Division of The Thomson Corporation
Incorporated: 1882 as West Publishing Co.
Sales: $1.4 billion (1998 est.)
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishers; 511140 Database and Directory Publishers; 514199 All Other Information Services
West Group, the leading information provider to the U.S. legal market, was formed in early 1997 from the merger of West Publishing Co. and Thomson Legal Publishing. The Thomson Corporation, a Toronto-based information powerhouse, had acquired West Publishing the previous year for $3.4 billion. Thomson became a major player in the legal publishing market in 1989 when it acquired Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company for $815 million, then added other venerable names in the legal field, including Bancroft-Whitney and Clark Boardman Callaghan. West Publishing held a leading position in the field of indexing and reporting court decisions, from the U.S. Supreme Court on down. Perhaps its most influential and valuable contribution was its late 19th-century invention of the Key Number System, a means of methodically organizing and summarizing the thousands of judicial rulings delivered each year. This indexing grid became so widely used by lawyers that it virtually transformed the adversarial and adjudicatory processes in the United States. West Group continues to use the Key Number System in a number of its products, including such longstanding and widely used series as the American Digest System and the National Reporter System. Although West has lost ground in the 1990s following court decisions stating that the company does not have copyright protection for some of the key material and citations featured in its products, it has stayed viable through the aggressive development of electronic products and services, including Westlaw, an online service containing more than 10,000 legal, financial, and news databases; westlaw.com, a World Wide Web version of Westlaw; KeyCite, an online citation research service; and lawoffice.com, a comprehensive legal directory listing nearly one million legal professionals.
In the post-Civil War period, the East was unrivaled for its centers of commerce, intellectual activity, and powerful publishing houses. For a firm to be established on the banks of the Mississippi in the as yet sparsely populated Midwest, create a new print medium, and successfully quell competition from the cultural and business establishment was unthinkable; yet, as historian William W. Marvin recorded, it happened not so much in spite of as because of the remote, and therefore inconspicuous, location. A young St. Paul entrepreneur with experience as a traveling book salesman opened his first business in 1872, which he called John B. West, Publisher and Bookseller. West specialized in the sale of law treatises, legal forms, dictionaries, and office supplies. His most promising work, however, was in the trading of new and used court reports, a rare commodity at the time, given the notoriously sluggish official printing of state cases and verdicts. West viewed the lawyers he served as a singularly valuable market for new information; more importantly, he realized that no single publishing company offered both expedient and inclusive case reporting.
In 1876, West convinced his older brother Horatio, an accountant, to join him in a new enterprise that would help to fill at least one identifiable and easily serviced void: that of recording Minnesota Supreme Court rulings. The business now became the John B. West Co. and the chief product, an eight-page weekly pamphlet of legal excerpts entitled The Syllabi. By this time, West had already established himself as a valued partner of the local legal community with his “WEST” line of legal blanks, prepared with the assistance of practicing lawyers. He decided to build upon his reputation for quality, authoritativeness, and service by enlisting the expertise of a St. Paul Bar member to edit the content of The Syllabi. The publication became an instant hit with the law community and more than fulfilled West’s initial advertisement of “prompt and reliable intelligence as to the various questions adjudicated by the Minnesota Courts at a date long prior to the publication of the State Reports.” In the words of Marvin, The Syllabi “gave the Minnesota Bar what was then unquestionably the most complete current reporting service in the nation.”
In a move that proved essential to the long-term survival of the fledgling publisher, West expanded the scope of The Syllabi almost immediately, replacing excerpts of Minnesota cases with complete coverage and offering selected case excerpts from neighboring Wisconsin, as a resource tool for lawyers of both states. Soon demand in Wisconsin necessitated the inclusion of all of that state’s cases in excerpted form. Ironically, West’s first competition came not from Eastern publishers, the concerted response of which might well have proved fatal to the John B. West Company, but from a small Milwaukee printing house. Further expansion was the logical response and so, six months into publication of The Syllabi, the company introduced The North Western Reporter. This new publication was to include everything currently covered by The Syllabi plus all Minnesota U.S. Circuit Court decisions, selected Minnesota and Wisconsin lower court cases, and abstracts of selected cases from other states. Although the North Western still functioned as a legal newspaper, the concept of a permanent reference publication was soon to be realized.
Less than three years after The Syllabi was introduced, a new series of the North Western debuted offering full coverage of current decisions in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory. The flood of orders received by the company was welcome proof that a vast and enthusiastic customer base had been successfully tapped. A Federal Reporter, containing decisions by the U.S. Circuit and District Courts around the country, followed in 1880, as did a U.S. Supreme Court Reporter, in 1882. What distinguished each of these publications was West’s inclusion of a uniform indexing system, complete with headnotes. The medium, particularly its comprehensiveness, was so unlike current practice by printers of state reports that it provoked widespread ridicule. Nevertheless, several publishers realized the profitability of such an approach and soon waged heated competition with West. The company maintained its advantage because of its significant market lead and also because of its low-cost, fast publication, and accurate editing (state-commissioned reports were notoriously error-ridden, often having been produced without benefit of proofing departments or adequate legal knowledge).
The company’s rapid growth caused the West brothers to seek outside capital to expand both its staff and manufacturing facilities. In the fall of 1882 Charles W. Ames and Peyton Boyle officially became part of the business, now incorporated as a private concern, West Publishing Co. During the next five years other Reporter publications were introduced, including the Pacific, Atlantic, South Western, South Eastern, and Southern. By 1887 the company was able to boast coast-to-coast coverage. In August of that year, the publisher of the Eastern Reporter, Wm. Gould, Jr., & Co., sold its subscription to West Publishing. In November of the following year, another major competitor, Lawyers’ Cooperative Publishing Co., ceased publication of its New England, Central, and Western Reporters. After these milestone victories, West’s chief goal for the next several decades became the promotion of the National Reporter System as the leading case source for lawyers and judges in all U.S. jurisdictions. A major step toward this goal was the introduction in 1889 of the first permanent Reporter editions. Advance sheets for these editions replaced the earlier format of bindable parts but also created a lucrative albeit temporary black market for dealers who would hawk them as West’s final, edited version.
While many attorneys began to accept West’s publications as fundamental case studies, many of the courts were reluctant to admit the West citations in lieu of actual State Report citations. By the mid-20th century, however, the National Reporter System was so successful that West citations had become generally accepted. In 1890, following upon the success of its National Reporter System, the company introduced the American Digest System, a singularly massive undertaking. The series, when complete, consisted of exhaustive listings and synopses of federal and state cases dating back to 1638. Typically paired to the more detailed Reporter volumes, the Digest listings were especially notable for their full-scale implementation of the Key Number System, which directed the researcher by category, topic, subtopic, and headnote to pertinent cases on record. Even before publication of its first digest volume, West entered the digest market by negotiating the rights for Little, Brown & Company’s U.S. Digest. The success of the National Reporter System, and its obvious compatibility with the American Digest System, made effective competition difficult. The subscription list for John A. Mallory’s Complete Digest, another potential competitor, was also purchased by West at about the same time. Mallory subsequently accepted a position with West and was crucial in perfecting the American Digest System classification scheme. The company closed the century on an especially high note with the unveiling of volume one of the Century Digest, intended as the definitive encyclopedia of all existing case law. The volume was unveiled at the American Bar Association (ABA) annual convention in 1897; the following year, the ABA offered its formal endorsement of the American Digest System and West’s preeminence as a legal publisher was irrevocably ensured.
The mission of West Group is to continually enhance its position as the foremost provider of information to the U.S. legal market and to expand its presence by becoming the leading provider of solutions to this market. Furthermore, West Group will work to ensure that The Thomson Corporation achieves its mission of becoming the leading provider of information products and solutions to the global legal market.
New Publications and Rapid Growth: 1900s-60s
In 1899 John West left the company to pursue other interests, and the presidency passed to Horatio West. In 1908 Charles W. Ames succeeded Horatio, and since that time every successor to the West presidency has been unrelated, save for a shared, longtime commitment to the private firm. Many company analysts attribute the remarkable development of the company not only to the Wests’ dedication and innovations but to the early, conscientious enforcement of two policies at this time—“promotion from within” and prohibition of nepotism in management. In 1913, under Ames, West Publishing fulfilled a plan first announced in 1901: the compilation of a completely annotated, comprehensive edition of the U.S. statutes. By this time, the company was not only revamping the entire field of legal reference but also exerting an impact, through its casebooks, on the manner in which law was taught.
Ames’s successor, Homer P. Clark, is generally accorded special status among West presidents. When Clark assumed the presidency in 1921 (after having served the company for nearly 30 years), he inaugurated what was to become known as the “general manager era.” Until approximately 1926, when Clark’s new approach to managing was adopted, the company had been ruled by a committee, no one member of which was fully cognizant of the day-to-day operations for every department. With Clark, the president gained much closer contact with department heads, thereby solving numerous communication and efficiency problems that had surfaced under the old system. Another means by which Clark ensured the long-term health of the company was through the persistent acquisition of outstanding stock held by disinterested parties and estates; the stock was then periodically reallocated to key employees, comprising a corporate-reward program that continued under Clark’s successors. One of the chief editorial projects during Clark’s administration was the United States Code Annotated, first published in 1926 after a Congressional joint committee on law revision commissioned both West and the Edward Thompson Company to pool their efforts. The original 61-volume, continually updated series now consists of some 215 permanent hardcovers, which are regularly supplemented by interim pamphlets and statutory supplements.
By the end of World War II, with Clark now serving as chairperson and Henry F. Asmussen in position as president, West began to grow rapidly. Full-time employees numbered 645 in 1945, and five years later the number had swelled to 1,172. Teletypesetting made its debut at West in 1956; further improvements in production efficiency, not to mention printing quality, came with the installation of West’s first web offset press in 1962. Under then-president Lee Slater, a former business engineer, West’s plant and operational layout underwent a complete modernization and overhaul. In 1968, when Slater handed control of the company to Dwight D. Opperman, West seemed well-positioned to maintain its leadership in the new technological age. When asked why he had joined the firm back in the 1950s, Opperman replied, “In law school it became apparent to me that there was one company above all others whose services were vital to the legal profession. I wanted to be a part of that company.”
Late 20th Century: Increased Competition, the Electronic Revolution, and Acquisition by Thomson
As the company entered the 1970s, however, technology and speed competed head-to-head with quality and longstanding service. Chief competitor Mead Data Central introduced its LEXIS service into the field of computer-assisted legal research in 1973, a full two years ahead of West. In 1975, the Westlaw computer-assisted legal research service was introduced. Assessing the situation for Corporate Report Minnesota, Brent Stahl wrote, “It is too late in the day for anyone to join West in the comprehensive court reporting field by publishing books. The cost would be prohibitive, and a workable indexing system would be difficult to devise. Computers are another story, and it is by this technology that Mead, or others, might challenge West’s territory, which West gained by mastering the technology available in the 1880s.” Mead did challenge West, despite the steadily rising popularity of Westlaw, which became competitive with and perhaps even superior to LEXIS by the late 1970s. The battle between Mead and others against West became particularly heated during the middle to late 1980s due to lawsuits and countersuits revolving around the issue of Mead’s attempt to use West’s compilations of case reports. By 1988, however, West had negotiated a settlement agreement with Mead, after the courts had upheld the copyrightability of West’s compilations, which Mead had threatened to integrate with LEXIS. Under the agreement, Mead agreed to pay an undisclosed amount to West for the use of its case report compilations.
- John B. West begins selling law treatises, legal forms, and dictionaries in Minnesota.
- John B. West Co. begins publishing The Syllabi, a weekly pamphlet of legal excerpts and forerunner to the National Reporter System.
- Company is incorporated as West Publishing Co.
- The American Digest System makes its debut, highlighted by its implementation of the Key Number System.
- Company completes the compilation of a completely annotated, comprehensive edition of the U.S. statutes.
- The 61-volume United States Code Annotated is published for the first time.
- Teletypesetting is first used by West.
- The company’s first web offset press is installed.
- The Westlaw computer-assisted legal research service is introduced.
- Company reaches an agreement with Dow Jones ’ Co. to provide access to the Dow Jones News/Retrieval service to Westlaw subscribers.
- Company is acquired by The Thomson Corporation for $3.4 billion.
- West Publishing and Thomson Legal Publishing are merged to form West Group, a division of Thomson Corporation.
- Westlaw.com, a Web-based delivery platform for the Westlaw database, is launched.
- The U.S. Supreme Court declines to review the decisions of two lower courts that had denied West’s claim of copyright protection over the page numbers and page breaks in its reporters.
The marketing of computerized research—in and outside the legal field—remained ripe territory for West and its Data Retrieval Corporation subsidiary during the 1990s. A 1992 arrangement with Commerce Clearing House to provide Westlaw users with the Standard Federal Tax Reporter was one way West worked to expand its subscriber base. In addition, West also pursued state-of-the-art software, such as a simplified natural language search and retrieval process called WIN (Westlaw Is Natural) which was introduced in 1992, in an attempt to open new venues for West as a high-tech information access company. In late 1992 West introduced a document delivery service called Westfax, which allowed a customer to request that individual court decisions be sent to them via fax machine. This service was designed for attorneys and others whose use of computer-assisted legal research was not frequent enough to justify a Westlaw subscription. West also began aggressively pursuing the burgeoning market for CD-ROM-based information products, releasing more than a dozen titles in the first six months of 1993 alone. In August 1993 Vance Opperman, founder and partner of a Minneapolis law firm and son of Dwight, succeeded his father as president of West Publishing. At the time, annual revenues for the company were an estimated $525 million and employment had reached 6,000, up from 3,500 in 1989.
In May 1994 West reached an agreement with Dow Jones & Co. whereby West would be able to provide access to the Dow Jones News/Retrieval service to Westlaw subscribers. The Dow Jones service included electronic access to articles from the Wall Street Journal and 1,800 other news and information sources. The deal was significant for Westlaw in its continuing competitive battle with LEXIS-NEXIS, which had long provided its users access to full-text articles from various publications, including exclusive electronic access to the New York Times. Later in 1994 Mead Data Central sold LEXIS-NEXIS to Anglo-Dutch publishing giant Reed Elsevier plc. As a result, West had another deep-pocketed competitor to contend with; another was The Thomson Corporation, a Toronto-based publishing behemoth which since 1988 had spent more than $1.3 billion buying U.S. legal publishers.
In March 1995, while West continued to fight legal challenges to its proprietary citation system, the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper reported that several U.S. Supreme Court justices had taken costly trips at the expense of West Publishing to help select the winner of an award that the company bestowed on a federal judge each year. The paper also reported that since 1983 the high court had declined to review five cases, including two copyright cases, that lower courts had decided in West’s favor. No laws were broken in making these gifts, but some legal ethicists raised concerns about the justices accepting the trips from a company with important business before the court. West denied that it had done anything improper, stating that there was no link between the award and the company’s court cases and calling the article “just plain wrong.”
The growing competitive pressures facing West reached a head in 1995, leading the company to explore all options for the company’s future, including its possible sale. West’s venerable position was eroding from an explosion of competitors churning out cheap court cases CD-ROMs and from the increasing amounts of legal information available over the Internet. The company’s citation system faced new challenges from public-interest advocates and from the Times Mirror Company, owner of legal publisher Matthew Bender, which filed another legal challenge against the proprietary system; West was also battling over its citations in court with Hyperlaw Inc., a New York-based CD-ROM publisher. West management eventually settled on selling the company, leading to its June 1996 acquisition by Thomson for $3.4 billion. To gain antitrust approval for the combination of the two largest U.S. legal publishers, Thomson had to divest more than 50 legal publications valued at more than $275 million and agreed to license West’s copyrighted citation system to any interested party. This settlement at first did not satisfy Reed Elsevier’s objections to the acquisition, but the Anglo-Dutch firm dropped its opposition after Thomson agreed to sell Reed about $50 million of the divested publications. By early 1997 Thomson had merged West Publishing with Thomson Legal Publishing—whose units included Lawyers Cooperative Publishing, Bancroft-Whitney, and Clark Boardman Cal-laghan—to form West Group. Brian H. Hall, who had headed Thomson Legal, was named president and CEO of the new Thomson division, which began its existence as the number one provider of legal information to the U.S. market, with revenues of about $1.1 billion and a 9,500-strong workforce.
In 1998 West Group acquired Washington, D.C.-based Federal Publications, Inc., a leading provider of immigration law and government contracting law information. That year also saw the successful launch of westlaw.com, a Web-based delivery platform for the Westlaw database. This move reflected a Thomson-wide initiative to dramatically increase the company’s Internet-based offerings. In early 1999 Thomson created a new operating unit called Thomson Legal & Regulatory Group, which combined the company’s operations in the areas of law, tax, accounting, trademark, corporate finance, and human resources. West Group remained a separate division within this new unit, concentrating on the U.S. and Canadian legal markets.
In June 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review two separate lower court rulings that had found in favor of Matthew Bender and Hyperlaw and against West Group. West had asserted copyright protection over the page numbers and page breaks in its reporters but the decisions denied the company such protection. Matthew Bender, Hyperlaw, and others now had the green light to copy the text of judicial opinions from West publications—as well as such enhancements as the identification of counsel and the page numbers and page break references—although they could not use certain West editorial features, such as synopsis, digest topics, and key numbers. These rulings represented a clear setback for West Group and seemed certain to increase the competitive pressures it already faced. One of West’s responses to this development was to look increasingly for opportunities to enhance its products with value-added content.
Baenen, Jeff, “West Publishing’s Success Brings Antitrust Lawsuit”, Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 22, 1987.
Berss, Marcia, “‘West Will Always Be There,’” Forbes, November 21, 1994, p. 47.
Burrow, Clive, “Legal Research, in English”, New York Times, October 18, 1992.
Ebbinghouse, Carol, “West Loses Copyright Claim over Page Numbers”, Information Today, July/August 1999, pp. 20 +.
Ervin, John, Jr., “Publishing for the Law at West,” Publishers Weekly, November 25, 1988.
Faustmann, John, “Buying Legal History: Thomson’s Biggest Takeover Draws Mixed Reaction,” Maclean’s, March 11, 1996, p. 36.
Felsenthal, Edward, “West’s Bid to Find a Buyer Comes amid Pressure on Legal Publishers,” Wall Street Journal, October 23,1995, p. B6.
Greenhouse, Linda, “Progress Spawns Question: Who Owns the Law?” New York Times, February 16, 1990.
Griffith, Cary, “West Aggressively Pursues Electronic Publishing Market,” Information Today, September 1993, pp. 30-31.
——, “WESTfax: An Innovative Service Concludes a Very Bright Year,” Information Today, February 1993, pp. 18-19.
Hamburger, Tom, and Sharon Schmickle, “West Publishing and the Courts: High Stakes and Hot Competition,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 6, 1995, p. 1A.
“High Court Justices Decline to Comment on Charges in Article,” Wall Street Journal, March 7, 1995, p. A11.
Karr, Albert R., “Thomson’s Pact to Acquire Rival Receives Government Approval,” Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1996, p. B10.
Lipin, Steven, Raju Narisetti, and Solange De Santis, “Thomson to Purchase West Publishing for $3.43 Billion,” Wall Street Journal, February 27, 1996, p. A3.
Marcotty, Josephine, “The New West: Publisher Exploring Information Frontiers,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 23, 1993, p. 1D.
Marvin, William W., West Publishing Co.: Origin-Growth-Leadership, St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1969.
McAuliffe, Bill, “West Becomes Past in St. Paul, Present and Future in Eagan,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 25, 1992.
Narisetti, Raju, Bart Ziegler, and Greg Steinmetz, “West Publishing Plans to Provide Dow Jones Service,” Wall Street Journal, May 18, 1994, p. B7.
Oslund, John J., “For West Publishing, the Gavel Is Coming Down Hard and Loud,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 28, 1994, p. 1D.
——, “West Publishing Co. Sold to Canada’s Thomson Corp.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, February 27, 1996, p. 1D.
Pitzer, Mary J., and Zachary Schiller, “A Searing Courtroom Drama over … Page Numbers,” Business Week, July 4, 1988.
Pritchard, Timothy, “Thomson Jumps Head First into an Electronic Future,” New York Times, February 21, 2000, p. C11.
Stahl, Brent, “Giant with a Low Profile,” Corporate Report Minnesota, February 1979, pp. 40-43.
West Publishing Company: Forever Associated with the Practice of Law, Eagan, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1991.
“West Publishing to Offer Tax Reports,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 19, 1992.
Willis, Judith, “WESTLAW and LEXIS Compete in Market Having Growth Potential,” St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, March 18, 1985.
Woo, Junda, “Electronic Publishers of Legal Data Go to Court over Comparative Ads,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 1992.
—Jay P. Pederson
—updated by David E. Salamie