Top Five Mistakes in Electronic Research

I’ve developed Top Five and Top Ten lists as part of the Boot Camp I teach, with my colleagues, to articling students at our law firm. While it started out in fun, I soon discovered that it was an effective teaching tool that students paid attention to (as opposed to anything else I said), and have spent time refining it recently. I thought I’d offer this one as my first post, (although it’s not very tech-y) and welcome comments.


1. Missed higher level of Court: This one’s a career-limiting move! Did you check judicial history in more than one source? I recommend you use one electronic source (eg. QuickCite) and one paper source (eg. Canadian Case Citator); another research lawyer here believes using just electronic sources is ok so long as you check two different ones;

2. Relying solely on electronic databases : More often than not it is best to first browse a textbook in the relevant area of law before going online; you will be able to benefit from someone else’s work, develop ideas for argument, and refine your queries when you do go online; this should lead tobecoming more time efficient[ it gets you out of your office, too!] Don’t forget to go back to the paper resources throughout your research if appropriate; ask yourself if you’ve taken too narrow an approach to the problem; use the library catalogue rather than scanning the shelves as the best texts/resources are often checked out;

3.Missing relevant cases: inadequate selection of databases in electronic sources: Using full text databases before checking other resources first is a common mistake; use headnote/summary databases (on westlawecarswell,eg. Can.Abr.Digests; on QL, eg., CCS, QPIQ for quantum, or topical databases); try journal and legal literature index databases before using full text caselaw databases such as CJ);

4. Missing relevant cases: search syntax poor: Garbage in, garbage out. Remember to use truncation, synonyms, various spellings & misspellings; check syntax rules for different databases; come see one of the research lawyers in advance and we’ll help you structure your searches for online databases;

5. Googling your legal issue: None of the research lawyers polled have found this to be a successful strategy, except in rare instances, eg. the legal issue has been headline news, or involves policy discussion or ethical questions; even if your search terms are useful ones, you will get too much junk in your results. If you want to use the internet, go to specific sites, eg. provincial court or Queen’s Printer sites, Law Reform sites, or other legal sites (CanLII), etc. Google can be useful for non-legal searching however.


  1. Solid wisdom here but let me put another spin on your last bullet.

    Googling may get you results but you have to be very careful to use the advanced features.

    If you run a multi-level search and then restrict it to the domain you can do quite well.

    Run the search on Canada only. Restrict the search to specific formats like PDF.

    I’ve also had success putting in some fairly specialized vocabulary.

    When you get a result that’s responsive, block a phrase and right mouse click it – in Mozilla – and a new window will open up.

    I agree that there are some areas of the law where Googling won’t work, but I managed to find some quite decent discussions of the Alberta Income Trusts Liability Act, using this feature last Friday just before going out of town.

    The trouble is that folks don’t understand how to refine their use of search engines.

    I recommend Nancy Blachman’s Google Guide at