By Nada Khirdaji

Law school helped me to think like a lawyer, but it was only in practice that I began to appreciate the essential role of legal research. In fact, much to my chagrin, I remember derisively dismissing an optional course in advanced legal research on the assumption that it would be of little use to me.

I am now a research lawyer. Everything that I know about legal research I learned in practice. I am a generalist (with a growing specialization in class actions) and I provide legal advice in all areas of my firm’s practice. I write opinions, memoranda and facta, among other things. I am constantly asked to provide answers in areas of law that I know virtually nothing about.

The reality of articling and the early years of practice is that that you too will have to get up to speed very quickly in unfamiliar areas. Here are some tips to help you in the transition from your neatly compartmentalized law school courses to the wild and unruly practice of law.

  • Fight the urge to dive headfirst into online case law databases. This strategy only works if you have unique search terms in limited jurisdictions or prior knowledge about the area of law. You can waste astonishing amounts of time and money flailing about without result.
  • Start with general resources, such as leading texts, and then move to specific cases. This will enable you to actually learn about the area of law and will lead you towards the relevant case law and applicable legislation.
  • Do not rely on what the text says about the cases in the footnotes – you must read those cases and note up the relevant ones.
  • Always assume there is a statute that affects your analysis. If you think that no statutes apply, ensure that you have exhausted all possibilities (e.g. the Interpretation Act). Learn to read a statute. Read the table contents to understand the structure of the act. Use the index. Most importantly, where possible, read the entire act from beginning to end, including defined terms. The section headings are often misleading and do not reflect the content of the statutory provisions. The importance of statutes cannot be overemphasized. You have very limited opportunities to deal with statutes in law school, where they are identified for you, while statutes predominate practice. You will have to learn to identify them yourself and to read and understand the legislation.
  • When researching judicial considerations of a statute, include predecessor sections, analogous sections in other (likely Canadian) jurisdictions and similar provisions in related statutes.
  • Journal articles and periodicals tend to be better for law school papers than for legal memoranda. The general purpose of a memo is to analyze the law and apply it to your particular fact scenario – not to discuss the law generally or explore possible future trends.
  • Use the firm specific resources available to you, such as memo databases, and consult with your colleagues.

Take every opportunity in law school to develop your legal research skills. Whatever area of law you ultimately select to practice; excellent legal research is your key to success in your articling year and beyond.

Nada Khirdaji is a partner in the Research Department of Osler's Toronto office. Her practice focuses on legal research as an expert service to resolve complex, critical legal issues in all practice areas, with a particular emphasis on product liability and class actions.

This article first appeared in on the Osler Students page and is reprinted with the permission of the author .