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)

Bob Berring and Tom Bruce – Twin sons of different mothers

A couple of weeks ago our friend and hero Tim Stanley from Justia gave his terrific free-resources presentation at our Advanced Legal Research class.  As an in-class exercise the next class session, we asked the students to briefly share some aspect of what they learned from Tim’s talk.  One student wrote:

I learned that there are a variety of free resources available besides Lexis & Westlaw.  I also learned that Oklahoma is actually one of the best states in terms of keeping their cases & statutes up-t0-date online.  One of the more fascinating things that I learned was that Cornell’s US Code online is probably the best free resource of the U.S. Code . . .

Since a question earlier in the quarter from a student about FDSys was followed up by an in-class answer by Public Printer Bob Tapella, we had to follow our student’s comment about the LII USC with a visit from the LII director! 

One of the joys of living in the San Francisco Bay Area for me is how, at some point or another, everyone passes through.  Last week Tom Bruce, from Cornell’s Legal Information Institute  was in town (we knew this from his Twitter stream) and so we tapped him to come and talk to our class.  Tom gave a terrific, inspiring talk to our class.  More on Tom’s visit here.  Tom is an incredibly dynamic and entertaining speaker — go hear him if you ever get the chance!

Tom’s talk focused on these three not-so-simple questions:

1) Why does anybody do legal research?
2) How much should it cost?
3) How good does it have to be?

Tom began the talk by showing the Bob Berring (also a dynamic and entertaining, not to be missed speaker) video that is making the law library rounds right now.

While Tom agrees with everything that Bob says (and I guess that I do too, although I wish that Bob had said “Lexis and West” rather than just “West”), seeing the Berring clip and then seeing Tom, well, the Dan Fogelberg Twin Sons of Different Mothers album came immediately to mind.  See for yourself the resemblance.

The gist of Tom’s talk is now online in a new video his LII has produced.

The LII blog has more about Tom’s visit, along with a number of related links, here

“Five guys at Cornell” have done some amazing things, and Tom gave a little preview of further good things under development.  Maybe high-stakes lawyers do need and will always need LexisNexis or Westlaw, but the rest of us and the entire world needs Tom and his LII.