Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Google: Not All Bad for Legal Research

While the Law Library provides many fantastic legal databases for our patrons, we know that sometimes people start their research on Google.

It isn’t hard to see why. For non-legal searches, Google usually finds good enough information. It is fast, and you don’t have to bother with logging in. Starting your legal research with Westlaw or Lexis will yield better results than Google while still saving time in the long run, especially if you start with a secondary source. But, if you are starting your legal research with Google, perhaps consider the section of Google where you can search through legal opinions and law journals specifically: Google Scholar.


Google Scholar started as a way to search all kinds of academic literature. Since its inception, it has added patents and court opinions. The basic search interface is just like the main Google page. Enter your key words and the search engine uses its algorithm to [hopefully] return the most relevant cases. Like any search engine, it is not perfect. The results are usually good, but just as with Westlaw and Lexis you will need to look at many of the cases in your results to be confident in your research, and not all of the cases in your results will turn out to be useful.

You can specify jurisdiction using the drop-down boxes on the bottom of the advanced search page. This is highly recommended as Google Scholar provides no way to find a good case in one jurisdiction, and then easily find a similar case in another jurisdiction. (More on that in a future post....)

Google Scholar has full-text cases. Even though the case is on Google, most cases include the pagination you would find in a West Reporter, or numbered paragraphs where appropriate. There are also hyperlinks to the cases cited in the opinion, if those cases are also on Google.

Citation Analysis

In addition to the text of a case, there is a “How cited” tab with three distinct citation analyses. First, there are excerpts from the text of documents, usually cases, that cited your original case. It is a somewhat useful feature for seeing the points of law for which a case is most cited, though it is limited by the lack of a legal ontology such as West's Key Number System.

Second, there is a “Cited by” section that shows the citing cases that talk most about the case in question, and includes a link to all of the cases and articles that cite to it. Google has recently added an icon to citing cases showing the depth with which a case is discussed. There is a three-level scale: “discusses cited case at length,” “discusses cited case,” and “discusses cited case briefly.” If there is no discussion of the case, then there is no graphic. This is particularly useful in trying to validate your research. Google Scholar does not have signals like Shepard's and KeyCite. You are on your own for making sure a case is still good law. While there is no guarantee that a court will discuss a case at length before overruling it, looking for that type of discussion is the best you will be able to do for validation in Google Scholar.

The final section on the page is a list of “Related Documents.” These can be from any jurisdiction, but the majority seem to come from the same one as the original case. One quirk in Google’s algorithm is that it puts weight on the fact that two cases are in the same reporter, which means that Illinois cases come up as related to Massachusetts ones, for both being in the North Eastern Reporter.


There are some major caveats to doing legal research on Google Scholar besides the lack of case validation. Google does not disclose the source of its opinions, and there have been no large-scale tests of their accuracy. It is also not clear how quickly the database is updated, which is another strike in trying to use it for validating research. The cases are definitely not official versions, and shouldn't be cited in a brief. While you can search for federal cases or state cases, the state cases only go back to 1950, and federal appeals court cases go back to 1923. There is a full run of Supreme Court cases.1 More importantly, Google Scholar does not include statutes or regulations. You may have much better luck with some topics by starting in the statutes (for instance, the freely available Massachusetts General Laws) and then searching for cases that discuss that statute. It won’t be as quick or easy as starting in an annotated statute, though.

So, is it OK to use Google Scholar?

Yes, situationally. Overall, Google does a good job of finding cases related to your search terms. It does not do much to help you if you have bad search terms. Also, it is very easy to get bogged down in clicking through all of the cases that cite those initial cases. Google Scholar is a place where you can quickly pull up a case, or begin researching a topic when a secondary source is not available / too costly. It is not the place that you complete your research.


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