If you’re looking for free access to legal research, check out Google Scholar. Previously, I’ve written about Fastcase, a popular legal research tool that often comes free with your bar association membership. Now, we’re checking out legal research with Google Scholar.
What is Google Scholar?
Google Scholar provides access to published academic research and reports, it has a library of filed patents, and, most relevant to non-patent attorneys, it has a database of case law from every state appellate court as well as every federal court. Whether you need a case from the New York Court of Appeals or the Southern District of Iowa, Google Scholar likely has what you’re looking for.
With Google Scholar you can see how many times cases were cited regarding your search terms, enabling you to see which case seems to be most relevant.
Google Scholar also provides quote snippets so you can see how other cases have cited the case you’re looking at. While this isn’t a perfect substitute for the headnotes that Westlaw and Lexis provide (and charge you a significant premium for), it does shed some light on which passages of the case seem to be most relevant for particular areas of law.
Scholar can automatically highlight relevant passages of cases for you.
Alerts – Save Time, Money, and Stay Updated
Google Scholar can even send you email alerts if a new case is published related to your area of law. If I want to keep tabs on developments in copyright law, I can create an alert to see any copyright or fair use cases coming out of the Supreme Court. It makes it easier for me to stay updated on developments in the law without having to find out from legal publications or periodic CLE “update” courses on areas of law. If used well, the alerts feature of Google Scholar can save you time and money.
What are you saying? I don’t have to pay to view a case or print out two pages? I don’t believe it.
Unlike Lexisnexis and Westlaw, Google Scholar doesn’t have Headnotes, Shepardizing, or secondary sources. No treatises, no American Law Reports, no AmJur. So, it’s possible you’ll spend more time trying to find what you’re looking for in Scholar as compared to Lexis / Westlaw.
Google Scholar isn’t likely a great place to start if you’re completely unfamiliar with an area of law and don’t know specifically what you’re looking for; it’s not a great place to learn the law. Though, if you’ve already read your treatises and need specific cases, Scholar can help.
A particularly useful feature I like from Lexis and Westlaw is the ability to browse through tables of contents of treatises and statutory law, to help me hone in on exactly what I wanted to find. Not in Scholar.
Also, no state trial court level opinions. Lexis and Westlaw occasionally published state trial court level opinions. Not here.
How to Use Google Scholar
Despite the drawbacks to Scholar, it’s hard to argue with free legal research. So, if you want to give it a spin, here are some tips to getting started.
First, go to Google Scholar.
Now, pick your jurisdiction.
Choose your search terms (but you don’t need to think too carefully since this won’t cost you per search!) and click Search.
Unlike Lexis and Westlaw, Google relies on natural language searches rather than Boolean. So, you can search for “right of publicity celebrity” (omitting the quotes) instead of “right /2 publicity /p celebrity.” Based on experience of what results I’ve received from Scholar compared to Lexis and Westlaw, the results were comparable.
While it may not be what you’re used to, let’s not forget that Google is in the business of search. Google started because it wanted to provide users with relevant search results. And, in Google Scholar, it does a decent job.
Do you use Google Scholar or Fastcase in your practice? Or, are you using Lexis or Westlaw? Let us know in the comments below.