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Google Me, Google Me: The Funny (and scary) World of Online Legal Research

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Let’s say I wanted to find this case, Mayfield vs. United States (a December 10th, 2009, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit opinion). (And I might want to find the case so I can write a postscript to this Shaggy (Law Librarian) Dog Tale.)

When I use Google Legal Scholar, specifying federal court and 2009, and the search <brandon mayfield united states> I get nothing. When I use the same search in native Google, with only the date limiter, I get in the first page of results several links to the actual case, including the link on the court’s website.

There are a number of technical reasons for this (and a few flawed human being reasons, too), and I will leave those to be explained by Search Engine Scientists, but woe to the untrained (or unthinking) legal researcher who thinks that Google (or that other “I looked it up on The Internet” place) is where one researches an actual case.

I can, however, answer the good question (except when it comes from people who should know better, and then it’s darned aggravating), which is:

Can [name your free or low-cost legal research database] replace Lexis and Westlaw?”

My short answer to non-attorneys, and especially to pro se litigants, is often a question: Have you ever researched an actual legal question in a case where the other side has an attorney?

Their responses help me find out exactly how much law library assistance the person needs:

1) Has the questioner performed legal research? People who do legal research know that there are places for free, the low-cost, and the full-service legal research databases – and they know exactly what those places are. The inexperienced legal researcher can then be led through the process to find out if s/he has the aptitude and the patience for the task.

2) Does the questioner realize that opposing counsel may not only be a very good researcher, but also have access to a full array of legal research tools, from databases, to books, to law librarians, to colleagues? Pro se (self-help) litigants, with a fighting chance, know just how much work it is to prepare to represent oneself against an attorney adversary.

My short non-question answers to attorneys who ask if their free/low-cost database is a substitute for Lexis and Westlaw:

1) No, emphatically, and the low-cost database vendors are the first to state that fact; they know their limits and their strengths.

2) No, no, no, no. You get what you pay for. Think about it. If you could create a full-service, mega value-added, feature-rich database such as Lexis and Westlaw, for little or no money … then why aren’t you rich?

3) There is a place, and an extremely important one, for free and low-cost legal research databases. There is also a prominent and necessary place for Lexis and Westlaw. Lawyers who stay ahead of their cash and watch their costs (even Big Law is starting to do this – well, at least think about it) know how to mix and match the databases for maximum service and value.

Last, but not least, and in a nutshell: Willy-Nilly is not a legal research strategy

(See also this from Google Scholar Legal developers — posted at the Three Geeks and a Law Blog, on 12/7/09, “Google Scholar & Legal Research – Focus Remains on “Scholar“)