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Free Legal Research by Google & What It Means

by Carolyn Elefant on November 17, 2009 · 16 comments

in Legal Research and Writing, Legal Research Options, Tech & Web

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What do I think about Google’s recent launch of a free, online legal research tool as part of Google Scholar?  (disclosure: my husband works for Google, but isn’t involved with the legal research project)

Funny you should ask, because I’ve been tracking, evaluating and most of all, patiently awaiting the arrival of a functional, robust online research tool for nearly a decade.  Back in 2000, I wrote my first piece for the Washington Legal Times, entitled How I Researched A Legal Brief Online for Free (now only available behind fee wall, here) And when I started MyShingle in 2002, I set up a category for “Legal Research & Writing” to track various bar associations’ adoption of Casemaker, which at that time was one of few free resources for legal research.  In short, I’ve been around the block long enough to put Google’s new tool in perspective — a welcome  step worth celebrating, but far from the game changer that many are predicting.  At least yet.  Here are my quick thoughts:

1.  Is Google’s free service functional? Google’s service isn’t the first time we’ve seen free legal research on the Internet.  For years, Findlaw purported to be a source of free research and to its credit, it aggregated most publicly issued court releases.  But Findlaw didn’t offer a search engine for locating the material nor did the cases include citations.  Moreover, Findlaw didn’t include any federal district court law, thus severely limiting its functionality.

Google’s legal research tool is different.  The coverage is broad, dating back at least 60 years and encompassing federal district court cases, bankruptcy and state and federal appellate decisions.  Not surprisingly, the search engine is robust, speedy and offers several neat features, such as the ability to search by state and to see how a case has been cited previously.  In addition, the cases include the appropriate Bluebook citation (e.g., 333 US 234 (1943)) and hyperlinks to other cited precedent.

One deficiency I noticed, however:  I was unable to find unreported cases (or at least my one unreported case; most of mine are published).  For example, a Section 1983 case of mine went up to the Fourth Circuit and was affirmed in an unreported case.  Google lists the lower court decision, but the appellate decision isn’t available either through direct search or the cited previously feature.  That’s potentially a problem (even though many circuits don’t permit cites to unreported cases, they can prove valuable) and I assume it will be corrected or the omission will be clarified.

Update – for more extensive functionality analysis, see Don Cruse’s Scotx Blog and Volokh (describing his vanity search).

2.  So will Google replace Lexis?

Already, some bloggers like Social Media Law Student Rex Gradeless are suggesting that Google’s unique features will give LEXIS and Westlaw a run for their money.  How I wish that were so, but it’s unlikely for some time.  For starters, what many commenters overlook is that a research database for caselaw alone isn’t very useful for regulatory practice areas like energy, securities law, communications or tax where LEXIS and Westlaw aggregate reported agency decisions.  That’s the value I get from LEXIS and what keeps me a captive customer.

Second, LEXIS and Westlaw are upping the ante with value adds like access to federal briefs (I don’t subscribe to these add-ons because I can’t justify the cost in my practice).  In fact, several weeks back, I was blindsided in federal court when opposing counsel cited an unpublished federal district court decision issued a few months earlier that was not yet indexed on Westlaw or LEXIS.  My guess is that my opponents’ searches lead them to one of the briefs in the unreported case which cited other related caselaw.  Having found the brief, they could then enter the docket number on PACER to determine whether a decision issued (which it had in this case).  This is the first time that this has ever happened to me; generally, I’m a sufficiently thorough researcher that I never miss a case.

My point here is that even as free services launch, the premium legal services still continue to improve. So the gap still remains  between legal research haves and have-nots.  And just when I think that the gap is closing and perhaps the WEXIS duopoly has been cracked, it turns out that the fee services have added some other bell or whistle to keep an edge.

3.  Who’s really in danger here?

As I see it, Google’s free legal research services won’t put a dent in LEXIS or Westlaw, at least not for a long, long time,  Instead, they pose a threat to what I’ve collectively termed the “second city” providers like Versuslaw, Casemaker, FastCase or Loislaw.  Right now, most lawyers are able to access those services for free or cheap through deals with the bars – but will bars continue to support those subscriptions when there’s a robust free option available?  My heart goes out to these companies because they served as an oasis for solos when no other options, save the law library and manual research, existed.  Yet I don’t see all of them able to survive the Google onslaught.

4.  Still, consider the possibility…

So even though I don’t see much changing anytime soon, I am excited about the possibility of free caselaw online via Google including:

Comment Section: What if users had the ability to comment on the analysis in cases, just like commenting at a blog?  The collected comments would help users better understand the case and perhaps view it in a new light.

Private, customized databases: LEXIS and Westlaw claim copyright over cases with “value add” headnotes and links and further fortify against bulk downloads with clickwrap licenses.  (In fact, it’s these protections that shut down a completely free service that was launched in 2000 (I can’t remember the name); the developers had purchased a LEXIS subscription and moved the cases wholesale into their free data base).  No such prohibition exists for Google’s data base, so users can download cases related to certain areas of law (cases download easily as PDF; they look terrific), tag and categorize them and set up private libraries for themelves and clients.

–Sponsored caselaw: OK, I know that the anti-marketing cabal will let me have it for this suggestion (and maybe I deserve it), but the ability to sponsor cases seems like a neat idea.  I’m not talking about tasteless, screaming ads, but maybe something along the lines of an adopt-a-highway sign or badge.  Lawyers could sponsor their own caselaw as well as pivotal cases in their practice areas.

5. What’s next?

Yes, I’m ecstatic that the public who pays for the law can now have free access. But what about us lawyers?  I’m governed by state ethics decisions, yet here in Maryland I can’t access them unless I fork over $200 a year to join a voluntary bar association.  Hey Google – why not get the state ethics opinions online next?  Legal Informatics has some other suggestions on other information that Google can add moving forward.

I’m eager to hear your impressions of Google’s free service.  Please post them below.

Related posts:  Rick Klau, Law on My Phone, Ernie the Attorney, Techno Esquire, Gene Lee at California Labor Law, Resource Shelf, Jim Calloway (also noting free online text search of journal articles launched by ABA).  While I agree with Lawyer Market that free legal research will make going solo easier, I don’t think that free legal research is going push lawyers on the fence about solo practice over to the other side.  Also, see Lex Disrputis for more interesting predictions.

  • http://questionoflaw.net Lisa Solomon

    As usual, a thorough and thoughtful analysis. I expect nothing less from you :-)
    I do want to point out, though, that I believe Maryland’s policy of not giving anyone other than MSBA members access to its ethics opinions is highly unusual. (Did you know that Maryland doesn’t even provide its ethics opinions to Lexis or Westlaw)?
    You can find links to ethics materials from most states at http://www.law.cornell.edu/ethics/listing.html

  • http://www.ptlegal.com John Corcoran

    Great review. I too have been waiting for this day. I agree that Google Scholar thus far isn’t a game changer, but I’m happy there’s some (very) deep-pocketed competition on the block. If nothing more, it should force Lexus and Westlaw to be more competitive, both in features and pricing structure.

  • http://www.twitter.com/VBalasubramani Venkat

    Great post, and I’m inclined to agree with you that the Google initiative is several years away from replacing Lexis/Westlaw.
    I’ve only spent 30 minutes with it but the limitations in coverage and the lack of certainty as to whether cases are truly “up to date,” coupled with the lack of secondary sources are something Google will have to work on over time.
    As you noted, the initiative is nevertheless great since any additional competitive pressure on Lexis and Westlaw are good things.
    I wonder if Google will do something that Lexis/West should have done long ago? Link decisions to blog posts which specifically discuss cases. Particularly for decisions in the past five years, I’m always curious to see what bloggers are saying. This has taken the place of the top shelf law review talking about a grey area that can usually be relied on to acknowledge the authorities out there (and blogs are typically a bit more current). It would be so easy for Lexis/Westlaw to have added this to their database but they don’t seem to have (at least in an easily accessible fashion). I wonder if this is something Google can accomplish fairly easily.

  • http://solopracticeuniversity.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    My concern is less that lawyers will use this service (althought it is highly valuable as a starting point) and more that those who want to go pro se will erroneously feel they have the ability to figure things out because they can’t afford representation. Or they will believe it’s ‘not hard’ to do research.
    Google is consumer-driven. I’m not sure this was necessarily geared towards helping lawyers (though it can). I think it was geared towards helping consumers impacted by the law and may falsely make them feel they can effectively argue their case by simply doing a google search.

  • Richard Maseles

    I’m still playing with the possibilities. What impresses me so far is that a search by case citation, even a West Reporter citation, not only seems to pull up the case itself, but citing cases, which leads to the possibility of it functioning as a citator in the way that Loislaw’s citator does– no interpretation, just the fact of the case being cited. It won’t displace Shepard’s or KeyCite– yet, but the possibility is there, especially considering that both of those products have used algorithms for most of their analysis for some time.
    I think the comments could be very valuable as a form of wiki-type annotation by practitioners who’ve discovered that, say, Smith v. Jones contains an in-depth analysis of (or overrules, or distinguishes) Hatfield v. McCoy.
    Now if Google wants to really hit one out of the park, they could take on statutes and regs.

  • http://67.225.230.212/~sh1ngl3 Carolyn Elefant

    Lisa – thank you for the link. I know that MD doesn’t give its decisions to LEXIS and Westlaw.
    Venkat – excellent idea about the blog posts. Very similar to my comment idea, but actually better because so many bloggers offer great analysis; far better quality than what would go into comments.
    John – definitely agree w/competition comment. I think the secondary services also had the same impact on LEXIS.
    Susan- Great insight – I think you have just given all of us lawyers a great marketing idea: explaining why we bring value to clients beyond what they can obtain from online Google research. This could make an excellent series of blog posts (in fact, when I resume blogging at my law firm blog I am going to do just that)!

  • David Dilenschneider

    “[E]ven though many circuits don’t permit cites to unreported cases”? Check the applicable court rule. Fed. R. App. P. 32.1(a) states “[a] court may not prohibit or restrict the citation of federal judicial opinions, orders, judgments, or other written dispositions that have been: (i) designated as ‘unpublished,’ ‘not for publication,’ ‘non-precedential,’ or the like; and (ii) issued on or after January 1, 2007.”

  • Matt Van Sickle

    You indicated that you can download cases in PDF and that they look terrific. Is there anyway to do so without having the list of Google services on the header?

  • http://law.typepad.com/10thcircuit/ R Barrera

    Google is playing coy – see podcast at http://legaltech.law.com/my_weblog/2009/11/by-ari-kaplanspecial-to-the-legal-technology-blog–i-spoke-with-rick-klau-the-product-manager-on-blogger-for-google-who-was.html – but eventually, in my view, Google will offer a Google Docs Legal Edition which integrates the case law research component and targets Microsoft Office/Sharepoint.

  • http://www.goldsteinandclegglaw.com Michael Goldstein

    This new legal search tool by Google is going to be a great help to those new attorneys or those looking to start up their own firm, limit their initial overhead. I know when I started my firm every dollar spent had to be scrutinized, and WestLaw was a big decision.

  • Kathykuzman

    The above thought is smart and doesn’t require any further addition. It’s perfect thought from my side.

    One Law Center
    **********
    kathy

  • Sfishman

    I would not underestimate the power of Google. They are projected to add 6000 new employees within the next two years. I have faith this legal research service will continue to improve and hopefully make legal research easier, more cost efficient and just as good as the “duopoloy” of Westlaw and Nexis.

  • Les Kite

    Most helpful. I am using a file managmement program and it has a link to Google legal so that I can add all matters searched to a give file.

    Any significant addiitions/iimprovements to Google legal since you 2009 post/

    Thanks,

    Les Kite
    les@kitelaw.net

  • Matthewtwhitten

    Um, no…Google won’t replace Lexis. What this feature from Google will mean is that there will be more and more people who now think they’re experts, and those of us involved in legitimate legal practice will have to deal with these imbeciles and their frivolous arguments and bogus claims. It’s already happened an an exponentially increasing rate due to the Internet, and this will no doubt make it worse.

    Frivolous claims have increased at the Federal level dramatically ever since the word got out that if you claim some sort of Civil Rights violation, the Federal Court is where the case is filed, as the lower state courts don’t deal with questions of constitutional law. So now every idiot that gets a traffic ticket can claim the officer violated his civil rights and the Federal Court at LEAST has to look at it on paper and determine if it has any merit. SInce Civil Rights cases are taken very seriously, they have to try to decipher what the person is alleging regardless of whether or not the case was filed correctly. This makes a lot of work for clerks, and results in meritorious cases not being heard.

    Soon, the courts will have to do something about it, because once a group of 100 or more realize that they can clog the court up this way, I’m sure they would just to see what happens. This will be a hard thing to regulate, because the media could blow it out of proportion by saying “the federal courts are now refusing to hear civil rights lawsuits…” durrrrr.,.

  • Monica Sandler

    Great piece Carolyn. What changes have you noted since publishing this in 2009? I am developing a webinar for a small firm client on free research tools. Has anything new popped up since Google Scholar that I should look into? I’m not a lawyer, never assisted lawyers and I want to make sure the sites I recommend will be the best for the time spent on them. THANKS!

    -Monica Sandler

  • Brian Levy

    I feel cases should be readily available to the public without fee or restriction.  It is a right of every individual to understand the law as it is the duty to be bound by it.  

    In law school I learned almost never to trust headnotes so, there is no value added.  In fact many times in court learned opposing counsel proved vulnerable because he relied on them and they did not mirror the case decisions.

    In my practice many times I would review with the relevant or controlling cases so the classes understood what was happening and why.  It helped in case settlement, developed a more realistic and reasonable expectation in the client’s mind and, at times even helped the client remember minute details.

    Decisions and orders are public record and property of the people IMHO should be available.  With changing technology there is no reason they should not be available online and free.  The day of the printed book is over as is the cd, etc.  The courts are now allowing electronic transmission of documents so it is an easy step to even allow all court file material to reside online.  The cost is less than file costs associated with paper and storage/retrieval systems.

    As lawyers, we need to think more about the client and publics’ rights and less about our fees.

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