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Legal Research Survival Guide – Part 9: Legal Writing Resources

This post focuses on the final stage of the research process – writing. The importance of this stage is self-evident – all of the hard work you’ve put into researching your client’s legal problem will be wasted if you can’t effectively communicate your findings and analysis.

Don’t miss the other Survival Guide posts

Here are a few tips to keep in mind during the writing stage of a research assignment:

Practice time management

Make sure you leave enough time in your research process for writing. Clear writing and thorough editing may take you as much time as researching. Plan according to your deadline. Don’t fall into the trap of dragging out your research to avoid nailing down your analysis and beginning to write.

Edit in stages

Tackle the crucial task of editing and revising your work in stages so that you can focus on one aspect of your document at a time. Start by reviewing the big picture – the overall purpose, structure and flow. Go back and edit for clarity and style. Lastly focus on the details. Proof read for typos, grammar, citations, links, etc. Check out this helpful tutorial on editing your own work using a 5-layered strategy.

Get guidance

Writing well is a career-long pursuit. Achieving the goal of clear, concise, accessible and compelling written work takes time, practice and also guidance. Where possible ask for feedback on your writing and accept constructive criticism.

Other Resources

There is also a plethora of helpful writing about legal writing that you can use to improve your skills in writing research memos, opinion letters, pleadings, contracts and, most importantly in daily practice, client communications. There’s lots to explore, but here’s manageable selection of practical resources to start with:

Neil Guthrie, Guthrie’s Guide to Better Legal Writing (Irwin Law, 2018) KF 250 G88 2018, 2nd Floor, Reference.

  • straightforward, readable advice on fixing legal writing deficiencies. The book’s working title, Please Don’t Write like a Lawyer, says it all.

Justice John I. Laskin, “Forget the Wind-up and Make the Pitch”, Ontario Court of Appeal (originally published in Advocates’ Society Journal, Summer 1999)

  • Justice Laskin’s widely cited article provides enduring advice on effective point-first legal writing.

James C. Raymond, Writing for the Court (Carswell, 2010) KF 250 R39 2010, 2nd Floor, Reference.

  • aimed at both judges and lawyers, this slim text provides practical advice, with examples, on organizing your writing and achieving plain style.

Cheryl Stephens, “Plain Language Legal Writing”, CBA PracticeLink, 2014

Point First Legal Writing Academy

  • University of Ottawa’s Legal Writing Academy offers free, interactive resources for improving legal writing skills.

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Legal Research Survival Guide – Part 8: Deciphering Case Citations

Once you’ve mastered the art of deciphering case citations, you’ll find that what initially looked like a jumble of letters and numbers to you is actually very useful legal shorthand. A case citation, properly formatted, can tell you the names of the parties, year, jurisdiction, court level and where to find the decision, all at a glance.

Here’s a quick primer (or refresher) on the components and format of the three basic types of Canadian case citations you’ll likely encounter in your legal research:

“Traditional” Citations

Traditional citations refer to cases as they appear in printed law reports.

  1. Names of the parties (aka “style of cause”) separated by “v”, all in italics
  2. Year of decision in brackets (Why are some brackets round and some square? Read our post, Square or Round?)
  3. Volume number of the reporter
  4. Abbreviation of the reporter name (“DLR” stands for Dominion Law Reports. Look to our post “Know What You’re Looking For
    for tips on how to decipher abbreviations.)
  5. The series number of the reporter (Some law reports have different series to break up long runs of volumes.)
  6. Page number on which the case begins
  7. Abbreviation for the jurisdiction and court

Online Citations

Online citations identify decisions found in free or fee-based online sources, such as CanLII, Lexis Advance Quicklaw and Westlaw Next Canada.

  1. Names of the parties separated by “v”, all in italics
  2. Year of the decision
  3. Online database/publisher
  4. Decision number
  5. Abbreviation for the jurisdiction and court

Neutral Citations

Starting in about 2000, Canadian courts began to adopt neutral citations. Since this type of citation is assigned to a decision by the issuing court, rather than a legal publisher, it provides no direction to a particular case reporter or online database. It is neutral and easy to understand, consisting only of the party names and three basic pieces of information – the year, court or tribunal and decision number. Neutral citations should be used where available. Adding a parallel traditional or online citation is optional.

  1. Names of the parties separated by “v”, all in italics
  2. Year of the decision (without brackets)
  3. Court or tribunal abbreviation
  4. Sequential decision number assigned by the court or tribunal (This citation identifies the 1557th decision made by the Ontario Superior Court in 2019.)
  5. Pinpoint reference to paragraph number, if needed

For more in-depth guidance on proper legal citation, consult the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (aka the “McGill Guide”). It sets out standards for formatting citations to a range of legal materials from cases to blog posts. You’ll also find handy lists of jurisdiction, court/tribunal, case law reporter and journal abbreviations in the guide’s appendices.

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Legal Research Survival Guide – Part 7: Organizing Your Research

Being an effective organizer is just as important as being an effective researcher—identifying and locating the law and commentary relevant to your research problem is only as useful as your ability to a) find that information again at a later date when it is needed and b) effectively communicate those findings to your principal, your client, others working on the file and most importantly, yourself.

Trust me – future-you will thank past-you for not having to cipher through pages upon post-its upon scraps of paper for the information you need. Thankfully, there are a handful of free, online note-taking services which can be really handy when trying to keep neat and organized notes. Here are three which the staff at the Library have reviewed (in no particular order):

Microsoft OneNote

  • Available on all devices (Android | iOS | Windows | Mac)
    • Can run into trouble when trying to switch to and from personal and work accounts
  • Flexible digital canvas
    • type, clip or write anywhere on the page
  • Designed to look and function as a digital notebook
    • Separate, colour-coded sections comprised of multiple, cascading pages
  • Insert screen clippings from the web straight into your notebook
  • Notes are searchable with the search function
  • Annotates notes with a decent collection of edit features
  • Integrates with Microsoft Office


  • Accessible on all devices (Android | iOS | Windows)
  • Free plan does not have all features available
  • Designed to look and function as a digital notebook
    • Compromised of notes which can be organized with tags
  • Web Clipper web browser extension
    • Take screenshots from the web straight into your notebook
  • Add reminders, checklists and external files to your notes
  • Annotates notes with a decent collection of edit features
  • Does not integrate with Microsoft Office

Google Keep

  • Available for Android, iOS and online
  • More minimal when compared to other apps
  • Notes organized as digital sticky notes which can be colour-coded and labelled
  • Speech-to-text functionality using voice memo feature
  • Add texts, photos, lists and reminders to notes
  • Invite others to collaborate on your notes

And lastly here are some general pointers to help you stay focused, organized and able to back-track when needed:

  • Always record the search terms and search strings you used throughout your research process
  • Make sure to record citations and pinpoint references clearly and accurately
  • Record the sources that you referenced throughout your search, and star those which you had more success using
  • Be concise yet thorough—leave yourself notes as to why you included something in your notes if it’s not obvious
  • Date your pages—this will help you keep track of your progress
  • Don’t be an information hoarder! Having too much or unnecessary information in your notes can be confusing and overwhelming—cut things out as soon as it is clear it is not useful

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Legal Research Survival Guide – Part 6: Help with Hansard

In our previous Survival Guide posts, we’ve covered planning your research and getting off to a quick productive start with research guides, current legal texts and CPD papers. This week we’re continuing with some practical tips for conducting effective statutory research, using Hansard.

Hansard is the term commonly used for the record of the debates of Parliament and provincial and territorial legislatures. It is a key resource for research into statutory interpretation, helping to shed light on the context and intent of legislative changes.

Hansard research can however be confusing and time-consuming. So here some useful preliminary steps to help you clarify and focus your Hansard search before you dive in:

  1. Identify the statute section(s) of interest

Don’t make your job harder than it needs to be! While there are times when an entire statute may be relevant to your research, quite often you’re really only interested in the legislative intent behind changes to specific provisions. Identify those sections using the current consolidated version of the statute. This will make the next stages of your research more efficient.

  1. Trace your section(s) back

Once you’ve identified the section(s) for which you want to find legislative intent, you’ll need to then trace the section(s) back to the point at which a relevant change was made by amending legislation, or to the point at which the section was first introduced. To do so, use the source (historic) notes included at the end of your section(s) in the current consolidated version of the statute. For a primer on how to read statutory source notes, see Following the Breadcrumbs: Source Notes and How to Use.

  1. Identify the bill number, parliament and session

Once you’ve located the amending or original statute of interest, you’ll need to find the corresponding bill number because Hansard deals with bills not statutes.

It’s also important to take note of the year, the parliament or legislature and the session number for your bill so you can search the correct Hansards. For example, knowing you’re looking for debate on Bill C-20 is not enough. You’ll need to know it’s the Bill C-20 from the 36th Parliament, 1st Session (1997-1999), not Bill C-20 from 35th Parliament, 2nd Session (1996-1997).

You can find bill numbers, parliament and session information on LEGISInfo (federal bills) and the Ontario Legislative Assembly website, as well as in the official annual print volumes of the Ontario and Federal statutes.

  1. Use the indexes

At this point, you have all the information you need to locate the correct Hansard volumes. Select the index for the parliament/legislature and session you need, and look up the bill number or name to find the pages numbers where debate at each stage (reading) of the bill’s legislative process can be found. (Page numbers in online versions of debate indexes are typically direct links into the full-text of Hansard.)

When searching Hansard online, you can use Ctrl-F or available keyword search boxes to get to the points in Hansard where your bill is mentioned. However, relying on Hansard indexes will give you a more complete and clearer picture of your research path.

Need to find Hansards online? Look to our blog posts Finding Hansard Online: Canada and Ontario and Ontario Hansard Then and Now for pointers.

And there you have it. While each bill is unique and the road to finding information on legislative intent may not always be straightforward, you can depend on the framework described above to guide you to the Hansards you need—just as you can depend on the library staff to help you along the way. Be sure to come to the Reference Office, or contact us through Ask a Law Librarian if you have any questions.

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Legal Research Survival Guide, Part 5 – CPD/CLE materials: Field notes at your finger tips

Every year, lawyers and paralegals who are practising law or providing legal services in Ontario must complete at least twelve continuing professional development (CPD) hours. Formerly called Continuing Legal Education (CLE) in Ontario, it is known by either name in other jurisdictions. The Great Library collects CPD/CLE print materials made available from select providers such as the Law Society of Ontario, the Ontario Bar Association, the Canadian Bar Association, and LawPro.

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