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Bridging the DiGital Divide: A New Vendor in Town? Google Scholar Now Includes Case Law

By John J. DiGilio, Published on November 18, 2009

An unexpected salvo was fired in the battle to bring case law to the consumer today by none other than Web search giant, Google. The announcement that Google Scholar would now allow for precedent searches set the internet and legal world a buzz. With law firms still being battered by the struggling economy, Google’s move is opportune. Legal researchers are hungry for low cost alternatives to the industry’s major players. Just how Google’s new case offerings and functionality will stack up remains to be seen. Will it be a revolution in the world of case research or just another case of getting for what we pay (or don’t pay, as it may be)?

Google is taking on the old adage that ignorance of the law is not a defense when running afoul of it. Its announcement clearly targeted the average person, promising to enable “people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts.” What it may lack in the wide breadth of coverage we have come to expect from major vendors like Westlaw and Lexis, Google makes up for with the simple, popular, and widely-used power of its search engine. Folks who have never touched the other major vendors have almost certainly “googled” something. Thus, though new to the law scene, Google’s brand and familiarity could make it a formidable foe to the industry elite.

Searching for case law on Google is simple and versatile. You can search by case name, topic, or even phrase (“separate but equal” is the example they use). All you need to do is go to Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com) and click the new radio button for “Legal opinions and journals”. It is just that easy. But what of the results? How do they compare to what we in the legal community are accustomed? A simple test of the new search might just surprise you. Take a case like Bowers v. Hardwick, for example - seminal, controversial, and heavily cited. Run it’s name through the Google Scholar search. What you get is almost overwhelming. Yes your search results will return the text of the decision. But that is not all. Decisions, in this case Bowers, can come with official citations and pagination. Key factors for anyone writing and citing to the case. The cases cited in the body of the decision, if Google has them, actually show up as clickable links. That should give the major vendors pause! But this is STILL not all Google Scholar has to offer. If there are legal journals that cite the case you have searched and Google has them, you will see them in your search. By clicking the “How Cited” link next to the case name on the results page, you can see how the document has been cited, where it has been cited, and other related cases. Searching for Bowers brings up a list of cases that have been seminal in the area of privacy rights, for example. Even the footnotes are clickable links! Suffice it to say that Google is on to something really good here.

But what of coverage? For many of us in the legal world, coverage is probably second only to cost when it comes to choosing case law vendors. ust what does Google include in its case law offerings? According to the site, Google Scholar includes “opinions for US state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and US Supreme Court cases since 1791”. Many will point out that this is limited in comparison to most major legal information vendors. However, considering that searching and reading case law on Google is free, it is doubtful many will complain.

So is Google Scholar a replacement for the more expensive case law providers on the market. No, not really. The Westlaws and Lexises of the world charge a premium for enhanced content and functionality that Google simply does not offer. You cannot Shepardize or KeyCite a case, for example (and all good researchers know that this is an imperative in most situations). You also cannot access or link to major secondary sources such as legal encyclopedias, digests, and practice guides - tools necessary for well-rounded and thorough legal research. But what Google Scholar does offer is an amazing place to start case research in a manner that will cost clients no more than your time, if you bill for it. Consider it cost prevention at the early stage of your research and cost prevention, at any stage, is exactly what today’s economy and most clients now demand.