Google Scholar Case Law Evolves

I came across an interesting feature in the case law portion of Google Scholar.  A non-law student asked me for help in locating three cases that she couldn’t find through LexisNexis Academic.  She explained that she also tried using Google Scholar.  I expanded the information about each by doing a few web searches as well as to verify the accuracy of the case names she gave me.  Two of the three were ultimately available through LNA.  The third was not.

I searched Scholar with the information I had located about the case and found an opinion with the right caption.  I opened the document and noticed that the docket number was a hyperlink.  I clicked on it and discovered that there were actually seven opinions issued in the case, at least at the federal District Court level.  I remember back when Google Scholar added the case law database that the engineers in charge said it would be easy to create a citator but that their contract with the “unnamed large legal publisher” that licensed the text prohibited that feature.  Somehow that didn’t stop Google from adding two features that form a quasi-citator.

One is the “How cited” link in the upper left corner of the page containing the full text of an opinion.  That gives links to other citing cases with snippets of text from those cases.  There is another option to see all cases that cite the source case.  The second feature is a series of links on the same page under the heading “Related documents.”  This is where links to the same case at a different appellate level may be found.  By hyperlinking the docket numbers, Google can now offer a quasi-history along with its quasi-citator.  The only thing missing and presumably barred by contract are the symbols (emojis?) identifying the quality of the citation.

The main feature of Google Scholar’s case law, of course, is finding cases related to a problem through keyword search.  The results were hit or miss back in 2009 when the database went public.  The case list showed relevant decisions but it seemed as if something was missing.  The trust factor wasn’t there.  I mention this because I tested Scholar last fall when I created scripts for teaching features and strategies available using Lexis Advance, WestlawNext, and Bloomberg Law.

The problem was set in New York State.  Essentially, an individual sued a landowner for injuries sustained while riding an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on the owner’s property.  The searches were from the perspective of the owner under the theory of assumption of the risk.  I liked the problem because there is a New York statute that specifically exempts liability for injuries sustained in most but not all unauthorized access circumstances.  It gave the opportunity to show research elements such as case results, links to statutes, annotations under statutes, and how to find related headnotes.  All three databases brought up the same leading cases and straightforward navigation to the related research types on each system.

I tested the same keywords in Scholar and sure enough, it gave results featuring all of the same leading cases on the first page of citations as I had found in LA, WN, and BL.  Essentially, Google’s algorithm has improved tremendously since those early days.  Google is hardly a substitute for any of the commercial databases as it does not have the value-added features such as secondary sources and others.  At the same time, anyone searching Scholar’s case law database can do so with a good amount of confidence in my opinion.

Incidentally, anyone wishing to see the scripts I designed should contact me for copies.



  1. Value-added features aside, where’s the relevancy of the GS search results? In the Google way, how many times a case has been cited determines results rank. Has GS determined yet if the cases in the search results have been overturned? For the flip side of the GS case law coin, read Mark Wilson’s “Google Scholar Works for Lay People, Not So Much for Practitioners,” Case law research on GS has its place, as long as the searcher remembers she/he is getting what they paid for!

  2. I tried the same search, “anonymous informant” (the same search that was used in Google Scholar works for Lay People, not so much for Practitioners in GS, LA, WN and BL in New York State Cases. All four returned different results in different order (relevance) Westlaw had 89, Lexis 84, GoogleScholar 106 and Bloomberg 68. When sorted by date they all had the same five cases. In my professional opinion sorting legal material by relevance is not efficient. Yes, you may end up reading the seminal case, but often you end up reading cases that are no longer good law. These difference needed to be studied. Which cases are relevant, which are not, which are missing?

  3. Adding value is something that WE do. One way we can do that using Scholar is to take the leading case in the search results, however old it is, read it and understand the holding, then click on “how cited” and sort the results by date. Read through those opinions and repeat this process for each interesting/relevant case you come across. You’ll know when you’re done because much value will have been added, and the best part is that it will have been added to your mind.

    Reading is useful and necessary, but it’s also passive and exposed to selection/confirmation biases. We add value by being value, and a lawyer’s value is in wisdom. Wisdom is not something we “know,” and it can’t be learned from a book, an opinion, or a “secondary source.” Wisdom is something we acquire, and we only acquire it when we DO. When we learn this, we begin to understand that experience is less about time than it is about state of mind and effort.


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