Using Google Scholar to Conduct Free Legal Research

How to Use Google Scholar

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Updated March 2015

It used to be that access to legal research databases cost an arm and a leg, but this was back in the good ol’ days when Lexis and Westlaw had cornered the legal research market. How times have changed! Today you have more options than ever before, ranging from the old stand bys, Westlaw and Lexis, more affordable legal research options such as Fastcase and CaseMaker, and entirely free alternatives such as Google Scholar.

For many lawyers, Google Scholar is an incredibly appealing option since it’s free. I last wrote about Google Scholar back in 2012 and some of the features have changed, while others have been added. So that’s why I’m writing this updated two-part blog post series on how to use Google Scholar. I’ll explain the ins and outs of using Google Scholar to conduct legal research, focusing on the basics in this post and then in next week’s post, I’ll highlight some of the more advanced features.

For starters, here’s what’s included in the Google Scholar database, as described on the “Search Tips” page at Google Scholar:

Currently, 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.

Getting Started with Google Scholar

Now that you know what’s covered, let’s get started. First, head over to the Google Scholar home page and check the “case law” box as shown below:

Google Scholar Homepage

Next, choose the courts that you want to search. If the specific court you are looking for isn’t listed, click on the “Select courts” link and you’ll be taken to this page, where you can choose the appropriate court(s). The image below includes just a small sampling of the courts available:

Courts on Google Scholar available to select

Then, return to the main search page and enter your search terms:

Google Scholar homepage

Once you hit “Enter” you’ll be taken to a page that lists your search results:

Google Scholar court cases example

By default, the results are sorted by relevance but if you click on the “Sort by date” at the bottom of the left hand column, the results will be sorted in chronological order:

Google Scholar court cases example

Note that underneath each case, you’re provided with information about the case in the form of links that provide you with more detailed data about the case, including the number of cases that have cited it, articles related to it, links to different versions of the case, a link which provides you with the official citation, and the ability to “save” the case. I’ll discuss what happens when you save a legal case and how you can organize your saved research next week in Part 2 of this series.

You can create an alert that will save this search and automatically notify you of any new results by clicking on the “Create alert” icon found at the bottom on the page of search results:

Google Scholar court cases example

You’ll be taken to this page where you can then enter the email address to which you would like the alert to be sent and then create the alert:

Google Scholar alert

To view a case from your results, click on it to read the full case. 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:

Legal Case Decision in Google Scholar

You can also obtain useful information regarding how the case you are reading has been cited–in other words, it’s Google Scholar’s equivalent of “Shepardizing” a case. To do so, you click on “How cited” in the upper left hand corner, as you can see below. You can also access this information from the search results page above by clicking on the “Cited by” link found beneath each case summary. When you click on that link you will be taken to this page:

Google Scholar cited sources

It 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. To explore the citing documents, follow the link at the bottom of the “Cited by” column on the right hand side. In this case, it reads “all 18 citing documents.” It will take you to this page and to create the alert so that you’ll be notified when your case is cited by a new case, you click on “Create alert” at the bottom of the page:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 11.15.09 AM

On the next page, just as you did when creating an alert for a saved search, you enter your email address and create the alert:

Google Scholar - Create Alert pageSo that’s how you conduct a search and explore the results using Google Scholar. Check out Part 2 of this “How to use Google Scholar” blog series where we’ll examine more advanced search and sorting techniques, including ways to organize your legal research.

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