Given Google’s dominance in web searches, it seemed it would only be a matter of time before the company entered the legal arena. This Tuesday, Google added the ability to freely search legal opinions and journal articles through Google Scholar. According to Google Scholar’s documentation, the website provides state appellate and supreme court decisions since 1950, U.S. federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy court decisions since 1923, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1791. The number of court opinions is likely to increase with time.
On its official Google Blog, Google explains that one of the main objectives in making this service available is to “empower the average citizen by helping everyone learn more about the laws that govern us all”. A quick comparison of Google Scholar’s home page and that of LexisNexis or Westlaw (the giants of the legal research market) makes it clear that Google has prioritized ease of use by the public. In typical Google style, no fancy toolbars or esoteric database names stand in the way of finding a specific legal opinion. There is also a conspicuous absence of distracting advertisements on the page (although this could change in the future).
What do lawyers think?
Reactions from the legal community have been mixed so far. Law on my phone lauds the fact users don’t have to jump through hoops in order to print a legal opinion (printing is more complicated on Lexis or Westlaw, though more options are provided). On the other hand, Goodson Blogson points out that Google Scholar doesn’t yet provide the full functionality of a Westlaw or LexisNexis search. The lack of a citation search option is the most obvious example of such missing functionality. Due to Google Scholar’s zero dollar price point, another major limitation is the unavailability of articles from journals requiring a subscription.
Despite its current limitations, the potential is there for Google to eventually expand Google Scholar to include most of the bells and whistles offered by familiar research companies like Westlaw and LexisNexis. Google can take advantage of the fact that legal opinions are, for the most part, uniformly formatted to efficiently extract relevant data. In fact, Advanced Scholar Search already provides search parameters for limiting case law searches to particular jurisdictions and/or date ranges.
Of course, the idea of providing free case law searches is not new. Google acknowledges previous pioneers in the industry (including Tim Wu of AltLaw and Tim Stanley of Justia, among others) who have worked to make legal opinions available for the general public. Given its awareness of these other research engines, it seems promising that Google will take note of the good design elements of these research engines as it develops Google Scholar into a more comprehensive research tool.
Do Westlaw and LexisNexis stand a chance?
With all of its potential, will Google Scholar eventually make Westlaw and LexisNexis obsolete? Some commentators, such as Bob Berring, have expressed doubts about how trustworthy free legal research systems may be. Indeed, the mere fact that Westlaw and LexisNexis have dedicated research professionals who are able to provide critical analysis and commentary seem hard to beat in terms of legitimacy. Unless Google wants to dive fully into the legal research business, it will most likely continue to rely on machines for data mining and language processing. But no matter how fancy Google’s language processing algorithms are, it is would be difficult to argue that it has developed to the point of replacing human ability to interpret language, especially when it comes to teasing out the nuances in court opinions.
Westlaw and LexisNexis seem to agree (at least for now) and both claim to be unfazed by the prospect of potentially competing with Google Scholar. Soon after Google announced the updated search feature, both companies made statements indicating that while Google Scholar may be a good tool for the general public, their legal customers rely on them for specialized information and legal insight.
Nonetheless, there may be reasons for Westlaw and LexisNexis to worry as new generations of law students will now have the opportunity to shop and compare the traditional legal research systems with Google Scholar. Many of these law students (and likely many lawyers, especially those just starting) are already familiar with many of Google’s other services, making Google Scholar a natural way to acquire legal information. For these individuals, Westlaw and LexisNexis may seem overly complicated and difficult to access by comparison. Moreover, having had relatively less experience in legal research, Westlaw and LexisNexis may not hold as much authority for these younger lawyers.
To be clear, each of the research options – the subscription databases and Google’s free service – has advantages which the alternative lacks. In particular, Westlaw and LexisNexis lack an easy-to-use interface (and lack free access), while Google Scholar lacks advanced search capabilities and professional legal commentary. The perfect legal research tool is likely somewhere in the middle, though Google Scholar will no doubt be part of the arsenal of a savvy lawyer’s practice. Whatever anyone says to the contrary, Google’s presence in a market causes changes, and the legal research market will likely be no exception.