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5 Tips for Effective Legal Research

Legal research can be daunting. Of course, the easiest solution is to use Alexi’s AI capabilities and skip right to the end. Alexi’s on-demand legal research memos take the search out of research.If you need to do it old school, here are some quick tips to help you get your legal research done better and smarter.

1. Start from Statute

Unless you’re dealing with a common law principle, almost every legal issue is governed by statute. This is particularly true for procedural issues. Figure out exactly what section of the statute you are dealing with, and then note that section up.

Noting up section 2(2) of the Dog Owner’s Liability Act, RSO 1990, c D.16 on CanLII

Speed up your search even more by narrowing down the results by type of source, jurisdiction, date – or even filter the results for keywords.In the below example, filtering for Ontario cases with my keywords brought the results from 10 cases to 4 cases.

Filtering noteup results on CanLII

2. Bananas for Boolean

Using Boolean search terms is so important!What are they?These operators/connectors are a combination of keywords and/or symbols that you can add to your search to filter the results.

If you were to simply search for dog bite, your legal database would give you cases with the word dog or the word bite. So you might find cases that involve dogs but do not involve bites, and vice versa. That’s too broad a search.

Instead, you can use the Boolean connector and search for the exact phrase “dog bite”.But wait, this may be too narrow a search, because what if the case states: “The plaintiff was bitten by a dog.” Then your search term wouldn’t work.

Here is where Boolean gets fun.Instead, you can search for cases that use the word dog and variations of the word bite in the same sentence. It looks like this: dog /s (bite OR bitten OR bit)For a comprehensive list of Boolean operators and their functions, visit these resources:

3. Refine Before Reviewing

When it comes to researching, the most time-consuming step is reviewing the cases to determine what, if any, relevant legal principles or precedents are found within. The more search results you have, the longer this step will take.If your search has turned up dozens of cases, your search likely ought to be narrowed more. Really think about what keywords are the most critical for your legal question. Are you truly interested in seeing cases from other jurisdictions? Are you more interested in appellate authorities? Can you filter your results by subject area, classification, or issue tag? Can you throw some more Boolean operators in there?

Once you have your search refined to give you a narrower pool of cases, that’s when you can start to really mine the caselaw for gems. In my experience, narrowing the search results down to between 3 and 10 is the sweet spot.

4. Skip to the End

Once reviewing the cases, if you do not have the benefit of abridgment summaries or headnotes generated by a legal database, start by looking at the very first paragraphs (usually labeled “Introduction” or “Background Facts”) to understand the context, and then jump all the way to the end to see what the outcome was.

This will help you ensure that the case is truly relevant to your legal issue.If you’re still not sure after reading the beginning and the end, skim through the case’s headers. You might also try a Ctrl+F to go straight to the section that interests you (for example Ctrl+F damages).

5. Note Up Your Cases

Hopefully, after using the above four tips, you’ve identified relevant caselaw that answers your legal question. But wait, there’s one more thing to do!The law changes rapidly, and due diligence requires that you make sure the law you have found is still good law.

To do this, you need to note up the cases you plan to rely on. Most importantly, this will show you whether it has been appealed, and what the outcome of the appeal was (you can also see this in the “History” tab on Canlii, or on other similar functions in other legal databases).

Noting a case up will also show you how other judges have treated the authority. If the treatment is negative, you may think twice about relying on the case.Be wary of relying on flags or symbols generated by legal databases. This is where it pays to spend more time to verify for yourself how the case has been treated.

Noting up a decision on CanLII
Research Lawyer

Tamar Friedman is a research lawyer at Alexsei.

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