I’ve written before about how to use Google’s normal search index to find unpublished opinions in Texas.

Google has now formally added legal opinions to another of its products — Google Scholar — promising new ways to research legal case law (and some legal journals, too).

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This is something that I have been expecting to see from Google for a few years. Google has clearly put the extra time to good use. Its first attempt is quite polished and looks like it might be usable for serious legal work.

And, in typical Google fashion, the price is right. 1

The rest of this post is a quick walk-through of the service with some first impressions.

A quick sample search

To get started, click the “Advanced scholar search” link that’s wedged next to the main search box on the Google Scholar page. It should take you here.

Scan down the page to the “Collections” option. From here, you can specify which legal sources you want to search.

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For this demonstration, I’m going to search for “sovereign immunity” and “declaratory judgment” by putting those two phrases (in quotation marks) in the top search box on this page (the one labeled “with all of the words”).

Hit the “Search Scholar” button. (There’s one at the top right of the page and another at the bottom left.)

Smart results

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At first glance, that’s a pretty smart result set:

  • It’s listing some of the most cited cases about those subjects first, although it’s clearly using other factors, too. (It shows the number of citations for each entry.)

  • Perhaps as a byproduct, it’s listing the state supreme court (the court with the most legal authority) first

  • It’s giving you an excerpt from the case with the keywords highlighted

  • In typical Google style, it has a couple of mysterious links taking you to related materials (the large “How cited” link next to the case name and the small “Related articles” link beneath the blurb.)

Looking closer

Let’s look at the first result in detail.

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Click the case name, and it takes you to a nice representation of the case — with the West reporter page numbers listed on the left margin, so you can easily cite this in a brief.2

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Search results are highlighted. Case citations are hyperlinked to their locations within Google Scholar.

Want a citation tree? Go to “How Cited”

At the top there is a “How Cited” tab.

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That takes you to Google’s take on a citation history. On the left, you can see snippets from the citing sources. (Interestingly, those snippets also highlight your original search terms so you can scan for possibly more related hits.)

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If you click on an item in that list, you are taken directly to the relevant part of that citing case. Nice.

A first look at the mysterious “Related articles” link

The “Related articles” link is more mysterious to a legal scholar. Clicking it brings up a more spartan list of authorities than the “How cited” tab.

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It’s not a citation tree — the number of results is smaller. It lists the case you’re starting with as the first result, and the results contain both older and newer cases. At first glance, it looks much more like a “Genius Playlist” in iTunes than a citation tree.3

What’s immediately striking is how the blurbs beneath each entry on the “Related articles” page differ from the “How cited” page.

Rather than trying to give you the most “relevant” text, the blurbs on the the “Related articles” blurb are sometimes (but not always) the very beginning of the opinions. My guess is that Google has an algorithm that is trying to give you a sense of the subject matter of the listed case. The results that algorithm is generating still look pretty primitive, at least for legal results. But it’s an interesting idea.

If someone has more insight into this “Related articles” feature, please let me know.

I’m giving it a real-world tryout, and I’ll report back

With perhaps an abundance of optimism, I’ve decided to try out Google Scholar on some of my current briefs. I will report back.

I already see nice ways to limit search results by year. I don’t yet see a logical way to search for opinions just from a particular court of appeals, which is an important feature for Texas appellate lawyers. (Knowing Google, there is a search parameter that will accomplish this.)

I’ll also pass along some more tips when I have some hands-on experience.

More reading [added 11/18/2009]

Because of the strong response to this post, I wanted to offer a few more links for those of you who were interested enough to read to the end.

  1. Interestingly, they chose to integrate legal cases into Google Scholar, which lets academic publishers keep the full text of their articles behind a paywall. I will be curious to see if some legal treatises and reference books show up with those same paywalls attached. []
  2. If you scroll down, you’ll notice that the IT-Davy case used in this example has three opinions (majority, concurrence, dissent). Google Scholar doesn’t yet have a nice way to navigate these, and I don’t yet know how smart its algorithms are about distinguishing this text in search results. []
  3. I don’t know how Google is calculating this. (Perhaps someone more familiar with Google Scholar’s academic offerings can comment.) []