Google Scholar – kinda awesome
I just discovered a new site thanks to a friend whose firm used it this summer. I don’t know how I didn’t know about this and please forgive me if this is old news to everybody else, but Google Scholar (scholar.google.com) is great for looking up free cases.
The motto of Google Scholar? “Stand on the shoulders of giants” which, according to a note from the Google Scholar team, means that “We recognize the debt we owe to scholars everywhere whose work has made Google itself a reality and we hope to make Google Scholar as useful to this community as possible. We believe everyone should have a chance to stand on the shoulders of giants.” The ambitious goal of Google Scholar is to allow a user to “search across many disciplines and sources: articles, theses, books, abstracts and court opinions, from academic publishers, professional societies, online repositories, universities and other web sites.” So I decided to try a search of my own to see how good it was at finding cases.
I guess the biggest perk of Google Scholar is that it mirrors familiar ol’ Google. The search box looks like regular Google, but instead of the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons, Google Scholar has buttons for either “Articles” (with a checkbox to include patents) or “Legal opinions and journals.” I chose a random case from 1L year (specifically, from a footnote in Professor Hillman’s Contracts hornbook) to test it out.
I tried to make it harder than plain easy Supreme Court cases so I entered “Campbell Soup” in the legal opinions search box to see if it would recognize my older case – Campbell Soup v. Wentz, 172 F.2d 80 (3d Cir. 1948). It was the first entry on my results page (!) and gave me the full text of the opinion as well as hyperlinks to referenced cases within the opinion (which really worked) – just like the subscription sites. On the results page I was given other LexisWestlaw-ish information, like that it had been cited 527 times and by whom with links to the citing pieces when available. All the cases and journal articles citing Wentz were hyperlinked so it seemed like it was only the treatises that weren’t available this way – although the treatises had “Library Search” options to bring you to WorldCat and let you find the book that way. On this citation page, you’re also given a new Google search box at the top so that you can search within the articles citing Wentz if you’d like. Or you can back out to your original results page and instead of choosing the number of cites, you can click on “How cited” and bring up all the relevant excerpts and quotations from the various sources quoting Wentz. The other choice is “Related articles” which seemed to have a lot of overlap with the citing references, but otherwise I couldn’t really judge its usefulness or reliability.
Another nice Westlaw-Lexis-ish feature is that there’s a little envelope button that allows you to set up an email alert. It doesn’t look as sophisticated as the subscription sites, but seems to function in the same way in that you can create alerts for certain keywords. And right away on that set-up page, I was told that there were no sample search results for “Campbell’s Soup” in legal opinions and journals since 2011. Pretty useful feature for a completely free site. I would think it would be helpful if you were working for a public interest group and wanted to keep tabs on the current status of case law in your field. – especially if you had court deadlines looming and wanted to (cheaply) reassure yourself of the most current law.
Google Scholar also has an “Advanced Search” option. If you choose to start your search here, you’re given restricting dropdown boxes. The default is “Search all legal opinions and journals” but you can limit your search by federal court (i.e. “all federal courts” “Supreme Court” “all appellate courts” “2nd Circuit Appeals and District” “Tax courts”) or by state. Or you can select specific courts to search, which takes you into a new page with all of the US courts laid out the way Westlaw does – you can check or uncheck boxes to make an aggregate of the courts you want to search. I was really surprised at this feature given that I didn’t see anything so comprehensive on most of the other free case sites.
So the searchability was definitely great for federal cases, even an older one. I plan on trying an obscure state case next to see how thorough Google Scholar is there. But this posting is already getting a bit long so that will have to wait until next time. I’m also going to have to explore my “Scholar Preferences” and see what that gives me, but so far I’m impressed.
Drawbacks? Well, the site does come with a warning about the material – “Disclaimer: Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate.” So I think if you were actually citing something you found here, you’d want to use the citation you found in your searching to go find the opinion in a more reputable printed place before citing it, but still – Google Scholar is kinda awesome.