Google Scholar conveniently brings together free internet case law from diverse sources. It does not appear to include all of the free case law that might exist, but it is one of the most extensive collections. Current coverage is as follows: state appellate and supreme court cases since 1950, federal district, appellate, tax and bankruptcy courts since 1923, and US Supreme Court cases since 1791.
Google's case law search interface is user-friendly, making it a good option for novice researchers. Even the Advanced Search page is intuitive and approachable. And for the more experienced user, there are some less well-known Google search features that add a fair amount of flexibility. These features include the ability to search for synonyms or to specify the "OR" operator.
Google's natural language search engine is quite powerful, and it appears to be fairly effective at retrieving leading cases and bubbling them up in the relevance-ranked search results. So while you can't be assured with a Google Scholar search that you have identified all of the relevant cases, you are relatively likely to come up with one decent case that you can use as a springboard for your research. Of course, Lexis and Westlaw, with their interlinking of all types of materials, make it much easier to use one good case as a springboard because you can link from that case directly to a variety of secondary authorities, high-end cite-checking, annotated statutes, digests, etc.
The price: nothing is less expensive than free!
But... we in the information business have a saying: "your research can be fast, cheap, and accurate; pick two." ... Which brings us to the cons...
As some USF researchers have already noticed, Google Scholar case law offers only natural language searching. "Power users" are likely to miss the flexibility of "Terms & Connectors" ("Boolean") searching, and especially its ability to specify that terms appear within a certain proximity of one another.
Google Scholar case law search also does not offer the full range of field searching that Lexis and Westlaw offer. So, for example, it is not possible to specify that you want your search terms to appear only in the majority opinion, or to specify that you want to retrieve only the opinions authored by a certain judge. Google Scholar's date restriction options are also not as powerful as those found on Lexis and Westlaw — or even those on the free Justia Federal District Court Opinions & Orders search engine.
As far as primary authority goes, Google Scholar is strictly a case-law research tool. It does not offer searching of statutes, regulations, administrative agency opinions, and other crucial components of the law.
Google Scholar and Google Books do furnish access to a very limited range of secondary sources, including some law review articles, books, and practice materials. These materials show up when you click on the "Cited By" links in your Google Scholar case law search results. However, if material is under copyright, you cannot obtain access to the full-text of the material. Also, crucial secondary sources, such as American Law Reports, the Witkin publications, California Jurisprudence, Matthew Bender and Rutter Group practice guides, and treatises (McCarthy on Trademark; Bassett on California Community Property, etc.) are not available on Google.
There is no equivalent to the West Digest system or the Lexis headnote system on Google Scholar.
While Google Scholar case law search results have a "How Cited" link that allows you to view a list of subsequent opinions that cite to a particular case, it does not have a sophisticated citator service like Westlaw's KeyCite or Shepard's on Lexis. The "How Cited" feature on Google Scholar cannot tell you at a glance if a case has negative or positive history or if at least one holding in the case has been overturned. Google Scholar cannot provide the prior or subsequent appellate history of the case.
Unlike Lexis and Westlaw, Google Scholar does not have all published U.S. case law. For example, coverage of state cases appears to begin in 1950 — even though there are free sources of California case law that have more coverage, including one source that extends back to 1850. Likewise, coverage of federal appellate cases begins only in 1924.
Our Conclusion —
Google Scholar is a welcome addition to the world of free online legal resources. Consider using it when you need a "quick and dirty" case law search tool. But we have a long way to go before Google supplants Lexis and Westlaw as a "one-stop shopping" legal research option.