Google Scholar’s “Legal Opinions and Journals” provides lawyers, legal professionals, and lay folks with a free source of case law and legal writing in journals. It appears that when it first launched in 2009, Google felt that this easily-accessed open source to legal decisions would “empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all,” and that “laws that you don’t know about, you can’t follow—or make effective arguments to change.” But, of course, lawyers eager for cheaper and quicker ways of doing legal research soon climbed aboard. While not yet robust enough (no “Shepardizing,” no access to some early decisions) to completely overtake traditional subscription-based online legal research providers, many have found Google Scholar to be an effective tool for their initial rounds of legal research.
Google Scholar draws on actual reported opinions, although there are complaints that it inconsistently draws from state or federal Reporters—for example, for Pennsylvania cases, Google Scholar cited the Atlantic reporter, but used the state reporter for Ohio cases. And as mentioned earlier, Google Scholar is a good tool for current legal research, but may not reach far enough into the past for more rigorous historical analysis—state supreme court and appellate decisions are available from 1950; U.S District, Appellate, Tax, and Bankruptcy cases are available from 1923; and U.S. Supreme Court decisions are available from 1791.
Search results are returned quickly and are generally relevant, but they are based on Google’s ranking system, not the actual importance of the case. The “How Cited” feature gives you the snippet of text where the instant case is cited in other decision, but does not give any other information (e.g., if approved, distinguished, criticized, etc.), nor does it indicate whether the instant case is still good law.
Google Scholar does allow you to narrow your research to a specific jurisdiction or court, as well as cases decided from a specific year to the current year. And newly-decided cases reportedly appear within a month of being issued. Another good feature is the ability to receive e-mail alerts of newly-reported cases from a court in which you have particular interest.
All in all, Google Scholar seems like a good, cost-effective (i.e., free) tool for conducting initial legal research and keeping abreast of new developments in particular areas of interest. However, because it does not allow you to Shepardize easily or to link to important legal issues (think Keycite), you will probably want to turn to more traditional research sites to fully complete your legal research.