Practically since its inception more than a decade ago, the word Google has become synonymous with searching the Internet. But few, if anyone, thought that one day the search engine giant would provide free legal research.
That’s just what happened when Google rolled out its Google Scholar search engine last November. It had been planned for several years, and some wondered if the powerhouse Google would compete with and triumph over paid research tools such as Westlaw and LexisNexis and bar-provided research benefits such as Casemaker and Fastcase. And would members of the public use Google Scholar rather than consulting a lawyer?
But experts, and Google itself, seem to be discounting those possibilities. In fact, Google Scholar states in its dis-claimer that “Legal opinions … are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substi-tute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer. Google does not warrant that the information is complete or accurate.”
In the rollout announcement, Anurag Acharya, the principal engineer on the project, described Google Scholar as a way for average citizens to educate themselves about the laws of the land.
Fastcase, on the other hand, was built by lawyers for lawyers and started by lawyer Ed Walters, who wanted a product that was, as he describes it, “as easy to use as Google and as powerful as Lexis and Westlaw.”
Walters knows the three-person team who put Google Scholar together and has worked with them on another project. “I really like the Google guys, and I think Google Scholar is great—but I don’t think anybody thinks it’s competitive,” he says.
Google has made it clear that it’s not meant to be a professional research tool, Walters says. “Google wants to make law available to nonlawyers, and I think that’s terrific,” he notes.
In early 2008, Walters launched a Web site called Public Library of Law (www.plol.org) as a free legal research tool for the public—the largest, he says, until Google Scholar came along. Walters says neither Google Scholar nor Public Library of Law is a tool for lawyers doing hard-core legal research.
“In the past, legal research was about content,” he says. “Mere access to content is what made a legal research service good or not.” Today, though, it’s all about the software that helps identify the cases that are most useful, he explains. Therefore, he says, Google Scholar isn’t going to change the market for bar associations providing legal research as a benefit to their members. Fastcase now has benefit agreements with 16 state bars and 24 other bars, Walters says.
The new owners of Casemaker agree that Google Scholar won’t change the landscape with any member benefit agreements they have with the 28 state bars they serve.
“When we first saw [Google Scholar], we were obviously quite concerned about it,” says Dan Shapiro, a 35-year practicing attorney who is one of Casemaker’s owners. “But upon a very close analysis, we don’t think it’s a profes-sional product. It is an excellent consumer product, however.”
For example, he says, Google Scholar doesn’t use the more precise Boolean search logic employed by profes-sional legal research products. Still, Shapiro says, Google Scholar can be helpful to lawyers under certain circum-stances.
“To give Google its due, searches typically come up with lead cases in a given subject,” he notes. “In my own practice, I’ve started using Google not as a primary search, but to supplement my research and to look outside the box.”
But Google Scholar lacks timely updates and editorial review, Shapiro adds. “Cases are posted in Google Scholar which have been subsequently withdrawn by the court,” he says. “Ascertaining this information requires human intervention with specific legal expertise, and failure to have the information can lead to catastrophic results for the practicing attorney.”
Further, he says, Google Scholar currently only includes books, so it doesn’t have unpublished cases or any up-dates since the latest books were published.
Others point out that Google Scholar does not include statutes, table opinions, or reference support and customer service that the bar-provided research benefits have.
“Google Scholar, today, is just not fully featured enough to be the primary research tool for a lawyer in practice,” says Erik Mazzone, the director of the center for practice management at the North Carolina Bar Association, a vol-untary state bar that has Casemaker as its free research benefit for members.
Creating a disruption?
But Mazzone says Google Scholar, which is still evolving, has created a disruption by entering the legal research market with free solutions. “This disruption should make the other players in that market take notice,” he says. “I’d expect Google’s entry into legal research to drive innovation among the existing players, whose products are going to evolve.”
While Google officials say they have no plans to expand into such areas as statutes and regulations, which law-yers need, some warn against taking Google Scholar lightly. “Legal research is, fundamentally, a specialized form of search,” Mazzone says. “And search is what Google continues to do more of and better than anybody else so far.”
Other observers expect that while there may be no large, immediate effect on LexisNexis and Westlaw, Google Scholar will make some waves by increasing competition and fostering innovation—including free or low-cost add-ons that smaller players might begin offering to supplement Google Scholar.
For its part, LexisNexis released a statement saying that free case law is not new on the Internet and is something it has included on some of its own Web sites. “However,” the statement said, “our legal customers generally require more than raw, unfiltered content to inform their business decisions. They look to LexisNexis to find needles in the ever-growing information haystack, not the haystack itself.”
Walters reiterates that point by saying that his Fastcase software has 12 different custom sorting tools to bring the most important results to the top of the list.
Like Gmail, or WebMD
“Google Scholar is similar to Gmail—it’s a great, basic e-mail tool, very useful and free,” Walters says. “However, most professionals still use Outlook because of its powerful integrated tools and features—but they may have a sepa-rate Gmail account for personal use as well.”
Attorney Rick Klau, a product manager at Google who worked on the project, points out that Google Scholar is a powerful tool with more than 80 years of federal case law and 50 years of state case law fully searchable online.
The index of opinions covers state appellate and state supreme court cases since 1950, federal district and appel-late court cases since 1923, and U.S. Supreme Court cases since 1791, Klau says. It also includes citations of cases cited by indexed opinions or journal articles, which allow users to find influential cases—usually older or interna-tional—that are not publicly available.
“It’s been a thrill to be part of this project,” says Klau, who was so excited that he tweeted about Google Scholar the night before the official announcement. “But most important, it’s exhilarating to know that for the first time, U.S. citizens have the ability to search for—and read—the opinions that govern our society.”
Acharya adds that he would like Google Scholar to be a place where visitors can find all scholarly literature “across all areas, all languages, all the way back in time.”
He admits that goal is not easy to achieve. “[But] I believe it is crucial for researchers everywhere to be able to find research done anywhere,” Acharya says.
Klau reiterates that Google’s primary goal is to empower average citizens. “We expect this will be useful to a broad audience, ranging from the casual ‘curiosity seeker’ to average citizens who wish to find the laws they are governed by, to legal researchers and professionals,” he explains. “However, this feature does not replace special-ized services that legal professionals rely on.”
Some express concern that clients are going to think they now know law without going to law school. But Wal-ters dismisses that notion, saying that it might help save time if people educate themselves—and perhaps they will even be able to do a couple of steps themselves.
“I think of it kind of like WebMD,” he says. “People don’t replace their doctor, but they use it for routine things or before they go to their doctor to better understand.”