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Legal Research Manual

This edition of Legal Research Manual builds on many previous editions. While the manual is designed principally for use with the first year legal research classes, upper year law students will also find it a useful reference.

Stage 1: Frame the Legal Issues and Identify Keywords

Prepare a Research Plan


Before beginning research, you need to spend time "brainstorming" the problem.

Read the facts, ascertain the subject matter, and note preliminary issues to be researched. Under what jurisdiction does the problem fall? Is the question governed by federal or provincial law? Is the problem governed by legislation (statutes or regulations) or by common law (case law)? Doth both apply?

State the issue in general and narrow terms. Think of synonyms or alternative words for both the facts and legal concepts. The legal concept refers to the cause of action. The legal concept and key facts are integrated into a statement of the legal issue. There may be several legal issues raised by the problem. If you are unfamiliar with the area of law, it may be difficult to initially know what the issues are. In this case, you may have to begin your research using some key facts from the problem. Key facts are those that will determine the application of the legal issues. You may need to do some background reading in textbooks or encyclopedias (See Stage 2: Initial Research).

Prepare a Preliminary Issue Statement

The first step in preparing an outline of research and analysis is to prepare a preliminary issue statement. What is it that you have been asked to determine? Although you will constantly refine this statement as you develop your research and analysis, the preliminary statement will focus your initial research.

Often the facts may be characterized in a number of different ways. At this stage, it is important not to state the issues too narrowly or in only one way. If one can persuade the judge to conceptualize or characterize the facts as a specific type of legal issue, then precedent may provide the desired outcome. A narrow issue statement will only result in a narrow list of similar cases. Try to think of alternate ways to conceptualize the issues.

To get your preliminary statement of issues started, it is useful to create one comprehensive list of everything you think needs to be included. Having done that, you can then start to revise the list into a more logical order. How will the court logically organize the issues? Are there preliminary questions the court will consider first? What will the court need to decide second, third, and so on?

It may be impossible to identify all the issues in your Preliminary Issue Statement. After all, as you conduct your research, you will become more familiar with possible issues and how they can be framed. Do not be afraid to revise your issues statements multiple times as you develop your research and analysis.

Developing a List of Search Terms

Here are two well-known methods to help identify the issues and key facts, though there are many more. Any of these can be used to prepare a list of search terms with which to begin your research.

The TAPP method (from the Lawyers Co-op)

  • Thing or object involved
  • Action or Activity that has created the problem
  • Persons involved (type or class of persons)
  • Place where occurred

List Words Describing (West Publishing)

  • The parties involved
  • The places where the facts arose and the objects and things involved
  • The Acts or omissions that gave rise to the legal action or issue
  • The Defense to the action or issue
  • The Relief sought