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Student Guide for Legal Research

Before You Start

Before you get your first research assignment, here are some things you can do to prepare:

  1. Find out what legal information resources are available to you
    Does you firm subscribe to any of the major services, such as Westlaw Next Canada, Lexis Advance Quicklaw, etc.? If not, find out what online resources are available to you at the Great Library, your local law association library, or university law library.
    If your firm has an in-house library, become familiar with the collection. If not, find out what’s available at law libraries near you.
  2. Know where you can turn for research help
    Get to know the library staff at your firm and how to contact them if you need help. Get to know the staff and services offered at other libraries, such as the Great Library. Know where to find research support before you need it!
  3. Take advantage of research training and library orientation
    Make sure to attend any legal research training your firm offers. And if your firm organizes a tour of the Great Library or a local library, don’t miss this opportunity to learn about free services and resources available to students. If no one organizes a tour for you, contact the library or check our Training & Events page to see when we are offering our tours. Law librarians are happy to provide orientation sessions for incoming students.

Once you do receive a research assignment, here are some tips for making a productive start:

  1. Ask questions!

         A solid understanding of the task at hand will help you avoid making a slow uncertain start, or worse, start your research on the wrong track.

         Before you start researching, make sure you have answers to the following basic questions:

                  a) Purpose

  • What is the research for? (to advise a client, assist a lawyer in writing an article, provide the basis for a factum?)

                  b) Depth

  • Are you being asked for a quick overview of an issue or exhaustive research?

                  c) Jurisdiction/Scope

  • Should you restrict your research to Ontario law, include all of Canada, or look to foreign jurisdictions, such as the US and UK as well?

                  d) Final product

  • What are you being asked to deliver? (a brief oral report, a research memo, draft factum?) Who will be reading it? (your assigning lawyer, others working on the matter, the client?)

                  e) Deadline

  • Do you have 3 days or 3 hours? An exact deadline is essential. You’ll need to research efficiently and leave enough time for synthesis and writing. And you may already have a few assignments so you’ll need to be able prioritize them.

                  f) Previous research 

  • Has anyone in the firm already done research on the file, or on a similar issue?

                  g) Existing documents

  • Are there other documents, client interview notes, contracts, wills, discovery documents etc. that may provide further facts?

                  h) Starting points

  • If possible, ask your assigning lawyer (or us!) if there’s a text, leading case or other source that they would recommend.

         Answers to these questions will set the parameters of your research and will largely determine how you proceed. It will also ensure that you

         and your assigning lawyer have a mutual understanding of the project.

       2. Keep the lines of communication

         Once you’ve conducted initial research, you may discover you’re missing key facts or have more questions. If feasible, check in with your

         assigning lawyer to obtain further details or confirm you’re on the right path.