John B. West and other non lawyers who have revolutionized legal research

The latest issue of The American Journal of Legal History just landed on my desk.  It includes an article by Robert M. Jarvis, “John B. West:  Founder of the West Publishing Company.”   There are all sorts of fascinating facts about Mr. West in the article, including (and maybe everyone knows this but me) how he called for uniform citation way back in 1908.  From a footnote:

. . . [West] calls attention to the necessary multiplication of citations caused by the different unofficial publication of reports . . . [and] contends that reports of decisions are simply official documents which should be filed in numerical order and cited with reference to their numbers.  Under this system no matter how many decisions or systems of reporting be adopted each case can be readily found and cited by reference to this official number, entirely regardless of the volume and page of the particular publication.

The article details West’s (the man) falling out with West (the company).  “John called for the elimination of unofficial case reporters . . . [and] likewise derided the West digest system . . . ”

In his conclusion to the article, Professor Jarvis remarks:

In thinking about John, two matters particularly stand out.  One is the pure randomness of his life.  If he had not moved to St. Paul and gotten a sales job with D.D. Merrill, he would not have met the lawyers he did and ended up inventing the case reporter and the digest.  It is possible, of course, that someone else might have done these things, but if not, the legal system would have developed along very different lines.

Second, there is the question of how a man who did not go to college, and was untrained in law, was able to devise methods that revolutionized legal research and, by extension, legal practice.  Why was no judge or lawyer able to see what he saw?  Perhaps the answer is that they were not looking, or perhaps it took an outsider to see what the cognoscenti could not.

This question of how a non lawyer can be such a leader in legal research struck me last quarter while we were teaching advanced legal research.  Two of our guest speakers are true revolutionaries in legal research — Carl Malamud from public.resource.org and Tom Bruce from the Cornell Legal Information Institute.   Both men are leading the free law revolution (and if Law.gov takes off, legal research will never be the same), and neither are lawyers.  Or law librarians, for that matter.

Here’s the cite to the article:

Robert M. Jarvis, “John B. West: Founder of the West Publishing Company,” The American Journal of Legal History, Volume L, Number 1, pages 1-22, January 2008-2010 (2010)

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