THE HISTORY OF COMPUTER-ASSISTED LEGAL RESEARCH (CALR)
First in an occasional series
More on Thomson West Merger and FLITE Takes Flight
This is the first in an occasional and somewhat random look back at the early days of computer-assisted legal research (CALR). It stems from a post here earlier in the week about a terrific new book by noted antitrust lawyer (and Stanford Law School alumnus) Gary L. Reback, Free the Market!: Why Only Government Can Keep the Marketplace Competitive (catalog record copied below). The very readable book gives an insider look at the merger (Mr. Reback represented LexisNexis) and as Jonathan Zittrain notes on the jacket, “Gary Reback offers a powerful defense for government’s role in protecting market competition. He draws from rich historical examples and his own extraordinary personal vantage point: his victories and defeats at the front lines of the most high-profile antitrust cases of the past two decades.”
Thomson West Merger
In 1997, Mr. Reback took a vacation to Hawaii after he had “spent a year of futility . . . trying to convince the Justice Department to block an anticompetitive merger that would raise the price of hiring a lawyer for just about every consumer of legal services anywhere in America.”
Storytelling for Lawyers and Monopolizing the Law
Chapters 14 (“Storytelling for Lawyers”) and 15 (“Monopolizing the Law”) tell the story of the 1996 merger of Thomson and West, “. . . the largest publishers of court opinions, treatises, and other materials used to do legal research. No other company was even close in terms of market share or customer usage.” And, as an earlier post here suggests, the end result of this merger created a wrecking ball for academic law library budgets. In my opinion absurd and obscene annual price increases was indeed an effect of this merger.
These two chapters trace through some of the very interesting history of legal publishing, electronic and otherwise, from the 1870s to present.
At one point in chapter 15 Mr. Reback states “. . . both Thomson and LexisNexis started charging law schools for online legal research, originally provided free of charge.” I shared this information on the law library directors listserv.
A few directors contested that statement and commented that, to their knowledge, neither Lexis nor Westlaw was ever free; a couple of other directors weren’t so sure and thought that perhaps there were some free installations. But this comment also elicited a small flood of memories and reminiscences from directors about the very early days of CALR.
Stanford Law Library’s First CALR Terminal (Lexis only)
I myself came to stanford in 1982. At the time the library had one Lexis terminal, and no Westlaw terminal. The terminal was the so-called “DeLuxe” terminal, which was a large sit-down consol, reminiscent of the “con” of an early Star Trek starship. It was located in a room shared with our photocopiers and microforms, both of which were used far more than the Lexis terminal. For one thing, there was a daily blackout period and we could not access the database between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. There was no downloading of documents, and printing was done laboriously, one screen shot at a time. Connection was via an internal modem and a phone line paid for, I think, by Lexis.
Dick Danner, from the Duke Law Library noted on the listserv that “the early history of Lexis from an insider’s perspective, with a bit about Westlaw, can be found in: William G. Harrington, ‘A Brief History of Computer-Assisted Legal Research,’ 77 Law Library Journal 543 (1984-85).”
The Air Force Starts Digitizing the Law – FLITE (Federal Legal Information Through Electronics) Database
And then J. Denny Haythorn, Associate Dean of Library and Information Services & Professor of Law at Whittier College School of Law shared this very interesting story about FLITE (reproduced with permission):
In the Law Library Journal article the author refers to the system the Air Force had developed by the late 1960s. The Air Force system was called Federal Legal Information Through Electronics (FLITE) and was operated from the basement of the Air Force finance center in Denver at Lowery Air Force Base. FLITE had a large staff inputting federal court reports, administrative court reports (e.g., Comp Gen, Board of Contracts Appeals, etc.), US Code sections, CFR sections, and military regulations into databases. There was a staff of research attorneys who received calls from government lawyers for research and they would help formulate searches in the database. The Finance Center did not use their computer mainframe at night so the searcher would run overnight and be printed. The research attorneys would call back with the results the next day and sometimes mail the printouts to the requesting attorney.
More powerful minicomputers and the internet simplified the search process to ultimately be more like the commercial services thought FLITE kept the research attorneys for assistance with searches. The office also continues to maintain unique databases of information use by military lawyers. FLITE purchased the first PC computers for Air Force legal offices and began a program of law office automation using shareware software (PC Write for example), commercial software, and software specifically written by the office.
FLITE also was an early adopter of CD and DVD technology. The goal was to have Judge Advocate General attorneys in the field with legal resources for a standalone law office.
The office still exists and is now located with the Air Force Judge Advocate School at Maxwell Air Force Base, in Montgomery, Alabama. In the 1980s I was one of the research attorneys as they made the transition from batch, overnight searching to real time searches and then user searching directly on the internet. I also worked on the manuals for some of the software.
Denny will be contibuting more about his experiences as a CALR pioneer, so please stay tuned for later installments of this series.
And here’s the catalog record for Free the Market!
Author: Reback, Gary L., Stanford Law School graduate, J.D.(1974)
Title: Free the market! : why only government can keep the marketplace competitive / Gary L. Reback.
Related e-resource: Publisher description
Imprint: New York : Portfolio, 2009.
Physical Description: x, 416 p. ; 24 cm.
Note: Signed by the author. CSt-Law9-d.html
Note: Includes bibliographical references (p. -403) and index.
Contents: Protecting competition — Product distribution –Patent and coypright limitations on competition –
Monopolies and market exclusion — Mergers and acquisitions.Subject (LC): Trade regulation–United States.
Subject (LC): Competition–United States.
HD3616 .U47 R136 2009