Yesterday, Google announced that it expanded its Google Scholar service to include free, full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state courts. Google is not the first to offer free caselaw research, but given Google's search expertise, this service has the potential to be huge. According to a post by Ernie Svenson, federal opinions (including tax and bankruptcy) go back to 1924, and state opinions go back to 1950. Svenson got this information directly from Rick Klau, the Google employee who worked on this project as a part of the "do something interesting with 20% of your time here" policy that Google encourages for all of its employees. (Klau is a fascinating guy; earlier this year, he gave the commencement address at the University of Richmond, where he went to law school, and the transcript of that speech is a good read.)
Lots of blawgs are discussing Google Scholar right now, but I don't see anyone talking about how nice it is that this service lets you view or search for virtually any case at any time on your iPhone (or other smartphone). Now, even if you are out of your office, you can quickly search for cases or pull up a specific case on your iPhone for free.
Google Scholar is not specially formatted for the iPhone screen. I wouldn't be surprised to see an iPhone version of Google Scholar in the future, nor would I be surprised to see a third party app that acts as an iPhone front end to Google Scholar. But for now, here are some tips and tricks for using Google Scholar on an iPhone (many of which will also work on your computer).
The first thing that you will want to do is set a bookmark for Google Scholar in Safari on your iPhone. You can of course just bookmark the main Google Scholar page, but I find it more efficient to bookmark a search page that is set to the state that you are most likely to search. This allows you to avoid tapping the "Advanced Search" link, and then scrolling down, and then selecting your state, and then running the search. For me, my default jurisdiction is Louisiana, so I have made the following address my bookmark in Safari:http://scholar.google.com/scholar?as_q=apple&as_sdt=4&as_sdts=19
You can change the word "apple" after the "q=" to whatever you want, but you need to have some default query. The last number on that address is 19 for Louisiana, but you can change that to another number depending upon your preferred search jurisdiction:
With this bookmark, your starting screen will look something like this picture on the left. Just tap in the search field at the top and you can replace "apple" with whatever it is that you want to search, which can be search terms or a specific case citation:
Enter your search term, press the search button, and you will see your result:
I'm not sure what magic Google is using to rank the search results, but in typical Google fashion, it appears to do an excellent job of putting the most relevant and important cases near the top of the search results. I haven't compared running a search on Google Scholar to running a search on Westlaw/Lexis, but Dan Friedlander has, and he writes on his blog that for his sample search, the results seem similar. Eugene Lee says that Google's service allows him to find important cases even faster that West/Lexis. [UPDATE: Texas attorney Don Cruse also comments on the ranking of search results on his website The Supreme Court of Texas Blog.] I'm sure that others will be writing about this in the future.
Tap on a case link to see the text of a case, and you can scroll down to find your search terms highlighted. (Each word is highlighted in a different color.) As shown above, the search screens are not specially formatted for an iPhone screen. However, the opinions themselves display very nicely on the iPhone screen once you double tap to zoom in on the text:
Sometimes I find it very helpful to see the search terms highlighted. Other times, however, so many search terms appear in the text that highlighting just gets in the way of reading the case. For example, I would prefer to read the version on the right instead of the version on the left:
Here is how I got rid of the highlighted search terms. (And by the way, this trick works in a regular web browser on your computer; this isn't just limited to the iPhone.) At the top of the Safari screen, tap on the address field. You will see a long address that looks something like this:
Select everything after the case number—start at the end of the address and go all the way to the "&q=" that is right before your search terms—and delete that part by selecting CUT. Then click on the GO button at the bottom right. That leaves an address containing nothing at the end but the "case=" followed by a unique case number for the case:
When you hit GO, you will see a version of the case that has no search terms, and thus has no search terms highlighted. This is similar to using the "Find" feature on Westlaw or the "Lexsee" feature on Lexis to jump directly to a specific case without using any search terms.
When you find a legal opinion that is relevant to you, you can use the helpful "How Cited" tab to find other decisions that have cited your found opinion. This is somewhat similar to Shepards on Lexis or KeyCite on Westlaw, although Google does not currently characterize the citing authority to tell you if, for example, another case overturns or distinguishes your case. I also wish that the service included statutes in addition to cases. But I hate to nitpick too much right now. This service is free and barely 24 hours old, and I'm sure that it will improve over time.
One cannot help but wonder what West and Lexis think about Google Scholar. Their official position is essentially "no big deal." Monica Bay reports on these statements from them on her great blawg, The Common Scold:
West: Google has shared with us their plans to expand Google Scholar to include the search of publicly available caselaw and some legal journals. We believe that government-authored information should be accessible to the public, and Google joins existing sites such as FindLaw, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School and scores of others as sites that offer this information free of charge. Our customers rely on us for very specialized information and legal insight, and use Westlaw to find exactly the right answer on very specific points of law.
Lexis: Free case law is not new to the Internet and is included on some of our own sites like lexisONE, LexisWeb and lawyers.com. However, our legal customers generally require more than raw, unfiltered content to inform their business decisions. They look to LexisNexis to find needles in the ever-growing information haystack, not the haystack itself. Not only do we provide the most complete portfolio of public and proprietary legal content, but LexisNexis enables legal professionals to conduct their research more efficiently, effectively, and with the assurance of accuracy. The LexisNexis legal research service provides critical analysis and commentary such as Mathew Bender, citation analysis like Shepard’s, deep online linkages built over time to relevant content, and unique functionality such as pinpoint searching by topic or by complex legal phrases. Our goal is to deliver relevant, reliable results that enable our customers to make informed decisions faster.
Of course they are right. This is not the first free caselaw service on the Internet (even though it may quickly become the best), and Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis currently offer a lot that Google is not offering including summaries and headnotes, case histories, formatted downloads suitable for printing, etc. On the other hand, let's not forget that Google's service is free and will improve over time. It is always difficult to compete with free-and-good-enough. I'm reminded of a few weeks ago when Google announced that it was bringing free turn-by-turn navigation to Android and wanted to also bring it to the iPhone, and that same day the stock price of navigation device manufacturers TomTom and Garmin plummeted as investors worried about the future of their business models. [UPDATE 11-20-09: Randall Ryder points out on Lawyerist that the Google service compares very well to a service like Fastcase, even if it doesn't currently match Westlaw or Lexis. I agree. In fact, notwithstanding the "fast" in Fastcase, one thing I love about the Google service is that searching legal opinions is MUCH MUCH faster than Westlaw, Lexis or Fastcase. No log-in is required to start using the Google service, and searching and displaying results is almost instantaneous. The speed really makes up for some of the missing features that appear on Westlaw and Lexis.]
But even if Google's legal opinion search service stays exactly where it is with no further improvements, I still love it because it allows me to easily and quickly find a case for free, no matter where I am, as long as I have my iPhone with me and some kind of data connection. Every lawyer with an iPhone should take note of Google's new service.