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Free legal research using Google Scholar

by William L. Pfeifer, Jr. on January 7, 2010 · 1 comment

in Legal Research

Google Scholar

Those seeking an alternative to the overpriced legal research tools offered by companies like Thompson West Publishing (Westlaw) and Lexis-Nexis (Lexis) need look no further than their Google web browser. In November of 2009, Google announced on their blog that the Google Scholar tool now includes the full text of legal opinions issued by state and federal courts.  The opinions are fully searchable through the Google Scholar search engine.

For the last month, I have tested and used Google Scholar’s legal research tool extensively.  The results are impressive.  Search results are returned faster than any other legal research tool I’ve tried, and the quality of the results (meaning how relevant the result is to the search query) is usually better than the results of the fee-based services.

After having used Google Scholar to write several briefs, I have to say that the legal publishing companies who are extracting unreasonable service fees from attorneys are in trouble. While some such as “3 geeks and a law blog” believe that Google Scholar will never replace the traditional legal research behemoths, I have to disagree. With Google’s service producing faster and better results than the costly subscription services, at a minimum companies like Westlaw and Lexis will have to significantly lower their prices in order to stay in the game. While old-timers who have used their products for years may be reluctant to change, the newer generation of lawyers have the modern internet mindset that knowledge should be available for free. They aren’t going to cling to the old workhorses of the past without a really good reason. And ss Legal Geekery noted, the features of Google Scholar will only improve over time.

There are three significant weaknesses in Google Scholar’s legal research tool that will keep Google from taking complete control of the market, at least for now. First, Google Scholar does not provide a way to Shepardize cases .   Shepards Citation Service is a tool now owned by Lexis which enables a researcher to quickly determine whether or not a case is still good law. Shepards was the first to provide this service long before the days of computer databases, and this once indispensible tool firmly engrained the term “shepardizing” into the legal lexicon for any effort to confirm a case is still good law. Shepards, and its copycat programs, lets the reader know what cases have cited the case in question, and flags the citations where the law has been overruled or distinguished. Most fee-based legal research tools provide a way to check citations in this manner, though Lexis owns the original Shepards Citation Service. In Google Scholar, the only way to shepardize a case is to run a search for the case’s citation and then manually review each of the results – which can be a very time-consuming. Verifying that a case is still good law is absolutely essential if one intends to use the case authority in a legal brief, so this is a significant weakness in the Google Scholar tool.

One way to work around this first weakness would be to use Shepards on an as-needed basis. Lexis, through their LexisONE system, makes Shepards available on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. However, at their current rates most people looking for a bargain are going to pass on that option.

The other way to work around this weakness is actually rather simple. One of the search functions on Google Scholar is to sort the case results by date. One can do a search for the case citation, looking for the most recent citations first. If the case has been overruled, that fact will be mentioned in the newest cases. If the latest cases still rely on that ruling, odds are it is still good law. It is not a perfect method, but in most situations it will be adequate.

A second weakness in Google Scholar is the lack of an easy way to look for important legal issues. For example, in Westlaw each case includes what are called Keycite results. Keycite identifies the specific issues and authorities which serve as the basis for the ruling, and indexes them in a summary at the start of the case. The key number assigned to the issue can be used to find that legal issue in any case that has been released in that jurisdiction. This enables a researcher to quickly scan the index to see if the case applies to his or her issue, and also enables a researcher to use the keycite as the basis for a search for other cases. The current version of Google Scholar does not include a function like this. While the importance of such a tool is minor compared to the need to Shepardize cases, the lack of this tool will be one of the angles used by the legal research companies to convince lawyers to continue using their services. While I have always found natural language searches to produce more focused results than Keycite, many who are dependent on such tools will not be satisfied with Google Scholar.

One remaining weakness in Google Scholar is that federal caselaw only goes back 80 years, state caselaw only goes back 50 years, and statutes are not hyperlinked in the cases. While these limitations are an inconvenience, in most situations they are not significant. If your legal brief depends on case authorities that are more than 80 years old, then you are already in trouble and probably need to rethink your approach to the issues.  That said, sometimes you have to go back 100 years to find a case that is on point.   As for the missing hyperlinks to statutes, all of the state and federal statutes are available for free online already. Pulling up the statute in a separate window may cost a few extra seconds, but otherwise it is not really a significant shortfall of the system.

Anyone dependent on the use of all the bells and whistles that come with Westlaw or Lexis may not be satisfied with Google Scholar. However, anyone comfortable doing their own search queries and who doesn’t need indexing tools to spoon-feed them the results will be extremely pleased with Google Scholar. On my computer the search results are almost instantaneous, and the cases are delivered in an easy-to-read web-friendly format. I find it much easier to use than Westlaw, Lexis, Casemaker, or any of the other systems I have tried over the years. Anyone who needs to conduct legal research would be wise to try doing it for free with Google Scholar. With a service of this quality available for free, there will soon be no compelling reason to pay for legal research tools again.

Be sure to check back with us for future articles and tutorials on using Google Scholar for free legal research.

William L. Pfeifer, Jr.

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