Westlaw rises to legal publishing fame by selling free information

St. Paul company outprofits Gannett, McGraw Hill, New York Times

But the market for legal information works differently. Case law is based on historical precedent: New rulings are built upon prior decisions. This means that for attorneys and legal professionals, old law does not, like an old product, become disposable. Instead, the demand for old cases remains intact.

West had hit a sweet spot in the market. He'd specialized in providing a type of information that was being produced at a faster and faster rate. And none of it would ever become obsolete.

Rule 2:

Organize information to make it useful

At about the same time that the broth-ers West founded their publishing company in St. Paul, a young librarian in Massachusetts began visiting libraries across the country, studying their financial constraints and the way they organized their books. He reasoned that libraries could become more useful, without added cost, simply by classifying and cataloguing books systematically, based on the decimal system. Knowledge was grouped into 10 categories, each assigned a number. Each of the 10 categories was divided into 10 subcategories, and the subcategories were divided yet again.

The young librarian's name was Melvil Dewey. He called his innovation the Dewey Decimal System, and he began to apply it to the Amherst College library, where he worked. Today it is used by most American public libraries.

What Melvil Dewey did for libraries, John West did for the law. West's National Reporter System made the law readily available, but as the pile of information grew, finding the relevant information became increasingly difficult.

To solve this problem, a brilliant West Publishing employee named John Mallory came up with his own version of the Dewey Decimal System in 1908. He divided the law into 400 topics, based upon an introductory legal course at Harvard Law School. He assigned each topic a key number, and created subcategories within each of those key numbers.

To make case law easier to search by subject, West Publishing began issuing a digest that identified all the key numbers and all the decisions that had come out related to them. Contracts, for instance, were one key number, bankruptcy another. Today, the system includes 100,000 subcategories.

West had earned a reputation for knowing how to organize. So, in the 1920s, when the federal government was ready to streamline its statutes, West was called in to help. Before 1875, United States federal statutes had been collected but not codified, meaning grouped by subject. The first attempt that year was riddled with errors. West's 1926 codification was the most thorough U.S. Code ever (though it still contained some 537 errors, 88 of them of substance).

West published the U.S. Code for years—often for free. But its real innovation was an unofficial version of the code, including notes about the changes, which lawyers found far more useful. West's version, U.S. Code Annotated, was easier to use because it was more organized, and more thorough, than the U.S. Code itself.

Over the years, West added enhancements to its system for organizing case law —like headnotes in the 1900s, which were case summaries that identified and spelled out the points of law in a case, and an electronic citation service in the 1990s, which notified attorneys when a particular law changed. These tools made West's products easier and faster to use. During the 20th century, the company's publications became so entrenched as the industry standard that judges required attorneys to cite the page number of the West volume—not the official court record or government code—in their written arguments.

"Their classification system covers almost all of the case law in the U.S.," says Suzanne Thorpe, associate director of the University of Minnesota's law library.

Rule 3:

The internet is a distribution channel -- not a product

In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower founded the Advanced Research Projects Agency—or ARPA—for top-secret scientific and military research. The ARPA scientists needed access to expensive computers, so in 1968 the agency created the ARPANet, a way to connect computers over a telephone line. That technology formed the basis of the modern internet.

About the same time Eisenhower created ARPA, a law professor in Pennsylvania named John Horty began experimenting with ways to use computers to search legal documents. He coded the text of public health statutes onto punch cards and fed them into the University of Pittsburgh's massive computer, where they were loaded onto the computer's tape. Horty used key terms to search the tape for the information he wanted.

The Ohio State Bar Association was so impressed with Horty's work that it contracted with Data Corp. in Beavercreek, Ohio, to push it forward. In 1973, Mead Data Center (parent to Data Corp.) debuted a computerized database of the full text of a limited group of federal and state statutes and case law. Subscribers connected to it through a telephone on a system modeled after the ARPANet. They called the product Lexis.

Lexis charged lawyers for the time they spent connected to the mainframe. The president of West Publishing, Dwight Opperman, followed Lexis's entrance into the market closely. Opperman reasoned that West could provide a more efficient service at a lower cost with just its case summaries. The summaries were shorter and so would be faster—and therefore cheaper—to search. In 1975, West Publishing launched Opperman's vision: Westlaw.

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