The Role of Legal Research Lawyers in Law Firms

What goes around comes around. It seems that two years ago almost to the date, I mentioned here on SLAW the discussions of an informal group of Toronto research lawyers surrounding the role of research lawyers in law firms.

At our meeting last week, the same discussion arose again, albeit in a slightly different context. Our discussion this time around focused on the frustration some research lawyers still feel in their role not being fully understood by others in their law firm or by clients. This frustration manifests itself in a number of ways:

1) There is a mistaken belief among some in law firms that research is easy (“if articling students can do it, it can’t be that hard”). The truth, however, is that research – like other areas of law – is becoming more specialized. And legal research is not just about “techniques” but also but knowledge of sources, judgment and analysis and experience. There is a reason most law firms bill their students at a much lower rate -a senior legal research lawyer can be more effective and efficient than a student.

2) There is a mistaken belief that legal research is less important than other areas of practice. Most lawyers have no problem accepting that a “tax specialist” may be needed on a particular transaction but may question the need or value that a research specialist can bring to the matter. One (relatively trivial) example I regular cite of evidence that legal research is important are the various court decisions cited in Chapter 1 of my legal research book where courts have awarded costs for conducting online legal research.

3) There were comments that some corporate clients balk at paying for research (since lawyers are meant to know the law). If true, this is potentially unfortunate since the reality is that many client issues raise unique legal questions that require original research. The work around mentioned of course is the practice of describing this work on dockets not as “legal research” but as “drafting factum” or “analyzing question of vicarious liability,” something which seems unfortunate and should be unecessary.

4) There were also comments on the challenges that some legal research associates fear they will face in making partner at their firms (although there were at least two recent examples of this happening in Toronto).

Ultimately, perhaps there is some onus on legal research lawyers to better market their services within their firms and to educate clients on their role.

Legal research lawyers of course have one nice “example” to rely on, being the success that Bertha Wilson had in setting up Oslers’ legal research department, as discussed numerous times on SLAW including here.


  1. I think the problems you mention can be partially attributed to the poor job law schools generally do in teaching legal research. Most schools, my own (University of Ottawa) included, could do much more to emphasize the importance of solid research skills and to develop those skills in our students. Admittedly, I do very little to address this problem in my first year property course. There is a push in law schools across the country to remedy this problem, but it will take time for the effects to ripple through the profession. I personally would like to improve this area of my teaching, but don’t have the time or the pedagogical tools to do so. I’m open to suggestions from a research lawyer as to how educators can help to solve these problem.

  2. Interesting, Jeremy. I just got off the phone with one of our reference librarians (Osgoode) to talk about their coming into my Property class which starts this coming January. I’ve asked too much from them: to talk about the library’s e-resources, how to use them, and how to find property law material on them; and to work with small groups in the class on a problem I’ll be setting that will be tackled in class with students using their laptops. The whole thing needs more focus still, but I’m pretty determined to push my students on research ability and to use (some) class time for instruction and exercise where necessary.

  3. I recall a senior commercial lawyer saying that the last thing a client wants to hear from his/her lawyer is “That’s an interesting question.” No doubt the concern is the cost of the inevitable research! It seems to me that the client should be partly relieved to know that the research is being done by someone good.