Updated March 2015
It is indisputable that the Internet has leveled the playing field, making it easier and more affordable than ever for solos and small firms to compete with larger firms. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the field of legal research.
It used to be that the only available research options were to either use the closest law library or maintain a costly and space-consuming library on your law firm’s premises. Then along came electronic research capabilities, but even then, it cost an arm and a leg to subscribe to the two most popular platforms, Westlaw or LexisNexis. The high subscription costs often made these platforms unpalatable for solos and small firms.
Fortunately, however, the Internet age ushered in a new era in legal research, making legal information available to everyone at little to no cost. The Cornell Legal Information Institute was one of the first online platforms to make legal information free and easily accessible to lawyers and legal consumers alike–and it continues to do so to this very day.
But it was the launch of Google Scholar’s fully searchable legal case database in November of 2009 that truly revolutionized legal research. Suddenly, lawyers everywhere could search vast case law databases for free. Since then, the research capabilities have improved substantially, making it easier than ever to conduct legal research and check the citations of relevant cases.
So what’s included in Google Scholar’s database? A lot. The Google Scholar About pagedescribes its legal database coverage as follows:
Google Scholar allows you to search and read published opinions of US state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and US Supreme Court cases since 1791. In addition, it includes citations for cases cited by indexed opinions or journal articles which allows you to find influential cases (usually older or international) which are not yet online or publicly available.
To use Google Scholar, simply head over to the Google Scholar home page and check the “legal documents” box as shown below:
On the next page, you’ll see a list of cases that include your search terms. Of course, at this point, by default, the results includes cases from every jurisdiction, so you’ll want to limit your search to specific courts by clicking on “Select courts” in the left hand column:
Then, you’ll be taken to a page where you can limit your search to specific courts. As you can see below, I limited my search to New York courts:
Once you’ve limited your search to your chosen jurisdictions, you can then reduce the results even further by limiting them to a specific time frame by clicking on the choices in the left hand column. In that same column, you can also sort the results by relevance or date:
To view a case from your results, click on it to read the full case. As shown below, you’ll see that the case includes hyperlinked cases directly in the decision, so that you can follow the links and review the cited decision:
A newly improved feature of Google Scholar is the ability to glean useful information regarding how the case you are reading has been cited–in other words, it’s Google Scholar’s version of “Shepardizing.” To do so, you click on “How cited” in the upper lefthand corner, as you can see below:
You’ll then be taken to the page below, which includes a list of cases that have cited your case, with those on the left appearing based on the number of times your case has been cited for a particular legal proposition. On the right, the cases appear based on the extent that the citing case discusses your case. Three blue bars means your case was discussed at length, two blue bars means it was discussed somewhat, and one blue bar means it was discussed briefly.
Finally, at the bottom of the right hand “Cited by” column, you can explore all of the documents citing your case. When you follow that link, you land on the following page, which lists the cases that discuss your case the most first, with an excerpt from each case. You can also check the box at the top of the page to search within the citing cases. And finally, last but not least, you can click on the “create an alert” icon that appears at the bottom of the left hand column:
Doing so takes you to this page, where you can fill in the relevant information so that you’ll be alerted if any new cases are released that cite your case:
So, there you have it. The ins and outs of conducting free legal research using Google Scholar. Do you use Google Scholar? If so, share your tips or tricks in the comments below.