I’ve spent the past couple of weeks doing a lot of guest teaching, particularly in our legal skills classes. The beginning of the semester should probably come with a warning label for new librarians–Caution: even with careful planning, you may not have time to breathe or sleep. The topic that our professors and students most want to hear about is free and low cost legal resources for lawyers. After spending time looking at Sarah Glassmeyer’s amazing website and playing with the tools, I decided to do a brief analysis of how Google Scholar’s and Fastcase’s citators compared with Westlaw and Lexis’s for our students and faculty. Fastcase is free in its basic form for Florida lawyers and therefore is likely to be free or low cost to our students.
The short version: Google Scholar and Fastcase are far less fancy and do not have pretty flags to mark negative vs. positive treatment of cases. However, in the highly unscientific test cases I used, they did a good job catching all of the mandatory law regarding the cases. They failed mostly at catching unreported cases and some district court opinions. Google had a few more unreported opinions than Fastcase did. Google makes it almost as easy as Westlaw and Lexis to find secondary sources about a particular case. In summary: I would not recommend finishing your research in Google Scholar or Fastcase yet, but it does look like Google’s trying to get closer to giving paid sources a run for their money and you could get a long way to your world of cases using Google Scholar.
Where they failed: Do not expect to find older cases (I had trouble with a state court case from 1950), unreported cases, or many district court cases in either of these sources. Fastcase is also far, far less error tolerant than Westlaw or Lexis. A change in abbreviation was guaranteed to make finding a case prohibitively difficult. There are many limiters available, such as limiting to a date range or a specific jurisdiction, and these are easy to use, but you will have to do a second search to effectively catch all of the secondary sources available on a case in Google Scholar, so it’s not quite as easy to use as Shepard’s or KeyCite. Google really needs to make it easier to separate cases from law review or political science articles in the search results—there was no easy way to get a good number for cases vs. alternate sources, hence the use of unclear in the table. There are also e-mail alerts available that will let you know, pretty effectively and efficiently, if a new article or case has been published that cites to a case you were looking for. However, the cases are not updated as rapidly as Westlaw and Lexis so this may be more useful for watching for preemption than litigation.
Here’s a table summarizing my findings below:
(To see two other cases I analyzed, though these turned out to be bad choices due to age (neither FastCase or Google Scholar does a good job with older case law and one case was too new to have much written about it), please go to this PDF. If you have suggestions of good cases to look at, let me know, I’d be happy to update this with a couple of additional cases.)