Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Google Scholar - (Almost) Great Free Legal Search

Amazing. Google has made a giant step toward creating a practical search engine of legal materials. Click on the link above the check it out. Google's new Legal Opinion and Journals (LOJ) is not a Wexis, or VHPPLM killer. It is a game changer in the "free law," community.

Here are a few initial comments about it. First, it is still classically a Google product. By this I mean that they spend little time working on user interface. It is what it is. We tend to forgive Google for all it's faults because it simply has little competition and it's so quick, easy to use that the annoyances of the way the search results and options are presented to you are forgiven. It's quick and easy. Forget the clutter.

Second, it's amazingly snappy. Searches on any topic I threw at it, in any combination of databases were returned in the blink of an eye.

Third, the "How Cited," tab is fascinating and provides quick access to raw citation information on the case. Like everything Google, there's little help distinguishing one cite from another, but there is help. And the information provided is good. The speed of the Google engine can make drilling down to particulars very quick - even if it means that you have to wade through hundreds of cases. Clicking from case to "How Cited" tab, to case, one can quickly get lost, but if you keep your wits about you, you can learn some interesting things about the case you're researching.

Fourth, it is unclear just exactly what you're searching when you use Google Scholar's Legal Opinions and Journals, (GSLOJ). When you click on the Advanced Search link, you get choices of, "Search all legal opinions and journals," or searching only Federal opinions or individual state court opinions. State court opinions can be searched in any combination, just by clicking boxes and selecting the states that you want to search. Trouble is, there is no description of what library of journals is being searched, or what are the years of coverage for case databases. Do the Nebraska cases, for example, go back ten years, twenty, or two. It's hard to say.

Fifth, there are no statutes or regulations to be found in/on LOJ. What's with that?!

Sixth, you can't search only Law Journals. With the growing movement to develop digital commons, and to move law reviews to the web, it would be immensely helpful to be able to mine this vein of secondary material.

Overall, Google Scholar's new LOJ is a welcome entry into the free online legal research community. I don't think that West or Lexis have much to worry about, but LII, Justicia, et al, may have "competition."

What impact this will have on Law.Gov, "Free Law," and kerfuffles? This is certainly a game changer.

For the Official Explanation: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/finding-laws


Laura Bergus said...

I think it's too early to say whether this will or won't have a huge impact on Westlaw/Lexis. (And yes, I am one running around saying "Adios Wexis!") For those of us who are new to Wexis search engines and how resulting documents are filtered/delivered, I can see the more limited databases of Google Scholar netting better results due to usability/familiarity than our clumsy attempts with terms and connectors searches. Is there still value in honing one's skills based on 1,000s of excruciatingly nuanced levels of information in a supposedly comprehensive search? Sure. But Google's solution is a product of the same "free market" that has been keeping the legal info duopoly alive. I think it's reach will go well beyond what we've thought of up until now as "free law."

Richard Leiter said...

You might be right when it comes to simply discussing delivery of primary law. But Wexis, CCH and BNA have very deep reserves of secondary materials that, if they wake up and exploit them, can make Google's new service irrelevant.

Fat-Triathlete said...

This is a fabulous first step for Google. You accurately pointed out the holes.

To really be a game changer, though, Google has to create an alternative to Shepard's/KeyCite. When that's accomplished, budgets in small law libraries across the country will be freed up.

What will they want to puy with their savings? All those secondary materials you mentioned.

This could become the catalyst for providing comprehensive access to legal information for court law libraries and pro per/pro se self help centers nationally.

It's a very exciting development. I hope they follow through. Lord knows Google has the computing power and money to make it happen. No one else does, currently.

Tory said...

I just don't understand how this can be that useful if you can't tell what titles are in the Googlesphere and what the scope of coverage is, outside of trying to locate a particular case or article. Thanks for the review, Richard. Very helpful.

Eugene Lee said...

I think this is a game changer for Wexis. I use Wexis heavily, at least once per day. Only time will tell but I suspect will be using LOJ far more frequently than Wexis from here on in, if only because accessing Wexis is so excruciatingly slow (even over broadband) and the search engine is cumbersome.

Paul D. Callister said...

I note the journals are from BePress and Hein Online (which only provides access for subscribers). It also provides citations, but no links, to journals not on either service. However, there is nothing from SSRN. Yet another reason to get your articles on BePress.

A serious challenge for research skills is the perception of students that the law has been “Googlized” like everything else. One stop shopping and no need to use traditional taxonomies (represented by digests and the topic and key number system) and indexes. This suggests a major shift in law’s “cognitive authority” (the definition of authority common to the profession).

"The century’s close sees this situation changing radically. The comfortable structure of cognitive authority that had been so central to legal information has fallen, and it can’t get up. Old tools are slipping from their pedestals while new ones are fighting for attention. Where once there was a settled landscape, there now is a battlefield. . . . Law students and young lawyers do not see current events as revolutionary, but they are. To them it is odd that anyone ever used Shepard’s in print or that anyone actually used a digest volume at all."
Robert C. Berring, Legal Information and the Search for Cognitive Authority, 88 CAL. L. REV.1677 (2000).