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The Google Gorilla Enters the Research Game

Ken Auletta's new book, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, ponders whether the 1,000-pound Gorilla of the Web is pursuing an altruistic endeavor to offer all the world's information for free or is a marauding monster on a mission to dominate the media and information landscape. With Google in command of my e-mail platform, my blogging platform, my search platform, my RSS reader, my photo-storage platform and even my document collaboration platform, I certainly should be worried that Google could become the Big Brother I never wanted.

Gorilla_(PSF) But I am lulled into complacency by the simple fact that Google does what it does so well. And so it is with Google's entry into the legal research field with its announcement yesterday that Google Scholar now allows users to search full-text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state appellate and trial courts. As you would expect from Google, the search interface is seamless and simple. Search by case name, lawyer name, citation or any other term. Cases include internal page numbers and internal citations are hyperlinked. A "how cited" tab shows a case's subsequent history.

In announcing this new feature, the Google engineer who spearheaded this project, Anurag Acharya, appropriately acknowledged the prior efforts of the "pioneers who have worked on making it possible for an average citizen to educate herself about the laws of the land: Tom Bruce (Cornell LII), Jerry Dupont (LLMC), Graham Greenleaf and Andrew Mowbray (AustLII), Carl Malamud (Public.Resource.Org), Daniel Poulin (LexUM), Tim Stanley (Justia), Joe Ury (BAILII), Tim Wu (AltLaw) and many others."

And as Monica Bay notes at The Common Scold, credit also goes to long-time legal technology innovator Rick Klau, a lawyer who has worked at Google since 2007, helping to enhance its blogging platform and also assisting in this case law project. As Klau writes at his own blog, he was able "to dive in" on this shortly after he arrived at Google.

Inevitably, Google's announcement leads to another round of predictions that 2012 has arrived for Westlaw and LexisNexis. Scott Greenfield wonders whether the news signals the end of the duopoly. Social Media Law Student says this could fast become the preferred tool for "law students and lawyers of the younger generation (and tech-savvy elders as well)." But Carolyn Elefant says Google is unlikely to replace Wexis for some time to come. "Even as free services launch, the premium legal services still continue to improve," she writes. "So the gap still remains between legal research haves and have-nots."

My belief is that Westlaw and LexisNexis will continue to remain healthy and profitable for many years to come. I'm not privvy to their finances, but I suspect that case law research has become a less-important source of revenue for them. What they have that others do not are significant databases of secondary legal-research materials such as treatises, specialized legal-research materials in particular areas of concentration, and ever-growing collections of public-records data, court and deposition transcripts, docket information, and all sorts of other information that remains largely unavailable or inaccessible elsewhere online.

Even so, there's no ignoring a 1,000-pound gorilla. Google's entry into the area of legal research is definitely a game changer for the entire legal industry. More than that, it is without doubt a turning point. Anurag Acharya is right to credit all the pioneers who blazed this trail. But where they yielded machetes, Google drives a bulldozer. If this is progress -- and I believe it is -- its pace is about to accelerate.

(In addition to those mentioned above, other blog posts worth reading on this are Law, Technology & Legal Marketing Blog, Resource Shelf, Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips Blog, 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, WisBlawg, Ernie the Attorney, and The Volokh Conspiracy.)

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on November 18, 2009 at 02:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)


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