Free Legal Research with Google Scholar

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.

Features

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.

Related: Free Law Firm Software and Legal Research Tools

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.

It’s FREE

What are you saying? I don’t have to pay to view a case or print out two pages? I don’t believe it.

Drawbacks

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.

Andrew Cabasso
About the Author: Andrew Cabasso
Andrew Cabasso is an attorney and co-founder of JurisPage, an online marketing agency for law firms, now part of Uptime Legal. Andrew has given many lectures and CLEs on website design and Internet marketing to legal professionals. He is the author of Search Engine Optimization for Lawyers and The Complete Guide to Attorney PPC. Follow Andrew on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

4 comments on “Free Legal Research with Google Scholar”

  • I’ve compiled a list of exemption 4 opinions and have hyperlinked them to where they appear on the web. I like the formatting of the opinions in Google Scholar but I’ve these observations:

    – Of the 326 opinions on the list ~ 15% of them do not appear in Google Scholar (yes, after trying out several queries with unique identifiers).

    – Google Scholar injects search terms that I did not specify. E.g., try these terms “public employees ‘science and technology’ foia.” In the list of search returns, Scholar bolded “government” and “state.” I suspect Scholar injects these terms and if I’m correct, it isn’t helpful. And, no, I didn’t find what I was looking for.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Scholar’s clean interface and how the opinions are formatted, but there’s quite a bit of work that needs to be done.

  • I used Google Scholar for finding cases all the time when I was in school. (only 9 months ago)
    Now when I go to the Scholar search page none of the options that used to be there, the same ones you show, are there.
    It was a pretty good tool for looking up cases to cite at home. THe only thing you needed was a citation and it would bring up the case for you to quote. Not anymore. The ragio buttons to specify what you want are gone.
    I punched in 2 F. 3d 369 – Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye Inc v. City of Hialeah about 3 different ways and the results it brought back weren’t even related. They ruined it.

    Nice post though.

  • Trying to search case law in Google Scholar but don’t find *Case law* (radio
    button under the search box). I found advance search only for article
    search. Is case law search feature provided by Google Scholar only in United States? Pl help..

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