Should Lawyers Use Google for Legal Research?
Westlaw, Lexis, FastCase – in many legal circles these are the only acceptable avenues of legal research. Anything else is not only pedestrian but sometimes even villified.
There are plenty of good lawyers who (secretly, for risk of being shamed) start many legal research projects with a simple Google search. There are several good reasons for it, too. Google searches are free. It’s usually the most practical place to start for complex topics or subjects with which the attorney has only limited familiarity. You can user broader search terms and still pull up useful information, because the algorithms are smarter and Google has access to a greater breadth of information.
The search results from Google can often yield the key words, case law, or statutes that enable a lawyer to more effectively embark on the more in-depth research available by more traditional legal search techniques. Frequently, using Google, or even Wikipedia (even though there is still a stigma around Wikipedia, courts are increasingly finding it an acceptable source), is a more efficient and practical starting point. There are an abundance of non-traditional resources, websites, and blogs with valuable legal insight. Search engines can be used for finding briefs, white papers, and treatises that summarize dense or complex topics. This allows the researcher to more easily hone in on what is important and begin issue-spotting.
Regardless, there are lawyers who turn up their noses at the use of non-traditional sources on the interwebs. Here are two anecdotes from other attorneys on LawyerSlack who have encountered the same resistance.
- A former insurance defense associate used Google Scholar to locate and print off cases that supported her position in a case. The partner griped about the use of Google because the firm “paid good money” for LexisNexis. The cases being used were the same ones that would have been printed from Lexis. Essentially, the lesson was – you should do it like I do despite our achieving the same result.
- An associate was talking with an older partner at his firm and mentioned that frequently his starting point for researched when tasked with answering a question for a partner. This partner was so relieved to hear someone else was using Google. She thought she was the only one and must be doing something wrong.
I don’t mind saying that I have a vested interest in lawyers using search engines and non-traditional information sources to aid their research. Otherwise, more than half the content on this blog would be an enormous waste of time. One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was that I found a hole in the market that I could fill with valuable information and interpretations. But that is only successful to the extent lawyers use non-traditional legal research methods to educate themselves.
I’m not advocating the use of Google or other search engines as a replacement for traditional legal research. But no one should be shamed or discouraged from supplementing their use of Westlaw or Lexis with other search methods, particularly if other methods are more efficient and equally effective. What is more efficient for the lawyer can result in savings for the client with no loss in work-product.