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Monday, March 13, 2023

West Publishing and the History of Westlaw

Some of the great achievements in the history of legal publishing have been made in St. Paul, Minnesota, and around the Twin Cities. Fundamental to common law systems is of course access to court decisions, traditionally in the form of case reports. In the Anglo-American system, case reporting goes back to nearly the beginning of English common law in the Middle Ages. In America, Zephaniah Swift (1757-1804) published the first volume of American reports in 1789. Alexander Dallas (1759-1817) produced the first Supreme Court reports not long after, and the business of nominative reports (reports identified by the name of the individuals who created them) in the United States was born.
It was the dynamic figure of John B. West (1852-1922), however, who produced the system of national, standardized reporters that revolutionized American law reporting. West began selling law books in the early 1870s in downtown St. Paul. In 1876, West produced a weekly circular, The Syllabi, that reported notable Minnesota federal and state court decisions. In 1877, the publication expanded to include Wisconsin cases as The North-Western Reporter. The West Publishing Company soon introduced a uniform indexing system and case headnotes for its expanding regional reporters. Before long, these covered the whole nation in the form of the National Reporter System. The benefits brought by the system were immediately clear: American law was organized and searchable in a way that it had never been before. The rest was history: West Publishing became the leading legal publisher in the country, serving generations of the bench and bar. Under the aegis of Thomson Reuters, that tradition of legal publishing continues today.

In the early 1970s, another revolution transformed the legal publishing industry and would have equally wide effects. In this revolution, too, West Publishing Company played a leading role. The "second revolution" centered on the more widespread introduction of computers and automated searchable databases. Minnesota itself had become a hotbed in the 1960s for computer development, and West did not fail to take notice. In 1974, West Publishing developed a computer system to search case headnotes across its reporters, entering the market with its technology in 1975. The product, familiar everywhere today as Westlaw, marked the beginning of one of the most successful commercial legal tools developed. In 1978, locked in competition with Mead Data Corp., Westlaw began to provide full-text search for cases. In 1979, dial-up access to the database was offered over phone lines to its customers. By the early to mid-1980s, Westlaw terminals and the services it offered were becoming increasingly indispensable to American legal consumers. The rest, again, was history. Today Westlaw features more than 40,000 databases of information and is available in numerous countries across the world.
The history of the development of Westlaw, foundational to the larger history of legal publishing, requires an understanding of the challenges the system faced, the vision it required and the success it ultimately achieved. William Voedisch, who retired in 1996 as Manager of Technical Systems Development at West, was a key early developer of Westlaw, who has chronicled its early phases and some of the extraordinary work and decisions that went into creating it. Donated to the Law Library last year, Mr. Voedisch's narrative is a very important archival document, not only for the history of legal publishing and the development of database search capabilities that it documents, but for the history of computing itself and its inroads into key commercial markets, not least of which has been law. Voedisch's document, with permission of the author, is included below on the link. It will be a valuable resource for researchers and students of this history.
   - Ryan Greenwood, Curator of Rare Books and Special Collections

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