Google’s legal research service comes with some hiccups

By Jerry Crimmins
Law Bulletin staff writer

Reprinted by permission from the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin

Google’s entry into the legal research field with a free service is exciting and provides competition, but Google’s not yet reliable enough for most lawyers, according to several law librarians.

Google announced this week that Google Scholar will enable “people everywhere to find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar.”

The announcement said people can search by case, or by topic or by “other queries that you are interested in.”

Law librarians welcome the news because the two, for-pay online services, Westlaw and LexisNexis, “have taken over all the print publications, especially to do with case law,” said June H. Liebert, director of the law library at The John Marshall Law School.

“Sometimes they are the only official publishers” so that even states that formerly published collections of court opinions no longer do so, Liebert noted.

“The worry was that a normal person could not get access to all of this information.”

Moreover, Liebert said, “these publishers are increasing prices at a tremendous rate….The rate of increase is just astronomical, anywhere from 10 to 25 percent” annually. “It’s huge.”

Janis L. Johnston, director of the law library at the University of Illinois College of Law, said, “We are all hoping for a more competitive market place….The two main publishers, Westlaw and LexisNexis, are very expensive and there’s really not much competition.”

Yet so far, “There are a lot of problems with” the Google legal research service, Liebert said.

For starters, Liebert said, “I have found that it’s impossible to find out where their information came from.”

She said librarians and lawyers trust information from Westlaw and LexisNexis because they are commercial operations “that have been around a long time.”

The Google service “still is kind of unknown.”

Also, the Google search mechanism for legal cases is for now too broad, Liebert said. If one looks for federal cases “with a plaintiff named Smith” you get almost a million entries.

Google so far doesn’t seem to distinguish between Smith in the case title or Smith in the text, she said.

“What you can do with Westlaw or LexisNexis, you can do a field or segment search,” for instance for just the case title, or for the case title limited to a certain court or a certain state. This does not seem to be available yet on Google, Liebert said.

Johnston of the U of I said a big drawback in Google legal research so far is that Google’s “citatory” feature, or how a case is cited elsewhere is “not comprehensive.”

“It’s not a viable alternative to Shepardizing” as available on Westlaw, or as the LexisNexis version called Key Cite, Johnston said.

In Liebert’s words, “West and LexisNexis tell you (case) B overruled (case) A so A is no longer good law.”

That quality of research is not yet available on Google or other free legal data bases out there, Liebert said.

Other free, legal research services that preceded Google online include Justia and Legal Information Institute, she said.

What Google does do well, Johnston said, is “the basic job of identifying cases and allowing you to search for cases by subject, and that will probably be of more use to non-lawyers than to legal professionals.”.

“If you’re an undergraduate, and you want to write a paper on a particular topic, and you want to cite Brown v. Board of Education, Google would certainly get you to that case easily,” Johnston said, “and to other cases and law review articles that further discuss the case.”

According to the blog published by the J. Michael Goodson Law Library at Duke University, “Like much of the social science literature indexed through Google Scholar, researchers may hit a ‘pay wall’ when trying to retrieve the full text of articles.”

Google itself may not charge, but it may refer researchers to Web sites that do, according to Duke U.

John R. Austin, director of the law library at Northern Illinois University College of Law, said, “I think I speak for everyone who’s looked at it, that people believe that anything that increases access to the law for the public is a good thing….

“It will make finding the law easier for everybody, and being free, that’s so important,” Austin added.

“It’s free today,” Liebert said. “Is it going to be free tomorrow? Is it going to be any different that having to rely on Westlaw or Lexis?”

Said Johnston, “Google’s history is that they make money through advertising, so we will just have to see how that develops….They could turn it into a for-profit, pay-for-use product.”

~ by CDLB on November 20, 2009.

One Response to “Google’s legal research service comes with some hiccups”

  1. […] check out the rest of Carolyn’s post, as well as posts by Crime and Federalism, TechnoEsq, Lex Tek, Ernie the Attorney, Jim Calloway, and Rick […]

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