Embedded links, citation excerpts, subsequent history and related documents make Google Scholar a valuable, free tool

By Geri L. Dreiling, Esq.

One distinct memory I have from the first semester of my first year of law school involves the endless hours spent shepardizing cases. The process of pulling dusty legal books off the shelf in the law library to check a decision’s subsequent citation history was a tedious, tiresome affair.

After mastering research the old-fashioned way, I was introduced to computer research. Representatives from the companies that provided the service led sessions demonstrating how legal research could be accomplished with keystrokes and mouse clicks.

Yet that training came with a caveat. My legal research and writing professor noted that while computerized legal research was free for law students, the same was not true for private practitioners. Young associates who unwittingly racked up a fat research bill were not looked upon favorably.

Fast forward to 2011 and the legal research landscape is almost unrecognizable. Appellate courts post the latest opinions on the Internet and competition has altered pricing structures dramatically since the early 1990s. Few lawyers of my generation would have imagined computerized legal research could be free.

But then along came Google. With Google Scholar, lawyers can conduct quick efficient research in a matter of clicks. In a recent App Friday post, California lawyer Michael Reiser explained, “Google Scholar literally saved me during a trial last December.” After his opposing counsel cited a new case that was adverse to his position, Reiser used his iPhone to access Google Scholar during a recess. After reading the decision, he successfully distinguished it from his case.

The content Google Scholar offers is summarized in the FAQ section.

Currently, 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.

This week, Lawyer Tech Review shows how lawyers can use Google Scholar for legal research.

Reading case law

To demonstrate Google Scholar, I chose Green v. Green, an opinion from the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District that was handed down on May 3. The decision appears as a PDF document on the court’s website.

Missouri judiciary decision heading

I searched Google Scholar on May 10, seven days after the original decision appeared on the Missouri judiciary’s website. After selecting “legal opinions and journals” on Google’s Scholar’s home page and typing in the case name, I discovered the decision was already in the database.

In an earlier Google Scholar test run, I found it took three days for a case posted on the Missouri judiciary’s website to appear in Google Scholar. A decision issued on Tuesday was available by Friday.

Researching legal cases in Google Scholar

Google Scholar embeds clickable links to referenced case law

In the PDF version on the judiciary’s website, case law cited within the opinion is not hyperlinked. The reader cannot simply click on a case citation and jump to that decision.

Here is an excerpt of the Green decision from the court’s website. Highlighted in yellow is a case that I wanted to research further.

Excerpt from a Missouri judiciary decision

Here is the same text excerpt in Google Scholar. This time, the case I’m interested in reading is hyperlinked.

Hyperlink to cases in Google Scholar

Research prior case law and the subsequent citations of the court decision

When I click on Miles v. Miles while in Google Scholar, I am taken to the decision.

Case decision linked by Google Scholar

The decision as well as a robust amount of information appears in the “How cited” tab. Click to enlarge the next screenshot with the search results in Google Scholar.

How a legal document is cited in Google Scholar

In the “Cited by” section in the upper right corner, I clicked on the “all 8 citing documents” tab and find I’ve come full circle. Green v. Green appears.

Cited search in Google Scholar

In addition to finding subsequent cases that have cited Miles, I can read excerpts of other cases that mention Miles and find other relevant documents related to the decision. I can even create an email alert for the case.

Ultimately, research that used to take hours by hand or resulted in a steep bill can now be done quickly and easily and at no cost from almost anywhere.

Unfortunately for many smart phone and tablet users, you will have to access Google Scholar through the device’s browser. Although Android offers a ScholarReader app, I could not find one for Apple or Blackberry devices. I checked with the developer of the Google Apps Browser by G-Whizz, an app that offers access to 18 Google apps and Scholar is not one of them. The developer hopes to offer it in the future. (Affiliate link)

Have you used Google Scholar in your practice? What are the benefits – and drawbacks – when using it for legal research?

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Also in Lawyer Tech Review:

  1. App Friday: Michael Reiser