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Internet Research for Paralegals

This guide represents a summary of the points accompanying the teleconference lecture conducted in January, 2012

Search Engines

There are many search engines that index the web. Among major search engines by market share are Google, Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Ask.com, Wolfram Alpha, AltaVista (now part of Yahoo but separately branded), Dogpile (which searches Google, Yahoo and Bing simultaneously), and others. Information on the Internet is constantly changing--new sites appear and old sites revise their content or disappear entirely. Google announced in July of 2008 that it indexed 1 billion unique URLs. The volume of pages has grown to an estimated 50 billion pages since then. While this figure represents an exceptional amount of pages referenced by a search engine, some estimates are that around a quarter to a third of all pages on the Internet are still not indexed. Most public legal information that is available via government and free sites in one form or another should be represented in a major search engine.

A typical keyword search of one or two words or a phrase will yield an exceptional amount of results. Some result sets may number in millions of hits. Even in this circumstance the most relevant results will typically show up within the first several pages. General keyword searching, however, is not the most efficient way to retrieve information, even when using terms of art. Most search engines offer an advanced search that gives more control over the search terms and options. Google, for example, is capable of adding filters to search strings.

Search term filters:

• with all of the words

• with the exact phrase (equivalent to searching phrases using quotation marks)

• with at least one of the words • without the words (But don't show pages that have...any of these unwanted words) Format and Location filters:

• Reading level

• Language

• File Type

• Date (limits results to pages added in the past 24 hours, past week, past month, past 2, 3, 6 months and past year)

• Numeric Range (pages containing specified numbers)

• Occurrences (Returns results where terms occur anywhere in the page, title of the page, in the text of the page, in the URL of the page, and in the links to the page.)

• Domain (Limits search to particular domains (e.g. cnn.com)

• Usage Rights (Pages with difference types of licenses.)

• SafeSearch (Excludes most adult-oriented content)

• Similar (Finds pages similar to a page)

• Links (Finds pages that link to the page) Researchers can utilize the advanced search options on most search pages to bring more relevant results than by simply inputting keywords. These filtered results may still be in the millions of hits, but as noted, more relevant material will be present in those first few pages. One key to using search filters is to understand something about the material and to match that understanding to the appropriate option. For example, more a recent document can be found by using date limitations, making it easier to eliminate older documents that may be returned as hits. Advanced Search is available in Google as a link at the bottom of any search result page. Google at one time placed it on its main page as an initial search option, but is so confident in results generated by keyword input that it now places it as an option after a search has been conducted. All search engines have an Advanced Search feature on their pages in one form or another. There is another search option that implements the type of search filters available through Advanced Search, and that is through undocumented search operators. These operators may be placed in the generic search entry box and Google will observe the limitation. For example the search: filetype:pdf motion to compel discovery will return results that are only PDF documents that have the words motion to compel discovery contained in the document (not necessarily as a phrase). Typically, in this circumstance, the results are more likely to contain formatted motions that may have been submitted in court or sample motion documents. The search automatically excludes general web pages that contain those words. The complete list of undocumented search operators for Google is available at Googleguide.com. The site is not affiliated with Google. A list of other operators from the site is: Search Service Search Operators • Web Search: allinanchor:, allintext:, allintitle:, allinurl:, cache:, define:, filetype:, id:, inanchor:, info:, intext:, intitle:, inurl:, link:, phonebook:, related:, site: • Image Search: allintitle:, allinurl:, filetype:, inurl:, intitle:, site:

• Groups: allintext:, allintitle:, author:, group:, insubject:, intext:, intitle: • Directory: allintext:, allintitle:, allinurl:, ext:, filetype:, intext:, intitle:, inurl:

• News: allintext:, allintitle:, allinurl:, intext:, intitle:, inurl:, location:, source:

• Product Search: allintext:, allintitle: There are other search operators beyond these. The most up to date examples and explanation of their use and the type of results they will generate are at Googleguide.com. As noted at the site, Google does not officially support all of the operators listed. However, those listed have been tested and work at the present time. Another undocumented search feature in Google is AROUND(n) where the term can act as a proximity locator. The search physician AROUND(5) malpractice limits results to pages where the words physician and malpractice are generally within 5 words of each other, excluding stop words. It is also unsupported, but it works for most Google searches at the present. All search engines have undocumented search operators similar to these. A web search for the terms undocumented operators tend to uncover them. Add the names of various search engines or sites to be more specific.

Legal-specific search sites

There are a growing number of free sites that are devoted to organizing and indexing law on the Internet.  Among these are Justia.com, the Legal Information Institute (LII) from Cornell University, and FindLaw.  There is also Lexisone.com, which is a free, no frills version of Lexis with some very specific limitations.  The date range of Lexis One makes available case law from the last ten years (recently up from five years, and two years prior to that) of State and Federal Courts, and opinions from U.S. Supreme Court from 1781 to present.  Shepards Citations functionality is not available.  Cases do not appear with Lexis headnotes or other editorial enhancements.  Nonetheless, Lexisone represents a large organized collection of court opinions as presented by the Lexis editorial staff.  Because of the source (Lexis), the text of opinions and citations has a high degree of accuracy.  Lexis One once required registration before it could be used.  The latest iteration has removed that requirement; though it is still possible to create an account.  Once at the site, click on the link for “Free Case Law” and select a jurisdiction and enter terms.  The site supports Boolean and proximity connectors.

 Cornell began the LII in the 1992 and links jurisdictionally to content located contained inofficial state and federal law sites.  Cornell also hosts a wiki like overview of various subject areas of law.  The site is known for its editorial accuracy in the way it presents its collection, which would be expected from one of the nation’s leading law schools.  Some foreign universities have created their own version of the LII for their countries.  See, for example, the Australian Legal Information Institute.

 Justia is organized by jurisdiction and subject.  It’s a searchable portal that includes links to primary legal documents, legal news, and some commentary organized by subject.  Justia also features a collection of federal judicial opinions organized by circuit, year, or series of the Federal Reporter back to 179 F.2d, or 1950.  None of the reported case law in Justia has headnotes or other editorial enhancements such as those which are published in the Federal Reporter by West.  Nonetheless, Justia is the only site that has attempted to replicate a collection of cases browsable by citation to the Federal Reporter and for such a long timeline.  Justia will link to citations that appear in its database.

Another key feature of Justia is the part of the site containing docket information from the federal courts.  The site is a free alternative to Pacer, though it is not at all comprehensive.  The docket archive tends to feature important cases that have received some noteriety.  A case appearing in a Justia docket links to available PDF copies of documents in copy of the court file maintained on Justia servers.  Two limitations in Justia’s presentation of these materials are that the collection is incomplete and keyword search is very basic.  Federal Court libraries offer free public access to PACER as an alternative to subscribing and buying documents from the federal courts.

Google Scholar Legal Opinions and Journals  (GSLOP) site was released to the public on November 16th of 2009.  It represents a leap over any other collection of free legal opinions on the web because of the time range available (approximately 60 years for state cases and 80 years for federal cases), a statement of parallel citations, the hyperlinking of citations within an opinion to other cases in the archive, star paging, a simplistic citator, and a sophisticated search algorithm that understands jurisdiction, case names, and other technical details of ranking relevant search results.

 Google engineers have disclosed that the database is licensed from a major legal publisher.  That suggests that the text is accurate as having been edited by the unnamed publisher’s editorial staff.  The contract between Google and the publisher calls for updates, keeping the archive current.  Searches have demonstrated that updates and additions are not made in real time.  There can be a month or more before recent opinions appear on the site. 

The contract calls for some limitations, keeping Google from creating a full-featured citator present in the online citators Shepards and KeyCite.  Google links to secondary materials that may be present in pay-for-access databases from other publishers.  For example, Google will link to law review articles are in the vast Hein Online law review database (which requires a commercial subscription) rather than to any free sources which may co-exist.  There are no statutes, administrative opinions, or other forms of legal documents in the database aside from cases, articles, and patents.

A researcher can access legal materials by going to the main Google Scholar web page.  There is a radio button just below the search entry box that selects legal materials.  Enter key words or phrases, and a jurisdiction and Google will display relevant results that link to the full text of the opinion.  The “text display” is one of two tabs on an individual result.  The other tab, “how cited,” offers snippets of other cases that have cited the main case with links to those cases.  These links do not represent every possible case that cites the main opinion, nor do they offer any indication of the main opinion’s treatment by other courts.  That ability is the hallmark of Shepards Citations and KeyCite. 

Google SLOJ represents the only substantial opportunity so far to search a comprehensive (meaning deep) free case law database that’s formatted consistently and with high quality results that are immediately useful.  The advanced search options can limit search to specific jurisdictions or add other filters similar to the general advanced search feature.  As the results are limited to case law, a researcher will have to ferret out some of the references in the opinions, such as statutory cites which are likely online but not linked by Google.  Other cited but unlinked material may not be available online for free, or even online at all.  A combination of print and online materials may be best to retrieve cited materials.  For example, a print copy of annotated statutes can identify useful annotations and secondary materials which are retrievable by citation from Google SLOJ.  Print collections are alternative sources for online materials that require payment for access.

Google is committed to improving the utility of the database to the extent that their contract allows.  Expect improvement over time as Google and its users become more acquainted with managing and searching legal information.  As an example, entering a citation as a search now tends to bring the case with that citation as the first result in the list.  This was not the situation when Google SLOJ first appeared.    

FindLaw is owned by Thomson, which is the same company that produces Westlaw.  The materials on FindLaw are organized by topic and jurisdiction.  The site features court and business forms.  The forms library can include actual though redacted versions contracts and other business agreements.

Other portals include the PublicLegal, formerly known as the Internet Legal Research Group (ILRG), Alllaw.com, and Megalawserve.com.  The PublicLegal site is fairly unattractive in its design, but it has links to free forms, law reviews, course outlines from various schools and more.  It is ad supported which can clutter the view of a document, but it is worth reviewing to see if it has value to the individual practitioner.  There is enough substance that it may be valuable to some. 

Alllaw.com is another lesser site with enough substance, forms, links to primary documents, litigation resources, to make it worth exploring.  It features a better design than PublicLegal and better navigation tools.  That, however, doesn’t necessarily make it better than PublicLegal.  Megalawserve.com is another lesser portal site with similar content that may also be worth exploring.

Many academic sites feature research guides or other commentaries on how to find topical or jurisdictional law on the Internet.  Some of these are more substantial than others.  An easy way to find these materials is to put topical terms in a search engine and add the words “research guide” to the search.