Free Legal Research by Google & What It Means

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.