Practical Advice for Doing Legal Research
Taylor Maxston (2L)
Ah, the Legal Research and Writing memorandum assignment… a source of anxiety and excitement for first-year law students as they prepare to go through the rite of passage that is the moot trial at the Supreme Moot Court of the University of Alberta. It can’t be understated that your case will only be as good as the memo you draft for it, meaning practicing and refining your legal research skills now will pay dividends in the future. As you look to research the issues for your moot problem, use these handy tips to make the process go smoother!
Before Diving In To Case Law, Get a Sense of What You Are Looking For
It might sound obvious that doing research requires you to have some idea of what you are looking for, but all too often the first mistake a researcher makes is not grasping the “legalese” that can help in finding answers. Being able to identify key words and phrases to plug into search bars will help to streamline the process and filter out content that will be less helpful. I would recommend using sources like Halsbury’s Laws of Canada on LexisNexis, or Canadian Encyclopedic Digest on Westlaw, to get a cursory overview of the law. Ask your professors for further details if you still have questions about where you should target your research.
Document the Information You Find and Organize It as You Would the Sections of Your Memo
Keeping a holistic record of your research will make it easier for you to draft your memo later. Start by creating a blank document that has space to fill in for the following items: (i) your issues and sub-issues, (ii) relevant statutes, and (iii) the applicable legal principles and case law. From there, progressively add notes indicating material you want to be able to refer to when you make it to the formal writing stage.
Continue To Frame and Adapt Your Legal Issues as Your Understanding Grows
Just because you formulate your issues in a certain way when you start your research doesn’t mean they should remain stagnant. In fact, a prudent researcher is likely going to have to make small (sometimes large) adjustments to account for how the law has developed in the area they are studying. This becomes especially apparent when you start to uncover the nuances of your position as well as opposing counsel’s position.
Don’t Get Tunnel Vision When Looking For Case Law to Support Your Argument
Rarely will there ever be a “magic bullet” case to answer the complex legal questions arising from the facts of a case (trust me, the people who draft the moot problem will guarantee no simple answers). It can be easy to find a case that seems to support your argument on its face and latch on to it, but ask yourself the following questions:
How authoritative is the case in question?
What are the similarities and differences between the facts of this case and mine?
Where will opposing counsel attempt to poke holes in the argument presented in the case?