that solicitor life wasn’t for me. I loved the legal research and writing essays much more than anything else and wanted more of this. The Honours Dissertation solidified this – the process of delving deep into a problematic area of law and bringing in different perspectives was incredible for me. The LLM by Research was introduced to me by one of my now supervisors, Professor Fiona Leverick, and I hadn’t heard of it when I’d been looking into other Masters programmes. I was initially looking at doing an MRes in Criminology, but I swayed towards the LLM(Res) because of the flexibility it affords me as a working student, the fact I get to stay in the Law School and the freedom I have to choose my own area of research.

 

How did you find the application process?

The application process is fairly straightforward. The most difficult parts are writing the research proposal and trying to secure funding (though this has since become easier). I was thankful to have the support of Professor Leverick and some postgraduate researchers in the Law School who had experience of writing LLM and PhD research proposals in order to write my own one. With the LLM(Res), you also don’t have to demonstrate originality in your contribution as you would with a PhD proposal, so this makes it a bit easier.

You also get to state on your application who you would like to be your supervisor(s), so it’s best to approach people to discuss their availability to supervise you (though it’s not completely guaranteed that you’ll get who you request, if you discuss it beforehand then the chances will increase) and get their advice rather than either leaving it blank or just putting somebody down without asking them first.

While you don’t have to have funding for the LLM(Res) before applying, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it without and I managed to secure a grant from the Clark Foundation for Legal Education for part of my fees. At the time, SAAS/SLC did not grant either tuition fee or maintenance loans to postgraduate programmes without a taught element, meaning researchers could not approach them for any kind of funding. Luckily, this has since been revised, so anybody considering the LLM(Res) would not have to apply for a funding grant from elsewhere, as SAAS/SLC will provide a loans for both tuition and maintenance.

 

What made you choose criminal law in particular?

I always gravitated towards criminal law during my undergraduate and always enjoyed courses which had at least an element of the criminal law. My Honours Dissertation looked at the doli incapax presumption and youth justice in English criminal law and while researching this I was really struck by the many different disciplines that take an interest in and influence the criminal justice system, as well as the often conflicting stakeholders in this area and the very difficult task of balancing these competing interests and desires.

Ultimately, every crime is different, and no two cases are going to be exactly the same – the criminal justice system that we have has to somehow account for these differences and create overarching rules and exceptions for a billion possible cases, which is completely fascinating and equally difficult. It is a system that can cause gravitational shifts in people’s lives, affecting the freedom we have to act in certain ways. The discourse surrounding the criminal law is in a constant state of flux and as our society grows and changes, so too must the law. Being able to contribute my voice and my research to such an important area drew me in and there hasn’t been a dull moment so far.

 

What areas of criminal law are you interested in and why?

I’m a big criminal law nerd, so the vast majority of criminal law, justice, procedure, evidence and theory is interesting to me and I’ll happily read about all of it. Particularly, though, I’m interested in the use of juries, sexual offences and all areas of feminist theory and feminist judgments. These areas are especially hot topics at the moment, in the Scottish criminal justice system and in other jurisdictions, and I’m enjoying being able to witness new research coming out all the time and (hopefully) watch changes being made to address problems in our system.

 

What are your current areas of research and what have you found interesting/surprising so far?

My LLM(Res) thesis looks at juror selection procedures as a possible safeguard against rape myth acceptance in Scottish rape trials; in particular, I’m researching the presentation and expectations of rape complainers, how this impacts juror decision-making (in the wake of newly-published jury research in Scotland) and if formulating a selection process using current research on rape myth acceptance ‘scales’ is a procedural change that could or should be made to what is currently random selection of jurors. My research is in its early stages at the moment but thus far, I’ve found the similarities and constancy of rape myths between different mock jury projects striking (albeit not surprising). I’ve found it surprising that we have existing research highlighting fundamental problems with rape trials and juries and it has taken so many years for a Scottish jury research project to be commissioned, especially since Scotland’s jury is so unique in its setup (though, unfortunately, this is often the case in criminal law research – it can take a long time for an existing problem to reach the forefront of discussion).

 

What are your long-term career aspirations?

Ultimately, I would like to stay in the area of criminal law research in any way I can as I am passionate about contributing my work to this discipline. I’d also love to go into teaching at university level, so that I can share that passion with new potential criminal lawyers/researchers as well as being able to help students get through what is a uniquely challenging degree and introduce research/policy/teaching as ‘other’ career paths outside of qualifying as a solicitor.

 

What advice would you give to anyone interested in undertaking postgraduate research? (in particular LLM by research and criminal research)

I would not have gotten into postgraduate research had it not been for the advice and support of Law School staff and other PGRs, so I would strong advise speaking to professors, lecturers and researchers in an area you’re considering as a research focus and building up that network. The best assets are people who have been through the processes before and it’s not something that I feel you can go through alone. The research communities in the Law School and the College of Social Sciences as a whole are outstanding and there is a lot of support for what can be an isolating and difficult vocation at times.

It goes without saying, but I’d also strongly advise picking an area of legal research that genuinely interests you and that you’ll happily read about practically every day. If you found the Honours dissertation a hard slog and need the structure of attending lectures/seminars, course documents and reading lists, a research degree may not be the best choice. Motivating yourself to set your own timetable, make your own reading lists and start writing without the pressure of a set deadline is tough – but its even tougher if you don’t enjoy what you’re reading about.

This being said, and on a more personal note, it’s so important to safeguard your mental health during a research degree. The support available at Glasgow is brilliant (both in the Law School/CoSS and the Counselling and Psychological Services) but it can be difficult not to feel isolated or to isolate yourself voluntarily when you’re running off self-motivation. As a research student, there is a wide range of classes available to you (research-related and otherwise) and I’ve found that the little bit of structure afforded by attending a class is really helpful. As an LLM(Res) student, you don’t have many mandatory classes besides a few relating to research methods and ethics, but I’ve signed up for things like First Aid training and a ‘Mind Your Mate’ mental health workshop to take advantage of the spare time I have and get out of the research cave for a bit. These classes and welcome events hosted by the Law School and the CoSS also give you the opportunity to talk to other researchers and build up your research network, so its useful to take advantage of them.

However, it’s also really important to recognise when you need a break and not to berate yourself for not being in researcher-mode 24/7. You have a great deal of flexibility in the LLM(Res), so be structured but don’t make that structure unhealthily rigid. Compared to (especially 4th year of) the undergrad, you don’t have the same pressure to be constantly studying or reading and your supervisors will fully understand this. If you’re able to, being open with your supervisors or other researchers about your mental health and when you’re struggling is so helpful and makes you feel much less alone. Everybody has poor mental health days and some days are going to be more productive than others (and that’s okay!) You can push yourself without pushing yourself over the line.

I’m more than happy to talk to anybody thinking about postgraduate research and give any advice/help that I can! My contact details can be found on my School of Law researcher profile here:

https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/law/research/researchstudents/hollymckenna/

 

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