It has been almost three years since the giant (…Google…) joined the legal research playing field with Westlaw, LEXIS, FindLaw and all the other law-related databases.  In November 2009, Google launched a new feature on Google Scholar that made 80+ years of US federal caselaw and 50+ years of US state caselaw searchable and readable. Here’s what are able to find: 

  • The entire opinions are indexed and available
  • Every citation is hyperlinked to the full text of the opinion cited
  • Every opinion includes a "How cited" tab showing how the current opinion was cited by the referring opinion
  • All opinions include their official citation and include page breaks and page numbers

Let’s to a quick test.  A couple of years ago I worked on a case for a road builder which had a claim against the Tennessee Department of Transportation.  When I GoogleScholar the name of the contractor and TDOT, my search immediately returns the Court of Appeals decision and the Supreme Court decision.  That’s it!  The hyperlinks to the footnotes and other citations … check.  The page numbers … check.  So far, so good.

Let’s try a different approach.  Suppose you want to research whether a written change order requirement can be waived under Tennessee law.  Just search: Tennessee "change order".  The search returned a list of 51 citations, including one of the leading cases on the issue: W&O Construction v. City of Smithville.  If you go to the W&O case and click on the "How Cited" tab, you will find a wealth of information, including the cases that have cited the decision, as well as snippets of the quoted material:

After being in the public for a few years, here are some insights about Google Scholar as a research tool and how businesses should approach its use:

  • This is a great offering from Google.  Ask any associate attorney in my office where I suggest that they start a research assignment and the answer will be: Google.  Is that the only legal research an inquiring mind should do?  Absolutely not!  But it is the best place to start.  And Google Scholar just opened a wealth of additional data for these preliminary searches.
  • One of the enhanced features of Google Scholar is the Advanced Scholar Search that allows you to search by name, jurisdiction, and subject area.  Again, I believe this enhances the preliminary searches that are performed.
  • Before relying on Google Scholar exclusively, I would want the public to fully test the scope of the database.  It will be important to watch how timely case law is collected and stored.  

Despite the benefit that Google Scholar results from provide public access to case law, the question remains: will this benefit the practice of law and resolution of disputes in general?  Some of my clients are empowered by their ability to do research and to assist in the trial preparation, while others would simply prefer to show up for the final judgment.  I think for the former group, Google Scholar opens up a pool of available research.  The later group would not bother.

If I had to limit my comments to one sentence, it would be: Great new tool for preliminary research!