Start by reviewing commentary

As a general rule, it is best to start your research with commentary, such as a text or legal encyclopedia. This will provide an overview of the topic, help to define the issues, refer to journal articles or primary sources, and suggest key words to use when searching indices or on-line. In addition to setting out general legal principles, commentary can also provide useful analysis in areas where the law is complex or unclear.

Even if you start instead with searching case law, your next step should be to review some commentary.

Review texts critically, with the recognition that coverageaccuracycurrency and orientation vary considerably from one text to another.

Find leading texts

books01As you gain experience, you will become familiar with the leading texts in various areas. If you do not know of a good text on the subject you are researching, the traditional approach is to conduct a key word search in the library catalogue. However, there are many approaches to take.

  • Lists of Canadian legal texts are available that can help you locate leading publications.
    • Suggested Textbooks
    • LegalTree (see Resources by Subject Area)
    • topical bibliographies in books on legal research
    • research guides from university law libraries
  • Online topical research products will contain leading treatises in the subject area, although only the publisher’s products will usually be included.
  • Check with a law librarian for recommendations of leading treatises.
  • Another option is to search an online publisher’s catalogue, or on-line databases like WorldCat or Books in Print.

Use key words

While conducting your research, generate a list of key words.

  • Never look up an issue using only one term.
  • Be as creative and flexible as you can in generating your list of key words.
  • As you use each source and learn more about your topic, revise your key word list.
  • Use the key words to create online research queries.

Use the index, table of contents and table of cases

Use your key words to search through the indices in texts and other secondary sources. In addition to the index, look at the table of contents for the texts you review. Sometimes the index is poor, and the table of contents will make it easier to locate relevant passages. Also, the table of contents will give you a better sense of the emphasis and orientation of the text. Another way to locate relevant passages is the table of cases and table of statutes included in the text. If you have a citation for a relevant primary source, look it up in these tables, and go directly to that section of the text.

Check online resources if available

Most texts are not available electronically. However, a growing number of texts are published electronically. This will expand the resources available to you, particularly if you do not have ready access to a library. Full text research in the texts can be a valuable way to locate relevant commentary.

Options for researching legal texts online include the following:

  • Texts published as part of a topical service, such as EmploymentSource or Quicklaw Employment Essentials
  • Texts included in commentary add-on to a subscription service, such as Quicklaw EmploymentPractice
  • Texts made available through library access, like the Irwin Law collection that is licensed to registered members of the Law Society of BC, and accessed through the Reading Room on the BC Courthouse Library website
  • Texts made available to subscribers in electronic form, such as practice manuals published by the CLE Society of BC, and texts available through the Carswell eReference Library
  • Google Books – although you may not be able to view the entire book, this service can help you locate relevant books and even relevant passages in books

Although these digital resources may seem plentiful, remember that they represent only a small fraction of the commentary available in print. Do not restrict your research to digital resources.


Best’s Legal Bookmarks, Legal Publishers.

Best, Suggested Textbooks.

Bora Laskin Law Library Finding ….

Whitehead & Matthewman, Legal Writing and Research Manual, 7th ed (Toronto: LexisNexis Butterworths, 2012).

MacEllven, Legal Research Handbook, 6th ed (Toronto: LexisNexis Canada, 2013).

McCormack, Papalopoulos & Cotter, The Practical Guide to Canadian Legal Research, 3rd ed (Toronto: Thomson Reuters Canada, 2010).

Papalopoulos, John, “In Praise of Bibliographies” (23 November 2011) online: slaw<>.

Papalopoulos, John, “Online Research Guides and Bibliographies” (14 December 2011) online: slaw <>.

Queen’s University Faculty of Law, Legal Research Materials, Secondary Sources.

Tjaden, Legal Research and Writing, 3rd ed (Toronto: Irwin Law, 2010). Companion