If you are a lawyer, a law student or even someone working in a law office, chances are you hear the term ‘legal research’ on a daily basis. Contrary to layman belief, it is not limited to finding the law. It is the analyzing of the information that is at one’s disposal, that is, finding, understanding and applying of law. Be it legislation, case laws or opinions of the higher courts; legal professionals need to be thorough with the current laws, the practices and the procedures, to be able to fully and efficiently cater to the interests of a client. And it does not stop there. Relevant scientific knowledge, if any, business practices, and any technical aspects involved in the case, for example, regarding the environment or construction engineering etc., have to be studied and understood. In short, developing a holistic picture of the matter at hand is at the center of carrying out legal research that is genuinely fruitful. The purpose of such research spans from constructing the arguments a lawyer needs to forward in a court of law to the documents she/he needs to study for a due diligence exercise required to be conducted prior to a transaction.
If there is one skill that is primary to the practice of law, it is legal research, and that is irrespective of the kind of role one chooses to undertake – whether one is a practicing advocate, a corporate lawyer or a paralegal. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is indeed the founding stone on which the whole premise of the legal profession is built.
One might wonder, so then, if legal research is such an indispensable skill, how come we hardly pay any conscious heed to it. Truth is even if we do not talk about the theory per se, we practice it every day of our profession. It is rather unfortunate though that the lack of conscious attention results in underdevelopment of this essential skill among a large number of law students and even legal professionals. And the reason behind this is the lackluster reputation that ‘legal research and/or methodology’ as a subject ends up garnering from the beginning of law school. The administration neglects this particular subject and fails to allocate the kind of resources and faculty that a subject such as this requires. Students often mistakenly believe it to be an easy and unimportant subject, and there are few takers for it when it comes up as an optional one. Given its technical nature and the amount of hands-on work that is required, it is not even seen as a fascinating subject, as opposed to subjects that have their foundations in philosophy such as jurisprudence, or those involving interesting case studies and intellectual discourses such as criminal and constitutional laws.
The significance of adequate and quality legal research can be seen from the opinion of Justice Ferguson in the Canadian judgment of Gibb v Jivan  O.J. No. 1370 [Q.L.] (Ont. Gen. Div.). In this case, the failure of the council to conduct extensive research and bring to the notice of the court relevant information was brought to the fore. The judge highlighted specific duties that every practitioner of law is bound to perform. It includes being aware at all times of the latest developments concerning the matters they are representing, keeping abreast of relevant applicable law including statutes and case laws, and bringing to the notice of the court, all existing material authorities that are relevant in the matter. There have been instances wherein on failing such duties, courts have reprimanded advocates.
Fortunately, now the scenario regarding legal research is gradually improving, at least in some aspects. A considerable credit for this goes to online legal research portals, now widely available with the advent of technology and higher availability of internet access in most parts of the world.
These legal databases, when used correctly and intelligently, can give the user all information about the relevant case laws, their full texts, their present status along with any or all material facts, at the click of a button. This has reduced the time and resources required to conduct quality research, but it has to be borne in mind that proper training, primarily in law school and in some form at the workplace as well, cannot be dispensed with even when it comes to using these aids to their optimum efficacy.