FREE. Case law research. All state and federal court jurisdictions. No direct Shepardizing feature (for subsequent case history) or perfect citator feature, but did I mention FREE?
For the uninitiated, scholar.google.com will bring you to a landing page that defaults to searching articles and patents (the original Google Scholar birthday suit), not case law. Click the "Case law" radio button, select your courts, and type your search in natural language. Google search commands work in Google Scholar. If you want to search case law in only New York state courts, you can select only those courts. I've created a bookmark for only those jurisdictions and you can, too. If you want to search both state and federal courts (less the Second Circuit Court of Appeals) in New York, here's that bookmark.
What court opinions are included in the Google Scholar databases? Here's what Google Scholar says about that:
Currently, Google Scholar allows you to search and read published opinions of US state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, US federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923 and US Supreme Court cases since 1791. In addition, it includes citations for cases cited by indexed opinions or journal articles which allows you to find influential cases (usually older or international) which are not yet online or publicly available.
Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate.
Let's say we were researching New York state court cases addressing the question of whether the absolute pollution exclusion applies indoors. In the New York state court database, we would search: "absolute pollution exclusion" indoors. And in 0.02 secs (on my computer, at least) Google Scholar would return 17 results, the first of which would be the New York Court of Appeals' 2003 decision in Belt Painting Corp. v. TIG Ins. Co.:
Your search terms are highlighted in the excerpted text and beneath the search result are hyperlinks for the (number of) cases citing Belt Painting Corp. nationwide, how the case has been cited by those cases, cases related in issue to the result case, a quick citation generator (in Bluebook format even), and a link to save the case to your "My library" if you are logged on to your Google account (assuming you have a Google account).
Once you have run a search and opened a case, Google Scholar provides a rudimentary (and still free) substitute for Shepard's Citations. For the New York insurance coverage seminal case of Albert J. Schiff Assoc. v. Flack, for example, clicking the "How cited" link in the upper left-hand corner of the case's reading page reveals this:
The "How this document has been cited" section gives snippets of text from cases that cite to the case search result, Schiff Assoc. v. Flack in this example, grouped into . Additional citing decisions can be found in the "Cited by" column, and the "Related documents" section provides additional case decisions of potential relevance.
No doubt the biggest drawback to Google Scholar is its inability directly to determine whether a found case has been affirmed, reversed or modified on appeal. The best way of doing so within Google Scholar if your case result is from a court above which an appeal could be taken is to run another search using the case result's case name and review the search results to see whether there has been any appellate treatment of that case. So, for example, if you came across the Third Department, Appellate Division's 1981 decision in Zappone v. Home Ins. Co., and wanted to see whether that case had received any appellate treatment, you could run "Zappone v. Home Ins. Co." in Google Scholar and would see that the Third Department's order was affirmed by the New York Court of Appeals in 1982. Or pay for a subscription of LexisNexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg, or the like. Which is probably a good idea anyway if you are going to cite the case result in a legal memorandum or brief.
With the understanding and appreciation of the fact that Google Scholar's citator feature is less than perfect, Google Scholar still provides a (very) cost-effective alternative to paying for access to a subscription-based legal research service either directly or through paid counsel. I commend Google Scholar to every group of legal and non-legal professionals I speak to, and continue to be surprised by the number of insurance industry people who either don't know of or don't use Google Scholar. I won't lie; Google Scholar is where I start my legal research. It is especially useful for doing insurance coverage legal research. I simply put a policy phrase between quotations marks and run searches in the relevant jurisdictions. Easy-peasy.
Want to follow a particular legal case decision or issue, or be notified in the event certain policy language appears in any future case? Google Scholar has an "alert" feature. Search the case name or issue or policy language in the databases (state or federal jurisdictions) you want Google to use for your alert and then click "Create alert" (the envelope icon for visual learners) at the bottom of the search result page's column to create your alert. Ever wonder how I stay "up" so to speak on certain areas of law? Google Alerts and Google Scholar Alerts are two ways.
Google Scholar began as many thing Googley -- as an experiment. For as long as it remains FREE, enjoy it. And use it. And for the especially curious or appreciative, head over to the blog of one of Google Scholar's two creators, Anurag Acharya. Thank you, Anurag.
The tweeted birth announcement:
Deservedly proud. Exceptionally good work, Google folks.