Legal Research Survival Guide, Part 2 – Just browsing…

In conducting legal research, a lot of time and energy is spent structuring and running keyword searches to retrieve information. But keyword searching is a bit like ice-fishing. You bait your hook with what you believe is your best lure (most relevant terms) and hope for the best. Because you can’t see below the surface, you can’t tell whether the biggest fish (that perfect case) got away.

Don’t miss the other Survival Guide posts

Rather than starting your research with this blinkered approach, a better strategy is to use sources that let you see the bigger picture – sources that facilitate browsing, scanning and drilling down through a table of contents.

Browsable sources and tools such as legal encyclopedias, texts and loose leaf services have several benefits, especially when used in the initial stages of your research. These secondary sources can help you:

  • gain a quick overview of an area of law, and the context for your issue
  • understand basic concepts (especially useful if your research assignment involves an unfamiliar or new area of law)
  • broaden your perspective by alerting you to other potentially relevant issues, claims and defences you may not have thought of 
  • identify the leading cases and governing legislation (without having to reinvent the wheel)
  • pick up on commonly used terms and phrases that can be used later for more precise and effective keyword searching

The CED (Canadian Encyclopedic Digest), Halsbury’s Laws of Canada, many legal texts and most leading loose leaf services are available online as well as in print. If you need help finding a good source that covers your research topic or legal issue, just ask a law librarian at your firm, local law library or the Great Library.