Google Scholar’s Legal Search

November 24, 2009

Google announced last week that its Google Scholar search feature will now include full text searches of State and Federal case-law.  I haven’t had time to fully explore this new search facility, but from what I have seen so far it looks very promising.  Free legal research on the web has always been kind of iffy. Lawyers pay a premium for the really good stuff. That may now be changing.  I probably use findlaw and Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute most often for free legal research. I compared a Google Scholar search of  a Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v. Heller) with that of the Cornell LII site  and findlaw.  I still personally prefer the Cornell LII search results for the following reasons: Cornell LII gives the researcher a choice of html or pdf version of the opinion. Cornell LII also provides a menu at the top of the page to allow the researcher to choose the opinion, any concurring opinions, and individual dissents.  Both findlaw and the Google Scholar search require you to scroll through the entire entry to find the particular opinion you are looking for.

Admittedly, these are very minor inconveniences, especially considering the breadth of Google Scholar’s universe of cases. Compared to Google Scholar, both findlaw’s and the Cornell LII’s libraries seem limited, particularly for state case-law.  The Google Blog post announcing this service actually paid homage to Tom Bruce of Cornell LII as a pioneer in making case-law more accessible to the average citizen, but Google’s arrival on the scene is a real game changer.

Google’s powerful search capabilities are of course its real strength.  A researcher need not know which cases are important in seeking information on a particular topic. A broad query like “abortion rights” or “gun control” will provide plenty of case-law and legal analysis of the issue.

There is also a google scholar alert feature, which will send the user an e-mail whenever a paper is cited or a subject is mentioned. I have used google news alerts for years, and find them very useful, if a bit difficult to keep up with.

Once again, it looks like Google will be competing head to head with premium fee based services, this time in the legal research field.  This will benefit both lawyers and non lawyers looking to learn more about the law and the legal system.

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