Google Scholar makes finding significant citations easier with visual importance icons
By: LN on Apr 23, 2012 08:34:53 AM

One of the most useful free tools Google offers lawyers is Google Scholar. As we wrote previously in Lawyer Tech Review, the database allows lawyers to search and read published federal and state court opinions in the United States.

Google Scholar’s legal research tool has always had two features that are useful to lawyers. First, it incorporates links to the cases that are cited within the opinion. Second, it includes a Works Cited tab that lists indexed journal articles and other cases that cite the opinion.

Earlier this month, Google Scholar announced it has improved the Works Cited tab. Senior staff engineer Alex Verstak writes on the Google Scholar blog:

Now, instead of sorting the citing documents by their prominence, we sort them by the extent of discussion of the cited case. Opinions that discuss the cited case in detail are presented before ones that mention the case briefly. We indicate the extent of discussion visually and indicate opinions that discuss the cited case at length, that discuss it moderately and those that discuss it briefly.

To examine the changes more fully, I compared the Google Scholar results in the Works Cited tab from our previous article that was written before the changes and the results that are listed after the change using the case Miles v. Miles, 43 S.W.3d 876 (Mo.App. W.D. 2001).

Google Scholar Results before the Update

Before the recent update, the left column of the Works Cited tab began with an excerpt from Royalty v. Royalty, listed an excerpt from Bradley v. Bradley second and then another excerpt from Royalty v. Royalty third.

In the Cited By column on the right, the list begins with Ochoa v. Ochoa, Farnsworth v. Farnsworth and Rickets v. Rickets. The related documents section in the right column cites Wells v. Wells, Ward v. Ward and Starrett v. Starrett.

Old Google Scholar cited cases

Google Scholar results before the update. Click to enlarge.

Google Scholar Results after the Update

The left column still begins with an excerpt from Royalty v. Royalty but then includes an excerpt from In re the Marriage of Green before listing Bradley.

The Cited By section in the right column contains the most interesting development. The opinion in Royalty v. Royalty is now listed at the top and includes an icon. When a cursor is hovered over the icon, the researcher learns that the opinion “discusses the cited case at length.”

The Related Documents section in the bottom right column has also re-ordered many of the cases.

Works Cited by Google Scholar Update

Google Scholar results after the update. Click to enlarge.

Visual Indications of Importance

After researching a few different cases in Google Scholar, I found three different “Indications of Importance” icons:

Discussed cited case at lengthDiscusses cited case at length

Discusses cited caseDiscusses cited case

Discussed cited case brieflyDiscusses cited case briefly

The Cited By section also includes cases with no icon for opinions that were cited but not discussed.


The visual indications of importance are a welcome addition to Google Scholar, especially when researching a heavily cited case. Alternatively, it might be a quick way to preliminarily evaluate your opponent’s arguments to determine the relevance of the cases he or she is citing.

Have you used Google Scholar in your practice? What are the benefits – and drawbacks – to using it for legal research?


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