Google Scholar: A New Way to Search for Cases and Related Legal Publications

Many of us have taken advantage of Google's free searches to find information on a potential client, an old friend, a restaurant, a news article, or even a book.  As of November 17, 2009, Google offers the ability to search for U.S. case law as part of its Google Scholar search.  You can now conduct free searches for full-text opinions of cases and legal journals in addition to general articles and patents, which were previously available on Google Scholar.  Searches are conducted the same exact way you would conduct a search on Google.com.  That is, there is no need for Boolean connectors anymore if you don't want to use them, and you still might get the exact case you're looking for.  This article gives an overview on the new features Google Scholar provides for the legal research market.

Coverage

Google Scholar now includes U.S. Supreme Court opinions since 1791 and U.S. federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 in its database.  The database also includes U.S. state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950. Cases are cited in Bluebook format, include internal page numbers, and are cross-linked within the database.  The service also crawls other free case law providers and provides links to cases on these sites.  In addition to case law, Google scholar provides links to secondary sources, such as law reviews and journals.

The cases themselves are displayed with characteristic Google simplicity.  The search term that retrieved the case is highlighted throughout, and footnotes are hyperlinked to their location in the opinion.  Because the cases appear in Google Scholar, there are no ads displayed on the page.  Internal page numbers are highlighted to the left of the text, which many reviewers of the new offering have noted is less distracting than the starred page break notations used by commercial publishers.

How It Works

The search interface works much like its counterpart on Google.com.  Users can search by case name, citation, lawyer name, or topic (i.e., "instant messaging").  The Advanced Search feature allows users to limit search results by state or jurisdiction, and provides guidance for conducting a Boolean search somewhat similar to those found on LexisNexis® or Westlaw®.

The "How Cited" Tab displays results from a search for that case citation across the entire database.  The results appear as quotes from the case, with the case citation in context.  On the right side of the page, the "Cited By" box displays search results for cases, books, and secondary sources. Below that, Scholar returns a list of "Related Documents."  These appear to be generated by an algorithm designed to locate cases with similar fact patterns.

Is it Useful?

Google Scholar's free search has drawn praise and criticism.  On the positive side, it employs the clean, simple, and fast user experience that Google is well known and admired for.  The service does not require a login, allowing users to very quickly check a case name or cite.  The search engine works very fast--there is no perceptible delay or lag when returning search results.  Results are posted in publicly accessible hyperlinks, making sharing cases very easy.  Searches can be saved if the user logs in.  And, of course, the price is right -- users can search, view, and print these cases for free.

Most reviewers agree, however, that Google Scholar will not replace commercial legal publishers such as LexisNexis® or Westlaw® any time soon.  The value in paid services lies mostly in the editorial work they provide on top of caselaw -- e.g., headnotes and cite checking features.  While Google's "How Cited" tool provides some interesting perspective on how the case has been cited and used, it is probably not a replacement for the Shephards or KeyCite system.  Something else to keep in mind -- Google Scholar is limited to case law, and does not include statutes or regulations (though those are available for free elsewhere on the Internet).

All together, many lawyers have concluded that Google Scholar is a great place to conduct preliminary research, or to review new cases that have not yet been affected by precedent.  Using free services first can help narrow and focus your subsequent search in a commercial publisher, saving some money in search fees.  And because it's Google, we should expect to see more features and coverage in the future.

Why it's Important

For consumers, more information is always a good thing.  In his announcement regarding the new Google Scholar features, Google engineer Anurag Acharya references the value of an informed citizenry, and access to the law in a democracy, stating his belief that "this addition to Google Scholar will empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all."  At a time when the Obama administration has embraced government transparency, many believe that freeing the law from behind the Westlaw® and LexisNexis® paywall will help improve the health of our democracy.

For attorneys, Google's entrance into the legal information market should help to drive down research costs.  While it may not break up the LexisNexis® and Westlaw® duopoly right away, it does increase competition and foster innovation.  As Google expands its offerings, watch for smaller players to enter the market with free or low cost add-ons to supplement Google's work.  This healthy competition should encourage LexisNexis® and Westlaw® to improve their own products and price points, leading to more legal research options overall.

Check out Google Scholar's newest legal search features at: http://scholar.google.com.

Previously Posted by: The Bar Association of San Francisco, republished with permission.