Google Scholar came online in November 2009, offering advanced legal research to everyone. Combining case law from state and federal courts around the country with Google’s unique search algorithm, Google Scholar allows anyone to conduct legal research—for free. However, attorneys used to using commercial search engines with very structured search rules may have difficulty adjusting to Google Scholar. These Google Scholar advanced legal research tips will explain some of the strengths and weaknesses of Google Scholar and how you can use it to save yourself and your clients some money.
A few months ago, Google Scholar added an option under the Advanced Scholar Search option to craft searches with results from specific jurisdictions. On the federal side, users can select any circuit court, and results will return opinions from the circuit court and all of the district courts in that circuit. Alternatively, you can search all the courts in any given state. But really the nice feature appears when you hit the drop-down option. Then users can select individual courts to search. The searches can include all the courts from the 9th Circuit, but maybe only the California Supreme Court instead of all the state courts. This really lets researchers use Google Scholar to craft a very specific case law search.
Google Scholar’s legal research results cannot be sorted by date. Instead, they are sorted by relevance to your search. But with Google Scholar, you can restrict the results based on the year. Unlike Lexis and Westlaw, you cannot give two dates. Instead, Scholar allows you to find cases from a certain year forward. For example, you can search for all cases discussing Miranda starting in 2008, and you will get everything from 2008 to 2011. This feature is nice when you’re looking for newer case developments, and don’t want to see the entire Supreme Court history on an issue.
Setting up your Google Scholar preferences
If you are signed in with your Google account, you can set up default preferences for Google Scholar. Most of the preferences apply to academic research. Scholar is definitely more geared towards the academic end of things; it uses articles and patents as the default search. The only preference worth changing is the default search. You can set it to search legal opinions by default, which saves you a step at the search screen. Unfortunately you cannot set a default jurisdiction for search preferences.
Linking to a Google Scholar case
One of the best features of Google Scholar when doing legal research is that you can send a direct link to the case. Everything is open to the public, so there are no subscription walls, and you can send a link to anyone. But the hyperlinks for cases are not very manageable. By default, when you do a search and click a link, your search terms are highlighted. I hate sending these to people, because I don’t want them to see what search terms I was using. Also, I don’t want my link to look like this: . Luckily, these are very easy to edit. The proper link format is: where the case number is that long numerical string in the first link. So if you wanted to send a link to Crawford v. Washington, you could just send .
A lot of the work that I do centers around Pennsylvania’s PCRA Act and claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. I used to check the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Supreme Court websites regularly, but that is tedious and annoying. Google Scholar’s e-mail alerts allow me to set up a search and then get e-mails when new items matching my search are handed down from the various courts in Pennsylvania.
As many of you know, Google offers this service for their regular searches. Maybe you have a “vanity search” set up to notify you when your name comes up in a Google result. This is the same idea. Unfortunately, you have to manage these alerts separate from your regular alerts, and can only modify them in Google Scholar. There is also no option to subscribe to an RSS feed of your search results. Unlike regular alerts, there are also no options to control when you get the alerts. A digest form makes the most sense for broad subject matter searches, while individual e-mails are probably best for niches. Hopefully Google Scholar will provide some kind of customization options for alerts in the future.
The e-mails are a nice replacement for a similar feature in Lexis and Westlaw. I signed up for an alert in anticipation of writing this post. I received my first alert on June 22 for a decision that was filed June 17. Not too shabby.
The Google Scholar Ooperator Toolbelt
In its help article about Scholar, Google explains that several search operators are supported by Scholar.
- the “+” operator makes sure your results include common words, letters or numbers that Google’s search technology generally ignores, as in [+de knuth];
- the “-” operator excludes all results that include this search term, as in [flowers -author:flowers];
- phrase search only returns results that include this exact phrase, as in [“as you like it”];
- the “OR” operator returns results that include either of your search terms, as in [stock call OR put];
- the “intitle:” operator as in [intitle:mars] only returns results that include your search term in the document’s title.
These operators help you craft a more specific search when using Google Scholar. For me, the most important search is the phrase search. It’s very easy when I am looking for specific language in a case to just pop it into Google Scholar and get results in a matter of seconds.
Noticeably absent from this list is the AND operator. According to Google, searches automatically return results that have both search terms included. Based on a little experimentation, this just isn’t the case. I did a search for [“Sixth Amendment” “waiver of trial”] and it returned 723 results. I then did a search for [“Sixth Amendment” AND ”waiver of trial”] and got the same 723 results. The first result has the term Sixth Amendment, but does not have the term “waiver of trial.” Instead, it has just the word waiver.
Also absent from the list is the AROUND operator. If you are as nerdy as me, you may have read articles around the internet that Google has a classified AROUND operator. Legend has it that this operator allows you to restrict where your search terms are relation to each other. Unfortunately, it does not work in Google Scholar at all. I’ve done the tests so you don’t have to. Just trust me on this one.
While the list of available operators prevents anyone from becoming much of an advanced legal research guru, they are still usable. Also, it’s important to remember that your searches are already taking advantage of the Google algorithm, and that is partly why fewer operators are needed. In contrast, commercial searches rely much more heavily on the way you craft the search. To the untrained researcher, typing in a search slightly wrong could lead to disastrous results.
Is it good law?
Sure, anybody can find legal cases on the internet. My twelve year old cousin could type a few things into a search engine and read what pops up. What separates that option from good legal research is finding out which cases are still good law. Google falls far short of its commercial cousins in this area. In Google Scholar there is a tab for How Cited which has links to other cases that cite the case you are reading. It’s a good feature and it definitely works, but if you are looking for a quick overview to see if a case has been overturned, look elsewhere.
On the How Cited tab, Google also offers a Related Documents section. This gives you cases that are related to your current case (presumably based on keywords) but don’t necessarily cite your case. This is definitely a nice feature. Especially when you are researching an unfamiliar area of the law, this feature can hopefully prevent you from missing a big case on the topic.
I could not find a consistent pattern for which reporter Google Scholar uses. For several Pennsylvania cases, it cited the Atlantic Reporter, but then for an Ohio case, it used the state reporter. If you are filing in a court that is picky about cross-citing, keep an eye out for this. There is no way to change reporters, and there is no indication what page a quote is from in another reporter.
Google Scholar does include a nice touch in terms of citation. While you scroll through the case, the case name and citation stay at the top of the screen so you can always see it. That was always a pet peeve of mine in using commercial search engines. Sure, they have the paginations, but I have to scroll all the way to the top (and thus lose my page) in order to see the original citation. Google Scholar fixes this nicely.
There is also no “copy with citation” button in Google Scholar. Luckily, you can use CiteStack to correct this shortcoming.
How Google Scholar stacks up
I use Google Scholar every day. I strongly prefer it over the commercial options. That being said, I know it is not a full replacement. While doing my research, I usually end up using Lexis to find out if a case is still good. I also use Lexis to look up annotated statutes. But Google Scholar is a terrific tool to get you started with your research. It is also much faster. If I know there is a specific case I want, it is much easier to type it into Google Scholar than to do a case-specific search on Lexis or Westlaw.
Want to learn more about Google Scholar and other online legal research tools? We have a portal for that.