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All Our Research Tips

In what is becoming a biennial tradition here on SLAW Tips, I want to remind everyone about SITE: search, one of the advanced search tools offered by Google.

Google’s SITE: search allows you to search just one website for specific terms. This can be useful when a site’s own search form is disappointing or missing altogether.

There are two ways to access this tool: via Google’s advanced search form or directly from Chrome’s address/search bar. Back in 2011 Shaunna Mireau gave us a detailed explanation on how to use the advanced search form. More recently, in 2013, Dan Pinnington showed us how to use this tool directly from Chrome’s address bar.

I prefer to use the SITE: search directly from Chrome’s address bar. To do this, follow these three steps:

  1. In Chrome, navigate to the website you want to search. In my example, we’ll use Transport Canada’s website (
  2. In Chrome’s address bar, delete all the characters before and after the root domain. For example, I would edit the full URL (i.e. to be
  3. Add the phrase site: before your edited text (no spaces!) and enter your search terms after the edited URL (with a space!). Press enter and review your results. For example, my search would look like this: “minor works” “navigation protection”

Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)


A lot of writing by lawyers is clearly intended only for other lawyers. Cases in point from a recent edition of Lexology:

Opinions: the Sixth Circuit’s most active authors
Squire Patton Boggs
This post examines which Sixth Circuit judges write the most opinions. My analysis examined opinions available on Lexis over a five-year span. On…

Delaware – Federal district court limits fee request
Morris James LLP
This is an interesting decision for the way it treats a fee request in connection with the settlement of Delaware litigation. Counsel in a case filed…

This sort of thing is fine if your target market is a lawyer at a big firm – except that probably isn’t your target market. And maybe not even if it is – those two examples aren’t exactly gripping.

Your readers may well be in-house counsel, so things of purely lawyerly interest may work for them.

But wouldn’t it be better if your in-house counsel reader could distribute your blog post (or whatever it is) to all the business people he or she supports, with no requirement for translation into plain English?

In order to expand your reach, it’s better to pitch things to a more general, non-lawyer audience. Some tips:

  • plain language wherever possible
  • avoid legalese – or use it once, explain it and move on
  • no Latin!
  • be practical in focus – why is this legal development important to someone outside the rarefied world of lawyers? what action does your reader need to take (or avoid) as a result?
  • don’t go into too much detail – you want to give the highlights, without giving away all your wisdom and without miring your reader in the minutiæ (which can be a bit, well, boring)

Next tip: lay-out and design

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


As a great fan of checklists I highly recommend Atul Gawande’s book on the subject, The Checklist Manifesto.

In his book Gawande makes the case that a checklist is valuable even if you have done a specific task many times before and know exactly what you are doing. He illustrates this point by giving examples of how checklists are used in hospitals and airplanes.

Checklists are a very handy tool for libraries. They can be used:

  • to train people to do new tasks;
  • when staff are away and tasks need to be performed by someone else;
  • for processes that involves multiple staff members, so that everyone knows what has been done and nothing falls through the cracks; or
  • to carry out specific research tasks, e.g. researching a company or an individual. You can list all the resources that should be used on the checklist, and, once the task is done, forward a copy of this list onto the person who requested the research so they know exactly what resources were consulted.

Another value of a checklist is that designing it forces you to think about the process you are documenting. Are there parts of the process that are unnecessary or are there procedures that should be on the checklist that aren’t?

Susannah Tredwell (@hannasus)


Go easy with these.


Where there are too many words with capital letters, the visual effect is jarring and over-emphatic. Don’t succumb to what Bryan Garner calls ‘the unfortunate tendency toward contagious capitalization’ in legal writing.

Above all, Resist the Temptation to Capitalise Important Words, which can look a bit Winnie the Pooh (‘I have been Foolish and Deluded … and I am a Bear of No Brain at All.’).

By all means say ‘the Government of Canada issued bonds’, but when the reference is more general, you can lose the upper case: ‘the government wants to extend tax breaks to …’ – or ‘the federal government’. Similarly, ‘The Province entered into an agreement with…’ but ‘former president Bill Clinton’. Except as a defined term in a legal document, ‘the board, ‘the company’, ‘the chair’.

Litigators take note: outside the context of a factum or other formal document, you really don’t need to stick a capital on every instance of ‘judge’, ‘justice’ and ‘court’. Do refer to ‘Justice Cromwell’, but in your legal update it’s cleaner and more modern to write ‘The judge ordered …’ and ‘The court decided…’ A capital letter in these cases is not the sign of respect it is sometimes said to be (‘the Judge is an idiot’? – or perhaps that’s ‘Idiot’); it’s a just hold-over from the days when all nouns were capitalised in English. Nouns still take the upper case in German, but the practice began to fall out of general usage in all but lawyers’ English after about 1750.

I do like the official use of a capital T for ‘Her Majesty The Queen’, however. But you’ll need to convince me why ‘internet’ needs an upper-case I.

Oh, and no capital after a colon (unless the word would have one anyway, like Canada). The Globe & Mail does this, and it irritates me. The colon doesn’t indicate the end of a sentence: it marks the pause before ‘delivering the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words’ (Fowler, Modern English Usage).

Defined terms

A related issue.

Remember that if you’re writing a client-friendly blog post or article, a thicket of defined terms is off-putting, and often unnecessary. You aren’t drafting a contract that needs to have airtight, interlocking terminology.

If Alvin Chang is suing Jonathan Cohen, and there are no other Changs or Cohens in the picture, please don’t do this: The plaintiff, Alvin Chang (“Chang”), alleges that the defendant, Jonathan Cohen (“Cohen”), … If the dispute with Cohen is about a contract, and one contract only, there is no need to define it as (the “Agreement”). Just call it the contract or the agreement. Heck, mix things up and call it both; it will add a little variety.


Acronyms can be useful, but they become annoying if overdone – or even impenetrable. Examples from Lexology:

When your brand name is a claim—NAD cleans and straightens without support from advertiser
Venable LLP
There is lore that the beauty industry does not challenge itself sufficiently before NAD, and for this reason NAD brings more monitoring challenges…

CFPB proposes to delay TRID to October 3, 2015
Maurice Wutscher LLP
As referenced in our prior update, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a proposed rule to change the effective date for…

If you’re an advertising insider or know beauty industry lore, you may also know that NAD is the National Advertising Division of the US ad industry’s self-regulatory system, administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus – but would a law firm’s client know that (or even an ad agency’s)? And while someone in financial services may recognise CFPB, I’m not so sure about TRID. It turns out it stands for the TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure rule – whatever that is. Wouldn’t it be better to describe it as the ‘”know before you owe” rule for consumer lending transactions’? (And don’t use reference as a verb.)

Next up: think of your reader

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


In 2011 Shaunna Mireau wrote about the usefulness of CanLII as a monitoring tool for the latest decisions in an area of law. I’m updating that tip by highlighting the value added by LexBox for this sort of CanLII monitoring.

As Shaunna wrote, the basic approach to using CanLII for decision monitoring is a quick three step process.

  1. Compose a search that will retrieve the type of decisions you’re looking to monitor for.
  2. Sort your results by “most recent” rather than “by relevance”.
  3. Click the RSS button and copy and paste the provided URL into your feed reader of choice. (I like Feedly, but Outlook has RSS capabilities too.)

The only issue with this approach however is that CanLII RSS feeds have a 1-year expiry date built into them. For example, below is a CanLII RSS URL for a search of all Alberta decisions about contaminated sites:

That expiry date means your new RSS feed will actually stop delivering results after one year. (This is a normal bandwidth management practice on CanLII’s part – no knock on them!) So, what is the solution for long term case law monitoring?

I’ve turned to LexBox because it uses the CanLII API itself so that saved searches never expire. Just install their Chrome extension and then use the LexBox “Set up alert feed” option to save your CanLII search for long term monitoring.

lexbox screenshot

A big high five to Montreal’s Lexum for the development of LexBox! It’s a tool of many uses and this tip covers just one of the ways I leverage it on a daily basis. If you’re interested in learning more about LexBox, Nate Russell wrote a longer SLAW article about it in July 2015.

Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)


This could be a long one, but I’ll restrain myself as much as possible. And I admit, not all of these are strictly writing tips.

Many aspects of the working day are, well, kind of boring. In response, people in business seem to want to jazz up the English language – but the result , more often than not, is a collection of expressions that were often bizarre to start with and hackneyed soon after.

If everyone is using them, you don’t want to. Instead, dazzle your reader (or listener) with language that is clear, precise and original.

In the world of business jargon, some patterns emerge (my commentary in italics).

Metaphors that were once vivid

‘Once’ being the operative word – they are now just clichés.


  • drill down, suit up, deep dive, high-level, circle back, run it up the flagpole, think outside the box, push the envelope [so it falls off the desk?], open the kimono [racist, sexist, more than faintly creepy], moving parts, take if offline, bring me up to speed, dial it back, drink the Kool-aid, patch me in, walk you through it, take-aways, bandwidth, next steps, optics, herding cats, on the same page, in the loop, close the loop, bring to the table, heads-up, heavy lifting, paradigm shift, special sauce, secret sauce, connect the dots, back of a napkin, grow the business, ducks in a row, boil the ocean, window of opportunity, peel the onion, reinvent the wheel, hit the ground running, pain-point, touch-point, point-person, space [as in ‘the banking space’; just say ‘banking’], take it to the next level, gain traction, move the needle, trial balloon, hill to die on, at the end of the day, the devil is in the details, game-changer, touch base [actually, all sports analogies], fall through the cracks, low-hanging fruit, buy-in, value-add, value proposition, reach out [you didn’t reach out; you just e-mailed], view from 30,000 feet

Verbs that aren’t (or shouldn’t be) verbs


  • reference [and ‘above-referenced’ is an abomination worthy of the sixth circle of hell], leverage, trial, action, incent, liaise [like ‘incent’, not even a word], impact [except in a dental sense; probably rendered a verb in more general use because people can’t figure out the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’], language [ugh], plain-language [double ugh], task, repurpose, scope, whiteboard

Weird use of nouns

  • learnings [never; nor should you talk about ‘a learning’], trainings [ditto], deliverable [adjective not noun, and not to be pluralised], ask [a verb that isn’t a noun], spend [ditto; you mean ‘cost’, ‘expenditure’ or ‘spending’], value-add


  • change-management, process-improvement, quality assurance, business process outsourcing, mission statement, thought-leader …

Meaningless platitudes

  • going forward [are we ever likely to go back in time?]
  • it is what it is [well, yes]
  • solution [in the IT sense, really just a product or service; and often a ‘solution’ in search of a problem anyway]
  • functionality [instead of ‘it has these functionalities’, why not just say ‘it does x, y and z’?]
  • core competencies [are we interested in peripheral ones? just say ‘job requirements’ or ‘skills’ – and not ‘skill set’]

Awful adjectives

  • key [let’s leverage our key learnings! no, let’s not], core, robust [fine for coffee or red wine, but not regulatory compliance], major, granular, iconic [please stop using this word, especially when describing things that aren’t images], seamless, proactive, impactful [um, how about ‘effective’?], high-level [which just means ‘superficial because I couldn’t be bothered to think about it’]

Next time: capitals, defined terms and acronyms

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


When looking at legislation it is sometimes helpful to know if there are similar provisions in other provinces. Rather than reading through each and every statute to check for equivalent provisions, it is much faster to use a concordance.

The trick is finding a concordance for a specific act. While concordances don’t exist for all acts, they do exist for a significant number of them. Publishers often include concordances in consolidated legislation. For example, LexisNexis’s Consolidated Canada Business Corporations Act & Commentary concords the Canada Business Corporations Act with all the provincial and territorial business corporations acts.

Concordances also exist between old and new versions of legislation. For example Quickscribe includes a concordance between British Columbia’s Companies Act and Business Corporations Act (which replaced the Companies Act) in its BC Business Corporations Legislation Manual.

In addition to concordances produced by commercial publishers, governments often produce a concordance between old and new legislation when the subject is important enough. For example British Columbia provides a concordance between the Local Government Act and the Community Charter.

Susannah Tredwell (@hannasus)


Bryan Garner, editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and a legal writing expert, recently blogged on the exciting topic of when italics should be used for Latin words and phrases and when they can be in roman (plain) type. It must have been a slow day in the blogosphere.

His ‘fuzzy rule’ is that you can skip the italics when the word has become fully naturalised into English. So, ‘habeas corpus’ and ‘prima facie’, but ‘sensu stricto‘ and ‘in pari materia‘.

In a waspish mood, I left a comment on Garner’s blog, asking whether it wouldn’t be better to write ‘strictly speaking’ and ‘on the same subject’ for the last two of those, since our clients don’t generally converse in Latin.

Mr Garner doesn’t seem to have liked the comment, because it is still ‘awaiting moderation’ months later – but I stand by it.

If you’re acting for the Vatican or writing for an audience of learned monks, Latin is fine. Otherwise, use it only when it’s absolutely unavoidable or so widely understood that it doesn’t look like a dead, foreign language.

Lawyerly use of Latin has its pitfalls too, if you get things wrong. US lawyers use scienter as a noun (‘degree of knowledge that makes a person legally responsible for the consequences of his or her act or omission; the fact of an act’s having been done knowingly, esp. as a ground for civil damages or criminal punishment’: Black’s Law Dictionary, ed. B. Garner). But scienter is really an adverb (‘knowingly’ or ‘skilfully, expertly’).

Better to stick to the language you and your readers know than to try looking all edjumicated.

Next week: banish business jargon

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


Doing legal research increasingly means having multiple windows and applications open. You might be referring to CanLII in one window, the CRA website in another, and that email you’re working on in a third. Some of you might even have two or three screens set up beside each other on your desk!

This new normal became 100% more efficient for me when I learned how to use the below four keyboard shortcuts to quickly marshal all my open windows. These first two shortcuts instantly resize your window to take up half of the screen and then snap it to one edge or the other.


These second two shortcuts will maximise or minimise your window. I use them less often than the two shortcuts above.


These shortcuts are compatible with Windows operating systems only. They were introduced with Windows 7 so you’re out of luck if you’re still on Vista! The “Win” key is often found in the bottom left of your keyboard, between Ctrl and Alt.

Bronwyn Guiton (@BronwynMaye)


You feel nervous about publishing something, right? You should be, a bit – but don’t let it put you off.

Some things to bear in mind:

  • get a partner to vet your idea and your draft, for technical accuracy
  • defer to the senior person on points of law (unless you can show you’re right), but not always on stylistic matters (as an articling student, I stood my ground when a partner insisted that theirself was a word)
  • check whether your firm acts for any party you’re talking about – you don’t want to say anything a client might not like
  • be cautious in taking positions on public issues – your firm may represent parties with interests at stake, even if those parties aren’t mentioned specifically in your blog post or update
  • humour is good, but be careful; it can backfire
  • consider anti-spam legislation (basically, no commercial electronic messages to parties with whom you don’t have an existing business relationship)
  • if available, have your marketing or communications people check the formatting of your piece and run a draft by you before publication

On a more positive note:

  • write about something that clients will find interesting
  • pitch it at a level that will engage, not alienate, your reader
  • write plain, understandable prose – not Latinate legal mumbo jumbo (which will alienate your reader)
  • explain why this new case or statutory provision (or whatever) is relevant: what does the client need to do, be aware of, avoid?

Now that I think of it, many of these are useful pointers for partners, too.

Now, get writing.

Next time: lose the Latin.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)