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Google Scholar Works for Lay People, Not So Much for Practitioners

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 15, 2015 1:58 PM

Google announced last week the creation of a "Google Scholar" button for Chrome. The button sits in your tool bar and allows you to search for terms on a Web page in Google Scholar without actually going to the Google Scholar website.

No less an authority than Professor Orin Kerr of George Washington University Law School lauded the button last week -- because Google Scholar also searches case law. That it does, but for practitioners, a legal research database is still the best solution.

A Quick Refresher? Maybe -- But Not for Citing

I tried Google Scholar after my law school legal research account expired, but before I got a "real" one from one of the big legal database companies. It's great for finding general information, but don't throw out your subscription service just yet.

My first gripe with Google Scholar is a kind of picayune one -- because it's got to do with citations. Google Scholar provides pagination for most of the case law it has, which is a necessity (these resources aren't terribly useful if you can't cite to them correctly). The problem is that, sometimes, there is no pagination. Or the Google Scholar version of a case has citations only to an unofficial reporter. Not a deal-breaker, but you don't want to cite to an unofficial reporter in a brief.

For new cases -- and "new" means "in the last few months" -- Google Scholar doesn't have pagination to the official reporter, even though the other databases do. This is problematic for lawyers dealing with brand-new case law, as they'll be forced to cite to a slip opinion even though the case has a citation with the official reporter. (These citation gripes are actually worse in other states' cases.)

Not Quite Ready for Primetime

That stuff is largely aesthetic, though. The biggest problem with Google Scholar is that it frequently returns poor results. For armchair legal scholars looking around on the Internet for information, the results are good enough, but practitioners need something better.

Here's an example. Search for "anonymous informant" in Google Scholar, filtering by California, and the first result is Willson v. Superior Court, a state supreme court case from 1956. That case is technically still good law, but it's been almost 60 years. There's much better authority from a few years ago (including the two leading cases on the issue), which is preferable to really old cases. Google Scholar suffers from a problem of returning old cases because, as we explain below, it gives great weight to how many times a source has been cited.

Of course, what you're really paying for when you sign up for an expensive legal research database is the value-added features like Shepardizing or KeyCiting. Google Scholar has no way of knowing if a case has been overruled; it relies on the frequency with which a case has been cited to determine whether that case is relevant. A highly cited case may nevertheless no longer be good law, and it's a huge egg on your face to cite to bad law. (Conversely, a fairly new case that hasn't been frequently cited yet may be the best law there is on the issue.)

It's good that Google Scholar is out there, providing case law to the world, as it should. But actual legal practitioners will still have to buckle down and pay for databases; Google Scholar isn't quite up to snuff for that just yet.

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