West Publishing Co.
West Publishing Co.
610 Opperman Drive
Eagan, Minnesota 55123
Fax: (612) 687-5388
Incorporated: 1882 as West Publishing Co.
Sales: $525 million (estimated)
SICs: 2731 Book Publishing
A ubiquitous and irreplaceable presence in the legal publishing industry, West Publishing Co. has 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 has been its 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. Now more than a century old, the Key Number System remains, through such comprehensive and regularly updated series as the American Digest System and the National Reporter System, the most prevalent and valued legal aid in the industry. Although West has struggled to maintain its position as a leading information access company in the age of computer-assisted and CD-ROM technology, the company remains known as the preeminent legal book publisher, first and foremost. Its three primary publishing divisions—Law Books, Law School, and College and School—together produce over 55 million individual volumes and pamphlets annually, an amazing legacy considering the private firm’s humble beginnings.
In the post-Civil War period, the east was unrivalled 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 has 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 aiynstant 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.” Iri 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. 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, the 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 cases studies, many of the courts were reluctant to admit the West citations in lieu of actual State Report citations. However, by the mid-twentieth century, 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.
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 thirty 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 1927 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.”
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 WEST-LAW 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.
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 planned to expand its subscriber base. In addition, West’s pursuit of state-of-the-art software, most recently indicated by its unveiling of a simplified natural language search and retrieval process called WIN, promised to open new venues for West as a high-tech information access company. Yet, it is unlikely that West will ever stray too far afield from its declared domain. Given the law community’s immense and ongoing investment in West’s products, the company is destined to remain “Forever Associated with the Practice of Law.”
Data Retrieval Corporation of America; West Services, Inc. (WSI).
Marvin, William W., West Publishing Co.: Origin —Growth —Leadership, St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1969; Stahl, Brent, “Giant with a Low Profile,” Corporate Report Minnesota, February 1979, pp. 40-3; Willis, Judith, “WESTLAW and LEXIS Compete in Market Having Growth Potential,” St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, March 18, 1985; Baenen, Jeff, “West Publishing’s Success Brings Antitrust Lawsuit,” Star Tribune, November 22, 1987; Pitzer, Mary J., and Zachary Schiller, “A Searing Courtroom Drama over . . . Page Numbers,” Business Week, July 4, 1988; Ervin, John, Jr., “Publishing for the Law at West,” Publishers Weekly, November 25, 1988; Greenhouse, Linda, “Progress Spawns Question: Who Owns the Law?” New York Times, February 16, 1990; West Publishing Company: Forever Associated with the Practice of Law, Eagan, MN: West Publishing Co., 1991; McAuliffe, Bill, “West Becomes Past in St. Paul, Present and Future in Eagan,” Star Tribune, March 25, 1992; Woo, Junda, “Electronic Publishers of Legal Data Go to Court over Comparative Ads,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 1992; “West Publishing to Offer Tax Reports,” Star Tribune, August 19, 1992; Burrow, Clive, “Legal Research, in English,” New York Times, October 18, 1992.