Last week Google announced that Google Scholar now has a dedicated search for full-text legal opinions from federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts. The results apparently include California Supreme Court and Court of Appeals cases. The cases are presented in a consistent, easy to read format, and page numbers are included for official citations. Each case includes a separate tab with a list of cases citing the displayed case and quotes showing the context for the citation. Cases cited in an opinion have live links for jumping around.
Google Scholar now also supports searches for patents, and case searches include results from law journals.
You can safely assume that Google is not getting search results from the password-protected Lexis-Nexis and West databases. No editor is looking over the lists of case citations and no assistance is provided to help you narrow in on controlling authority or dissenting citations.
Nonetheless, this is far more than a barebones Google search and far better than many of the other free legal research sites. It points the way to the next generation of free legal research, which may well be sufficient for small firms on a budget.
For another example, take a look at a search engine created by the ABA Legal Technology Center, which searches 300 online law reviews and law journals. The ABA lists the included journals (unlike Google Scholar) but there are no guarantees of completeness and the presentation of results is erratic compared to the fee-based services.
The major publishers provide reassurance that your searches are conducted in databases that are complete and up to date, and they provide tools that will never be matched by a free service. They also charge a fortune for their subscriptions. The free searches are already pretty appealing for fast, on-the-fly work, and they’ll only get better as more people focus on them.