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I Googled the Law

As I mentioned earlier today, I’ve been looking Google Scholar’s new US caselaw service. This allows one to ‘find and read full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts’ according to Google’s official blog.

I am part of an international library team and most of my research colleagues are based in the US. We in London will ask for advice if we have not been able to locate what we need (we’re fortunate in having Bloomberg). Whilst we have access to Lexis.com, there’s something about the idea of being charged £54 a search that encourages me to ask for help – particularly in the current climate where keeping costs down is a key part of our strategy. But of course, there’s a time difference – we can’t always wait for the States to wake up. Plus, not all UK lawyers will necessarily think to ask the library for help finding a case when they can just Google. So there are two reasons why I’m keen on testing this new Google Law resource.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been required to source three judgments from the US. So, armed with the correct case names and citations I tried the service out. How did I fare?

I’d say, fairly well, but with the kinds of caveats we’re hopefully all used to by now about using free legal information we find on the web.

I struggled a little to find the first one – plenty of links to commentary, but not to the correct judgment. (Commentary for this search mostly seemed to be from our friends at HeinOnline).  I searched for this in the way I had searched for the case when I’d originally been asked for it (Can I have a copy of The Prestige please?). Now, if this was a UK case about a vessel, the vessel name would be part of the case name, and it would be a useful search term. It seems that shipping cases are the ones that are usually referred to vaguely. When I had no luck with the usual searches then I did try a general Google – this gave me some references to the incident and enough information to know that the action was American not British. At this point I asked my US colleagues to check whether what I’d found a reference to (the country of Spain suing the American classification society) did in fact happen.  It did, and I was provided with a copy of the judgment from 2008.

The case didn’t show up in the first 5 pages of results when I just searched Google Law for ‘Prestige.’ I added ‘Spain’ in as a search term and the 2008 judgment was the 8th in the hit list. So pretty good – but only if I knew this additional piece of information. And an earlier report was higher in the search results. Once I’d found the case, I could read, but not print the case – so it would be useful up to a point.

The second case I looked for had initially been given to me as a hunt for unreported case – we found a reference to it, courtesy of pne of the Philadelphia team. Google Law didn’t have what I wanted. This may be an artefact of the different indexing, but I also struggled to translate the search term I’d been given (universal music) into that which is part of the case name (UMG). Might be obvious if I worked with this a lot, though?

My final case was easy peasy; found it in the first page of results.

I think this will be a useful service – perhaps more so for finding the key argument of a case if a lawyer doesn’t need an official copy of a document. I wonder whether there will be a bit of circularity to the finding of cases – if I have little information I won’t know whether I have the right case, but with more information I could be more certain, but to gain that extra information I might need search terms I don’t know. It doesn’t feel as intuituive as Google normally does, but that could be down to my relative unfamiliarity with what are ‘good’ cases and documents. I’m still likely to check other free sources like RECAP (if I could access it) or Justia (though I think Justia now supply Google too?) or WorldLII But it’s another source to check, and one that isn’t going to cost anything other than my time.

John DiGillio, our US research team manager, has written on this on his LLRX column today too.

PS I’ll add the case names in soon, hopefully – just had to leave for a fire alarm and now about to head off to the Supreme Court visit.

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