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Recent Updates Make Legal Research on Google Scholar More Efficient

As we previously discussed, Google Scholar is a surprisingly powerful, free legal research tool provided by Google. Without any charge or membership required, Google Scholar provides fully searchable access to full text state and federal case law, scholarly articles and patents. Earlier this month Google made changes to Google Scholar in order to make it easier to find significant citing decisions that discuss a case in greater length – potentially supporting it, overturning it, or differentiating it. Here is what Google had to say about the changes:

“Today, we are changing how we present citations to legal opinions. Now, instead of sorting the citing documents by their prominence, we sort them by the extent of discussion of the cited case. Opinions that discuss the cited case in detail are presented before ones that mention the case briefly. We indicate the extent of discussion visually and indicate opinions that discuss the cited case at length, that discuss it moderately and those that discuss it briefly. Opinions that don’t discuss the cited case are left unmarked.”

Here is how the new changes work. Visually, things haven’t changed dramatically. Thus, after you’ve selected a case during the course of the research, you’ll still see two tabs in the upper left hand corner: “Read This Case” and “How Cited.” In the picture below I reviewed the case of Robi v. Reed, an entertainment law trademark case regarding the use of a band’s name as a trademark.

When you click on “How Cited” you are brought to the citations page for the case. On the left side, you’ll see a section titled “How this document has been cited” which, as the title suggests, provides you a snippet of text that should demonstrate the context in which the case has been cited in the selected cases or scholarly journals. When you click on the link to a citing document from this section you are brought directly to the portion of the new document which discusses your case. Additionally, the relevant text is highlighted in blue so that your eye is immediately drawn to it.

On the right side of the “How cited” page, you’ll noticed the “Cited by” section which provides the full list of documents which have cited this case. Here, you’ll notice there are 133 citing documents in total. Following the new update, these documents are now sorted by the extent of their discussion of the cited case.

You’ll also notice that to the left of each document title a series of blue and gray bars appear. These bars are intended to provide a visual cue as to the extent to which the case is discussed in the cited cases. Three blue bars indicate that the case is cited extensively, whereas one blue bar indicates that the case is only briefly discussed in the citing document.

That’s pretty much it. The changes aren’t dramatic in terms of the way in which you’ll interact with Google Scholar, but they should allow you to discover relevant case law easier than ever before. Do you use Google Scholar? What do you think of the new changes? What other changes would make Google Scholar more useful for your practice?


  1. Greg Lambert says:

    Thanks for the update on the new sorting of the “How Cited” and “Cited By” processes.

    One thing to remember, though. Google Scholar does not index statutes – state or federal. Which is a shame, but goes to the fact that, despite all the cool things that Google Scholar does, it is not a legal research tool… it is a search engine. It does very well with static items such as case law and law review articles, but cannot handle the unstructured mess that we lovingly know as statutes or code. It would be nice if they started including statutes, but from what I’ve heard from inside Google, is that they have no plans to take on that beast.

    • Matthew Hickey says:

      That is an excellent (and important) point to make Greg. Without the ability to review statutes and see recent case activity affecting those statutes, legal research on Google Scholar will never be complete. It’s too bad they don’t plan to add that to the database. Thanks for the comment.