The legal information landscape in Canada has gone through major changes in the last twenty years. Electronic sources have emerged where once there was only print, publishers have merged, changed names, appeared, and disappeared. Where once the challenge was in finding any material at all, now the legal researcher is faced with a tsunami of legal information, and the challenge is to filter out signal from noise.

Why are legal research skills so important to the legal practitioner, whether student, articling student, or lawyer? The practice of law is the practice of legal research. Without being able to find and use precedents (potentially in both senses of the word), it is essentially impossible to be an ethical, competent lawyer. In large part, this is because it is equally impossible to retain an entirely up-to-date and complete understanding and awareness of everything you might need to know.

The Rules of Professional Conduct describe a competent lawyer, in part, as one who “applies relevant knowledge, skills and attributes in a manner appropriate to each matter undertaken on behalf of a client including

“(a) knowing general legal principles and procedures and the substantive law and procedure for the areas of law in which the lawyer practises,

(b) investigating facts, identifying issues, ascertaining client objectives, considering possible options, and developing and advising the client on appropriate courses of action,

(c) implementing, as each matter requires, the chosen course of action through the application of appropriate skills, including;

(i) legal research […]”

While legal research is explicitly called out in 3.1-1(c)(i), “knowing general legal principles and procedures and the substantive law” and being able to “investigat[e] facts, [and] identify[…] issues,” are also forms of legal knowledge that require well-developed and continuously-updated research skills, in order to remain a competent practitioner.

In this course and this book, your skills and knowledge will be developed not to create an encyclopedic knowledge of “the law” but rather to help you be able to know how and where to look, how to fill in gaps in your knowledge, how to assess and work with the information you find, and how to make connections between existing knowledge and new information.

As well, this course will endeavor to help you develop your skills as a discerning information consumer, who stays abreast of trends and developments in sources and technology, and who continuously assesses available sources for appropriateness and bias. The last twenty years were marked by significant change, but the next twenty years promise an even faster rate of change in both sources and skills. While new types of searching and rudimentary AI attempt to do some of this work for us, research skills remain essential.

As an author and an instructor, my goal is to help you develop not simply the technical skills in doing research, but perhaps more significantly, the skills in evaluating your own research needs, assessing tools to meet these needs, and acting as a discerning information consumer who can synthesize material from a range of sources to best meet changing needs.

This book started as a chapter in Gemma Smyth’s Learning in Place. It is with her generous permission that what started as a chapter is now a book.


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Legal Research - A Practical Perspective Copyright © 2022 by Meris Bray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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