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Student Guide for Legal Research


The easiest way to save time and improve the quality of your research is to begin the research process with a current textbook, loose-leaf service, or other secondary source on your topic. There are several benefits to using secondary sources early in your research.

Quick Introduction

You may be assigned research in areas of law you know little about, so you’ll need a strategy for getting up to speed quickly on unfamiliar topics. A chapter in a current text, or a legal encyclopedia section, can provide you with the quick overview or introduction.

Context for your issue

Secondary sources like texts also provide a bigger wider picture. They let you to see where your issue fits into the hierarchy of an area of law. Often you’ll be alerted to related issues, claims or defences that can prove quite useful and that you wouldn’t have come across if you’d just run a narrow keyword search to start.

Subject Expertise

Texts and commentary written by experienced legal practitioners can save you time and effort. Take advantage of the work done by these subject experts to jump start your research. Don’t reinvent the wheel when you don’t need to.

Links to cases and legislation

Besides summarizing and explaining a topic, secondary sources offer you the quickest route into primary law by discussing relevant decisions and governing legislation. You’ll typically find supporting references or citations in the footnotes to these primary authorities.


In reading up on your topic in secondary sources, you’ll pick up commonly used terms and phrases that can be used to make your full-text case law searching much more precise and productive. You’ll be better equipped to find cases on point later in your research.

Finding secondary sources

To find an authoritative text that covers your topic, ask your assigning lawyer or a law librarian for a recommendation, or search your nearest law library’s catalogue. If you can’t find a current text on your topic, consider checking a legal encyclopedia, such as the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (CED) or Halsbury’s Laws of Canada; both cover a wide range of topics and can be excellent starting points.

There are many other practical secondary sources, such as continuing legal education (CLE/CPD) materials, journal articles, legal dictionaries, words and phrases and collections of forms and precedents - each has a purpose suited to a particular research task. See the Secondary Source Toolkit for a summary of the major types of secondary sources and their uses in the legal research process.