[The following column originally appeared in print in December 2009. I am republishing it as part of my continuing effort to maintain an archive of my published columns. Important note: I have not updated this since its original publication. While most of the sites remain as described, some may have changed. All information was current as of the date of original publication.]

Ken Auletta’s new book, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, ponders the mission of the Web’s 800-pound Gorilla. Is Google’s purpose altruistic, to offer free and easy access to all the world’s information, or is it a marauding monster out to dominate the media and information landscape?

With Google in command of my e-mail platform, my blogging platform, my search platform, my RSS reader, my photo-storage platform and even my document collaboration platform, I certainly should be worried that Google could become the Big Brother I never wanted.

Even so, I am lulled into complacency by the simple fact that Google does what it does so well. So it is with Google’s entry into case law research with its recent announcement that Google Scholar now allows users to search full-text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state appellate and trial courts.

Even before the cases were added, Google Scholar was a useful research tool for lawyers. It allows researchers to search a broad selection of scholarly books and articles, including law journals, drawn from the Web and from academic and library collections.

But case law takes Scholar to a whole new level of usefulness. As you would expect from Google, the search interface is simple and familiar. Enter any name, word or phrase and hit “search.” The default search covers all of Scholar’s collection of federal and state cases and law review articles.

An advanced search page lets you tailor your search more precisely. You can specify words and phrases to include and exclude and set a date range. You can choose to search just federal cases, just a single state’s cases, or across multiple states. Searching multiple states requires you to check a box for each state, so if you want to search a significant number of states, you’ll have a lot of checking to do.

You can also search by citation, but be careful to put the citation in quotes. If you search 794 F.2d 915, the results will include cases that have “794,” “F.2d” and “915” anywhere in them. But if your query encloses the citation in quotes, “794 F.2d 915”, you get the cited case plus any others that cite it.

Other Features, Other Questions

Scholar has no Shepard’s or KeyCite for flagging the status of a case, but it does have a nice feature for showing a case’s subsequent citation history. As you view a case, a tab on the top of the screen lets you switch to a second screen showing how it was cited.

This second tab shows a list of cases and articles that cite your case. It also includes a separate list of cites showing a quote extracted from the case at the point of the citation. The quote helps you see the proposition for which your case is cited. Click on any of these quotes and jump right to that point in the citing case.

I could not find within Google Scholar a description of the scope of the case law database. According to a post by Tim Stanley at Justia’s Law, Technology & Legal Marketing Blog, http://onward.justia.com, it includes all Supreme Court opinions since the start of U.S. Reports, federal circuit opinions since 1 F 2d 1 (1924), and many federal district court opinions.

Scholar also has opinions from all 50 state supreme courts dating back to 1950. I was able to determine that intermediate appellate courts are included for some states, but I could not tell whether they are included to the same extent as state supreme courts.

There remain many questions about Google Scholar’s case law search. Google offers sparse documentation so answers are hard to come by. Besides not knowing the precise parameters of the database, we also do not know how often new cases are added. Google has not disclosed where it got the cases but has said the supplier will continue to provide new cases as they are released. We also do not know what kind of quality control, if any, Google has in place to ensure the cases are checked for typographical, scanning and coding errors.

Still, putting the power of Google search behind a comprehensive database of federal and state cases is more than just a good start. Google’s engineers clearly put a lot of thought and effort into this and I expect there will be further refinements and enhancements to come.

Whither Wexis?

Inevitably, Google’s announcement leads to another round of predictions that 2012 has arrived for Westlaw and LexisNexis. Legal blogs have been abuzz with speculation about this.

Both LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters issued statements saying, in so many words, that they are not worried about Google’s entry into case law research.

“Free case law is not new to the Internet and is included on some of our own sites like lexisONE, LexisWeb and lawyers.com,” the LexisNexis statement said. “However, our legal customers generally require more than raw, unfiltered content to inform their business decisions. They look to LexisNexis to find needles in the ever-growing information haystack, not the haystack itself.”

Thomson Reuters said: “Google has shared with us their plans to expand Google Scholar to include the search of publicly available case law and some legal journals. We believe that government-authored information should be accessible to the public, and Google joins existing sites such as FindLaw, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School and scores of others as sites that offer this information free of charge.”

“Our customers rely on us for very specialized information and legal insight, and use Westlaw to find exactly the right answer on very specific points of law.”

My belief is that LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters will continue to remain healthy and profitable for many years to come. I’m not privy to their finances, but I suspect that case law research has become a less-important source of revenue for them.

What they have that others do not are significant databases of secondary legal-research materials. These include treatises, specialized legal-research products in particular areas of concentration, and ever-growing collections of public-records data, court and deposition transcripts, docket information, and all sorts of other information that remains largely unavailable or inaccessible elsewhere online.

A Game Changer

Even so, there is no ignoring an 800-pound gorilla. Google’s entry into the field of legal research is definitely a game changer for the entire legal industry. More than that, it is without doubt a turning point.

In announcing the new feature, the Google engineer who spearheaded this project, Anurag Acharya, acknowledged the prior efforts of the “pioneers who have worked on making it possible for an average citizen to educate herself about the laws of the land.”

He mentioned such trailblazers as Tom Bruce of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, Jerry Dupont of the Law Library Microform Consortium, Graham Greenleaf and Andrew Mowbray of the Australasian Legal Information Institute, Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org, Daniel Poulin of LexUM, Tim Stanley of Justia, Joe Ury of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute, and Tim Wu of AltLaw.

Acharya is right to credit all the pioneers who blazed this trail. But where they yielded machetes, Google drives a bulldozer. If this is progr
ess — and I believe it is — its pace is about to accelerate.

Copyright 2009 Robert J. Ambrogi

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.