Reduce Legal Research Costs with Google Scholar

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This was originally published as “Reducing Research Costs with Google Scholar: What You Don’t Know About Google Scholar (But Should)” in the June 2014 issue of the Cincinnati Bar Report. It is republished here with the permission of the author. — Ed.

Clients have been increasingly reluctant to pay for legal research. In this age of bundled services, they think that research costs should be included with an attorney’s hourly or flat-rate fee. If you are seeking ways to reduce research costs, here is one good option: Google Scholar. It is an online research service that you should use to find cases and secondary sources—for free. This article first explains the primary benefits of Google Scholar. But before you cancel your subscription to LexisNexis or Westlaw, read the second part of this article on its limitations.

Extensive Database of Cases

Google Scholar has an extensive database of reported cases from state and federal courts. Its database covers cases from the United States Supreme Court (since 1791), the United States Courts of Appeals and United States District Courts (since 1923), and supreme court and intermediate appellate courts from all states (since 1950). It also has federal and state cases that have not been officially reported. The inclusion of unreported cases is useful to Ohio attorneys because appellate opinions issued after May 1, 2002 are binding.1 Unfortunately, Google does not identify the scope of coverage, but its database appears to have more unreported opinions from federal circuit courts than federal district courts.

Reliable Search Algorithm and Advanced Searching

Unsurprisingly, Google Scholar is powered by Google’s powerful search algorithm. When searching for federal and state cases using keywords, the relevancy of the results are comparable to the results on WestlawNext and Lexis Advance. In fact, like those paid services, Google Scholar will likely return relevant results even if you do not use the proper terms of art. Its search algorithm works best for commonly-litigated issues but often returns irrelevant results for novel issues.

Google Scholar also allows you to filter search results by date and court. For example, say you need to determine whether the Ohio Supreme Court has recently addressed your client’s issue. You would first run a keyword search in the database of Ohio Supreme Court cases. After receiving those results, you can then limit the search results to cases that were decided since 2013 or 2014 (the filter is on the far-left column). You can also limit a search to specific federal courts, such as the Sixth Circuit or the District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. Additionally, you can sort your results by relevancy (default) or date.

Useful Proximity Connector

Most free services do not allow users to run searches with proximity connectors. Thus, if you want to find cases where “warrantless” and “search” and “vehicle” appear in the same sentence or paragraph, you cannot. But Google Scholar has one proximity connector—AROUND.  For some odd reason, Google wants only the “in-crowd” to know about this search functionality; in fact, it does not even mention the connector “AROUND” on the official Google Scholar Blog.

RelatedGoogle Scholar Advanced Legal Research Tips

After experimenting with this proximity connector, I learned a few useful tips. First, you can use “AROUND” only to search for a term that appears after another term. For example, assume you need to find federal cases addressing when the police may conduct a Terry stop based on a suspected misdemeanor crime. One search string could be “Terry AROUND(15) stop AROUND(15) misdemeanor.” In that string, Google Scholar will search for cases where “stop” appears within 15 words after “Terry” and “misdemeanor” appears within 15 words after “Terry” and “stop.” It will not find cases where “misdemeanor” appears before “Terry” or “stop.” Second, you must capitalize “AROUND,” have no space between it and the parenthetical, and include quotation marks around the entire search string. Without quotation marks, Google will run a natural language search. Third, the connector “AROUND” does not work for phrases. Thus, if you used the search string “Terry stop AROUND(15) misdemeanor,” you will receive no results.

Citation Service for Cases

Google Scholar has a citation service for cases that is similar to Shepard’s and KeyCite. To find subsequent authority that has cited your case, simply click “cited by,” which appears at the bottom of each result (see image below).

And the results can be organized based on the depth of discussion—meaning, the first listed results would have discussed your case in more detail than later results. The depth of discussion is represented by horizontal bars next to each case name: the more bars, the greater the discussion of your case. Thus, you will immediately know which opinions did more than merely cite your case. You also can create citation alerts and have them delivered to your email.

Free Secondary Sources

Although Google Scholar has no database for secondary sources, you can use it to find legal articles that are hosted on other websites. Some sites are free and some require a paid subscription. For instance, if you searched for articles on Ohio tortious interference law, Google Scholar would provide links to articles on bepress (free), the Social Science Research Network (free), and HeinOnline (paid).

Limitations of Google Scholar

Google Scholar has several limitations … it will not put Westlaw or LexisNexis out of business any time soon.

Despite my praise for Google Scholar, it should not be an one-stop shop for your research needs. Google Scholar has several limitations; as a result, it will not put Westlaw or LexisNexis out of business any time soon.

First, it has no database of statutes—not even the United States Code. If a statute covers your issue, you will not find it on Google Scholar. And you may not even find cases addressing your statute. For example, say under Tennessee law your client wants to recover non-economic damages for the wrongful death of her dog. If you searched Tennessee cases with the terms “non-economic damages death pet,” you would not find any relevant authority because a Tennessee statute governs this issue and no case has cited that statute.

Second, Google Scholar’s citation service is not as effective as Shepard’s or KeyCite. Although you can cite check cases, you cannot cite check statutes. And you cannot cite check unreported cases—a must for issues governed by Ohio law. Consequently, if your unreported case was overturned on appeal, you may not know. Further, Google Scholar’s citation service does not indicate whether a case remains valid or how subsequent courts have treated it. (Of course, you should not rely on the colorful symbols next to cases on Westlaw or LexisNexis.)

Third, for some cases, its database contains duplicates. Duplicates can occur when an unreported opinion is released and then designated for publication. One example is In re Aqua Dots Products Liability Litigation, No. 10-3847 (7th Cir. Aug. 17, 2011).  A keyword search of federal cases returns the unreported and reported versions of that case. If you found only the unreported opinion on Google Scholar, you would not know that the opinion was later reported, which makes it binding on federal courts within the Seventh Circuit.

In short, you should research with Google Scholar to reduce costs, but you should not rely on it exclusively. There is still a place for paid research services.

Featured image: “3d illustration of magnifier glass sign button on keyboard” from Shutterstock.


  1. Rep.Op.R. 3.4 (“All opinions of the courts of appeals issued after May 1, 2002 may be cited as legal authority and weighted as deemed appropriate by the courts without regard to whether the opinion was published or in what form it was published.”). 

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  • Tony Karacsony

    Timely and appropriate article. I am a student Library Technician always researching & have asked many questions of Librarians and Library Technicians re Google Scholar without much in depth answers. Thank you for this! TK. Kelowna BC.

  • Steve Burton

    Eric, thanks for the article! I’ve looked around to try to find some more in-depth analysis on the effectiveness of Google Scholar and your article is informative and to-the-point. Something that I haven’t been able to find out, though, is whether there is a way to see the other citations Google refers to when it says “…and 24 similar citations” under the “How this document has been cited” section. From what I can tell, it just picks one of those citations, and displays language from that one, but I would like to know if there is a way to see the other “24” to see if one of the other similar citations is more relevant. Is there a way to do that?

  • Sakshi Garg

    Trying to search case law in Google Scholar but don’t find *Case law* (radio
    button under the search box). I found advance search only for article
    search. Is case law search feature provided by Google Scholar only in United States?

    • Apparently so. This is what I see:

      • Stan Burman

        Mr. Glover the case search feature of Google Scholar is updated regularly and I have noticed that often from 12 midnight to 1 or 2 in the morning Pacific Time it is not available.

    • Stan Burman

      Sir the case search feature of Google Scholar is updated
      regularly and I have noticed that often from 12 midnight to 1 or 2 in
      the morning Pacific Time it is not available.