Using Google Scholar For Legal Research – Part 1

Until recently, legal research costs were a significant part of overhead for most law firms. Whether it was maintaining a costly legal library full of books or, more recently, paying an expensive monthly subscription to Westlaw or LexisNexis, high cost legal research tools were a necessary expense that few law firms could avoid.

Fortunately, times have changed and lawyers in 2017 have lots of different legal research tools to choose from at a variety of price points. Some are available at a discount or for free as part of your bar association membership, and there are even very robust, free options like Google Scholar.

If you’re not yet familiar with Google Scholar, then you’re missing out. It’s a free, easy-to-use legal research platform that’s ideal for many solo and small firm lawyers and provides you with access to a broad spectrum of both federal and state caselaw. In this 2-part guide, I’ll get you up-to-date on the ins and outs of using Google Scholar for caselaw research. And for even more detailed information on Google Scholar, make sure to register for our free webinar, “Google Scholar And Free Legal Research,” which will be held this Thursday, June 8th.

Once you dive in and give it a try, you may just decide that Google Scholar is the right legal research tool for your law firm.

What’s included in Google Scholar?

Google Scholar’s coverage of caselaw is impressive. It includes court opinions from all 50 states and all federal courts. The specific jurisdictions covered are described here:

“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.”

Now that you have an understanding of its coverage, let’s move onto nitty gritty: how to search Google Scholar’s caselaw database.

Review your default settings

Before you dive in, refine your settings so that your search results will be the most useful to you. Click on the arrow in the upper righthand corner located next to the “My citations” button and click on “Settings” as shown below (this is also where you can refine your search terms as discussed more fully below):

using Google Scholar

You’ll be taken to a page that will allow you change your settings to, among other things, change the number of search results per page, and determine whether results will be opened in a new browser page. After clicking “Save” you’ll be returned to the main search page:

google scholar collections

Choose your caselaw database(s)

First you need to check “Case law,” which is located to the right under the search bar. Then, before you enter your search terms, you’ll need to choose the jurisdictions you’d like to search. To do that you simply go to the Google Scholar start page and click on “Select courts,” which is located underneath the search box on the right, as shown below:

google scholar case law

You’ll notice that once you’ve used Google Scholar a few times, it will default to your preferred courts, which in my case are federal courts and New York (since I happen to live in New York). Once you click on “Select courts” you’ll be taken to the page below where you can check the various court databases that you’d like to include in your search. The state courts are listed in alphabetical order. To view courts that are not listed below, you’ll simply need to scroll down the page to locate them:

google scholar court search

Enter your search terms

Once you’ve chosen your jurisdiction, enter your search terms and click the search icon. Your search results will then appear, listed by relevance as the default. If you’d rather the cases be sorted by date, you can click on “sort by date,” located near the bottom of the lefthand sidebar. You’ll notice that your search terms will be highlighted in the search results. You can then limit the search results by clicking on the date limitations shown in the lefthand column:

google scholar search results

Refine your search terms

You can refine your search terms by clicking on the same icon on the upper righthand corner that you clicked on when you established your default settings. From the drop down menu, select “Advanced search” and the following window will appear wherein you can enter your revised search terms or otherwise limit your search parameters. Once you’re happy with the newly revised search terms, run the search and you’ll be returned to the search results page.

google scholar search results

If you’d like to create an alert for this search so that you’ll be notified if new cases are handed down that fall within your search parameters, click on “Create an alert” at the bottom of the righthand sidebar and you’ll be taken to a page where you can enter your email address and create the alert:

From there you can explore and refine the search results. I’ll show you how to do this, save and file your search results, and much more in next week’s post. To learn more, check out Part 2 of this series!

Then make sure to watch the full recording of our recent webinar, “Google Scholar And Legal Research Tips.” Soon you’ll learn everything you need to know about using free or low-cost legal research tools in your solo or small law firm!

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