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Google Legal Scholar: Your Guide to Google’s Free Legal Research Tool

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


December 20, 2018

Legal research databases and/or books are a necessary expense for law firms. But many law firms are looking to alternatives such as Google Legal Scholar as a no-cost supplement to their existing legal research tools when attorneys need to do some basic research.

What Is Google Legal Scholar

Google Legal Scholar is a free legal research platform with an easy-to-use interface that’s perfect for many solo- and small law firms looking to supplement their existing legal research tools. While Google Legal Scholar isn’t a “complete” library of case law, it does boast an impressive breadth of information. A Google law search can turn up legal cases from as far back as the 1650s, state appellate cases since 1950 and federal trial, appellate, tax, and bankruptcy cases since 1923, and more. A Google legal search is a great way for any lawyer to do some surface digging for their case while avoiding the costs associated with more established legal research tools.

Google Scholar Advantages and Disadvantages

Google Legal Scholar has many upside and downsides. Let’s take a look at few of them:

  • Upside: It’s free. Nothing beats free when it comes to getting quality and helpful legal research that you can use. And for a law firm’s light search needs, Google legal research delivers a great return on investment.
  • Downside: No guarantees. Google Legal Scholar makes it clear that they can’t guarantee the accuracy of the information they provide. And for lawyers preparing data for a legal analysis they shouldn’t depend on it for the heavy lifting. Leave your less pressing research needs for Google Scholar law research and use the expensive databases when you need to go deeper.
  • Upside: It’s easy to use. If you know how to search for your favorite cat/dog videos online, then you can probably use Google Legal Scholar.
  • Downside: It’s not complete. Google Legal Scholar doesn’t include as many legal citations and references as a professional legal research tool. Since Google Legal Scholar is essentially a tool made to help ordinary people understand the law, don’t expect it to include the type of depth you would find in professional (subscription) legal research databases.
  • Upside: Reliable algorithm. When lawyers use Google Legal Scholar, they are leveraging one of the most powerful search engines in the world. Google’s effective algorithms can deliver a high level of relevancy to your keywords. You can even filter research results by date and court. The flexibility makes it easy to find Google scholar case law relevant to want you’re looking for.
  • Downside: There’s a stigma. If you go around telling your colleagues or superiors that you use Google Legal Scholar to research case law you may get some funny looks. But don’t worry, in many cases, Google legal research can return the same result as any other legal research tool when looking for basic information. Using this tool for basic research is completely legitimate and professional.
  • Upside: You can save citations and articles. If you’re doing a quick search, there’s no need to panic, you can save the reading for later when you have more time.
  • Downside: Materials may be out-of-date. Google Legal Scholar doesn’t provide information about when information was last updated so you might be citing outdated case law if you’re not careful.
    Upside: Google Scholar legal citations. Google Legal Scholar has a citation service that delivers results for cases and legal articles that cite a specific case. This comes in handy when you need to find out if other cases have addressed an issue.

As with many new tools, Google Legal Scholar makes it easier for lawyers to do their job. But lawyers should be careful as they move forward as every new tool has its pitfalls.

How To Use It

If you’re ready to experiment with Google Legal Scholar, here are a few tips on getting the most out of the tool.

  • Familiarize yourself with the settings. One of the most powerful aspects of Google Legal Scholar is its customization tools. Lawyers can specify how search results will appear and they can choose to export search results to references management software. Lawyers can even search Google Legal Scholar under a different language which is especially useful if you want to share results with clients who don’t speak English. So just like with the best legal practice management software, you need to understand the settings and features to use it to its full potential.
  • Leverage search operators. Google Legal Scholar may not be good at finding synonyms but using the search operators such as “and” and “or” you can make your keyword searches more effective. You can also use quotes around phrases if you want to ensure that words are searched for together. For example, you might say “medical debt bankruptcy discharge.” If you’re not getting the results you want, have a look at some of the most common search operators that you can use. Here’s a list.
    • Search PDF files. A lot of legal research is stored online in PDF files (which is why Smokeball’s legal document automation and assembly gives you one-click .doc to .pdf creation!). A regular search query may not access this type of information. Use “file type: pdf” to find information inside of PDF files when searching with Google Legal Scholar.
    • Limit your search results. Even though Google Legal Scholar search engine is specific, it can still return a large and varied search result. You can make your search more relevant by limiting your results using “exclusion” and “site specific” searches. You can also search for information produced by a specific author or for cases in a specific state. The options of limiting your search are diverse and effective.
    • Use Library Links. If you have a subscription to a law library, you can link directly to that library through Google Legal Scholar. This makes it easy to search that library’s database and access information that may not be available in a standard Google Legal Scholar search.
    • Select your courts. Google Legal Scholar allows you to set your preferred courts so that when you’re research case law, only the results from those courts show up. This will do wonders in keeping your search results under control and relevant.

As you get familiar with Google Legal Scholar, it will become easier to find what you need. You may even come up with a few tips of your own. Just make sure that you’re using Google Legal Scholar responsibly as it is not as robust as some of the established legal research tools available.

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