This post is the first in a series that will continue over the next couple weeks in which I’ll be taking a look at how technology is impacting the law and the way legal professionals practice.
There’s been some buzz out there in the legal blawgosphere about the new additions to Google Scholar. Apparently, the service now offers caselaw and law review and journal articles. I’ve read some pretty good reviews of the service so far, but I’m not quite ready to make a permanent switch yet.
Full disclosure: I used to work for Westlaw when I was a law student, so I’ve had some pretty extensive training on their databases and what services/information they can provide that can’t be found elsewhere. This is probably why I’m not so gung-ho about the Google Scholar sources. But I’m always willing to give new things a try, so I checked out the new additions to the search service, and here’s what I think:
First, the cases available are limited. According to Google Scholar:
“Currently, Google Scholar allows you to search and read opinions for 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 (please check back periodically for updates to coverage information). 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. Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate.”
This is probably enough caselaw for most practitioners. Rarely will that random case from before 1950 matter. But sometimes it might.
Second, the “How this Document is Cited” links are helpful, but not as complete as Shepards (on Lexis) or KeyCite (on Westlaw). The results aren’t “flagged” into positive or negative results, so it takes a bit more digging to see how the case has been treated. This might not be a bad thing, if it forces you to read the cases more thoroughly. It might even be a good thing.
Third, I have an issue with the “Related Documents” section. I searched for “Brown v. Board of Education” to do my test run, and the so-called related documents were related–but only because they were also famous Supreme Court cases. Many of them had nothing to do with the jurisprudence of Brown. Comparatively, a search on Westlaw would turn up cases that were related based on West’s Key Numbers. Those numbers were assigned by attorneys who read and understood the cases, and then categorized them into one of the numbered categories in the Westlaw Directory. The cases are actually related by the type of law they deal with. This feature is useful on Westlaw, but not so much on Google Scholar.
The comments seen on blogs about the topic seem to be mostly positive. I’m inclined to agree that having these materials available to the general public is a good thing, but I’m not so sure that Westlaw and Lexis are “sweating” as the Faculty Lounge’s post titled “Google Delivers The Law. Are West and Lexis Sweating?” suggests they might be.