The History of CALR, Part 1: More on Thomson West and FLITE Takes Flight



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-Law

Note: Includes bibliographical references (p. [397]-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.
ISBN: 9781591842460
ISBN: 1591842468

HD3616 .U47 R136 2009

5 thoughts on “The History of CALR, Part 1: More on Thomson West and FLITE Takes Flight

  1. Pingback: The History of CALR: Part 1: More on Thomson West and Flite Takes Flight

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  4. Very interesting.

    I worked with West during 1975 to 1995 (I left as the inner cabal at West was at work pressuring the Republicans (through Dwight Opperman, their CEO) and the Mondale connection (through Vance Opperman, Dwight’s son and President of one of the two corporations created for the sale, who was/is a huge Dem. donor), and orchestrating inovative bookkeeping and so forth. All very legal, I am sure, but not very ethical, in my opinion.

    From my observations at the time, the sale of the company was decided about two years before they sought a buyer. During that time they split the company into several parts – no one asked or discussed it with me, and I believe that they thought they might be able to sell only one part.

    Dwight succumbed to pressure by his DFO and a few others who played on DWO’s fear of computer changes, and the fact that he had been distracted by his wife’s condition. I can recall discussions with Dwight during the mid-80s where he was concerned about what would happen to the Digest, how it could be managed, and in general whether it was something that he should be alarmed about.

    West, at that time, was quite attorney-friendly, as compared to Bancroft-Whitney/Lawyer’s Co-operative Publishing Company. Thomson, a Canadian publisher, first purchsed the LCP group, along with several other smaller publishers. Lexis actually purchased Shepard’s Citation Service and Matthew Bender Co. during the mid 90s. Thomson did the buy out of West in 1996-7, combining the two largest publishers. Regrettably, they continued the predatory practices of the BW/LCP group rather than the enlightened practices of West.

    I was very disappointed about the whole thing, especially since the culture at West was so pro-privately held corporation, and seemingly proud of its earlier resistance to buy out solicitations. West had a firm policy about not fraternizing with the competition, and enforced it with their staff.

    Major movers in getting the ball rolling in the West inner circle included, Grant Nelson, their CFO, Jerry Cafesjian, VP of Marketing and Sales, and just a few larger shareholders (all shareholders were selected by the BOD). By corporate resolution, all shareholders were employees of West, and had to divest their shares on retiring.

    At the time of the acquisition in 1996, West shareholders were paid $10,000 per share. All West workers still on the job that August received $1,000 for each year of service.

    All in all, I still think it was a terrible decision, and that it has had sad reprecusions in the field of law. Of course, Lord Thomson would say differently, I suppose. The collective Bar of the US might agree with me.

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