Practical tips and tricks
by Christine H Williams
I could probably count on one hand the number of lawyers who enjoy researching legal issues as much as I do. If you are one of these hardy souls, and if you’re already as internet savvy as, say, the average nine year old child, then you probably know these tips and more besides.
But if you prefer to minimize the time you (or your delegatees) spend researching issues, and if you haven’t yet ventured beyond published digests or paid subscription databases, then read on. Here are some tips I’ve picked up researching cases all over North America.
- The first step: find government-sponsored “court” Web sites. Federal, provincial or state Web sites will generally direct you to online court decision databases, which tend to be reliable and fairly up-to-date.
- Consider material from Web sites hosted by other law firms, professional journals, and associations. Remember that anybody can slap up a Web site, so use your judgment and be conservative about your sources.
- When in doubt, cross-check material to ensure accuracy.
- Legislation is almost always current on government-sponsored Web sites, and may include former text versions as well. Check disclaimers for information about the scope and currency of the material.
- The higher the court, the more up-to-date the cases. Top federal courts may include online decisions that extend back 80 years or more, and are often updated on a daily basis. Provincial and/or lower court databases generally extend back about 10 to 20 years, with updates every week. Again, check disclaimers.
- British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario provide a wide scope of online case material on their government sponsored Web sites. Other jurisdictions, such as Nunavut, lack a strong online database. Tip: to spot-check older decisions, review recent materials and note the legislative and common law history.
- If you routinely use Google or another search engine, you’re probably familiar with Boolean logic; for example: “marital dissolution” AND (“insurance proceeds” OR divorce). Many databases allow you to look up specific cases by citation as well as party name(s). Be sure to document word associations, so every possibility is covered.
- While reviewing cases, copy relevant quotes and toggle back and forth to your word processing program in another window, pasting quotes directly into your notes. Keep printing to an absolute minimum.
- Remember to copy the citation. It’s no fun to find the quote that clinches your argument, only to realize later you have no idea where it came from.
- Remember to check case updates. This is generally offered as a handy separate function by paid subscription sources, but needs a manual check by party name on internet databases.
- A surprising number of cases are available in out-of the way places. If nothing else works and you need to find text for a specific case, try conducting a general search by case name. I use Copernica, a meta-search engine which scans results from 14 common search engines and orders them for easy access.
- The final step is to cut, sort, and prepare your arguments. I work very fast scanning and copying information, so at the end I have a lot of material to pare down for an on-point analysis. I also use a one-page “quick summary” with issues, conclusions, and jurisdictions, backed up with additional bullet points, quotes and citations.
Christine H Williams, a former sole practitioner and founder of LRS Legal Research, specializes in online legal research and analysis for Canadian and American lawyers. Christine can be reached at 604.990.5123 or by email at email@example.com, or online at www.cbusiness.bizhosting.com.
This article was published in the December 2003 issue of BarTalk. © 2003 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.