It is indisputable that the internet and advances in technology have leveled the playing field, making it easier than ever for solo and small firm lawyers to compete with larger firms. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the field of legal research.
Affordable, or even free, legal research tools can make all the difference for solo and small firm lawyers. The trick is knowing which legal research platforms make the most sense for your law firm. These days, there are more tools available than ever, with Google Scholar leading the pack when it comes to free legal research tools.
It used to be that the only legal research options were either to head over to the closest law library or maintain a costly and space-consuming library on your law firm's premises. Along came electronic research capabilities, but even then, it cost an arm and a leg to subscribe to the two most popular platforms, Westlaw or Lexis. The high subscription costs often made these platforms unpalatable for many solo and small firm attorneys.
But this was back in the good ol’ days when Lexis and Westlaw had cornered the legal research market. How times have changed! The internet age ushered in a new era in legal research, making legal information available to everyone at little to no cost. The Cornell Legal Information Institute was one of the first online platforms to make legal information free and easily accessible to lawyers and legal consumers alike--and it continues to do so to this very day.
But it was the launch of Google Scholar's fully searchable legal case database in November of 2009 that truly revolutionized legal research. Suddenly, lawyers everywhere could search vast caselaw databases for free. Since then, Google Scholar’s research capabilities have improved substantially, making it easier than ever to conduct legal research and check the citations of relevant cases.
So what's covered in Google Scholar's database? A lot. It includes court opinions from all 50 states and all federal courts, and even provides links to relevant law review articles in citation check results. The specific jurisdictions covered are described in Google Scholar’s FAQ as follows: “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.”
To use Google Scholar, simply head over to the Google Scholar home page (online: https://scholar.google.com/) and check the "legal documents" category under the search box and select the courts you’d like to search.
From there, searching Google Scholar is as easy as searching Google. Simply enter natural search terms into the search box and in no time flat you’ll have your results. You can then limit the results by court or date. You can further refine your search terms using advanced search functions, and can even enter boolean search terms. Google Scholar also includes the ability to perform fairly sophisticated cite checks of caselaw, which include information on the relevance of citing cases to a specific legal issue.
Every year since its roll out, Google Scholar’s legal research capabilities have improved and new features have been added, with the end result being a robust, easy-to-use legal research tool. It may not have the bells and whistles of some of its more costly competitors, but for lawyers seeking to conduct legal research on a budget, it’s worth looking into.
Interested in learning more about using Google Scholar for legal research? You can find a full tutorial with screenshots here.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, legal technology journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase, intuitive web-based law practice management software for solo and small law firms. She is also the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She is the founder of lawtechTalk.com and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.