Oct. 21, 1876: John B. West brings case law to lawyers with the Syllabi

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John B. West

John B. West was barely 18 when he began work in 1870 as a traveling salesman in Minnesota. Working for the D.D. Merrill Book Store of St. Paul, he visited the small towns along the banks of the Mississippi River, hawking furniture and office supplies along with a few specialized books for doctors and lawyers.

West had moved from Boston after his father had become paymaster for the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad. He was still living with his parents when he decided at age 20 to form his own company, John B. West Publisher and Bookseller, selling legal forms and reprints of specialized articles on the law.

The Syllabi is born

In sales chats with lawyers, West came to appreciate the dearth of timely legal reporting. And although his own education seems to have ended in the eighth grade, one of West’s bestsellers was an edition of the Minnesota state statutes he had indexed himself.

By 1876, his business was growing fast enough that he took on his brother Horatio as a partner. Together they began to produce the Syllabi, an eight-page weekly pamphlet summarizing cases decided by the Supreme Court of Minnesota—basically, the syllabus of each case—along with the complete text of select opinions as well as summaries of cases decided in local and federal courts across the state.

In their first edition of the Syllabi, published on Oct. 21, 1876, the Wests described their broader ambition:

“It is not our purpose to confine our attention exclusively to reports from our own state, but while making those first in importance, also to furnish digests or opinions in cases decided in other states, which may have a special importance here or be of more than general interest.”

By the following year, the digest had proved so successful that its name was changed to the North Western Reporter, with coverage expanded into neighboring Wisconsin. And by 1879, the North Western Reporter had added cases from Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska and the Dakota Territory.

In 1882, the company was incorporated as West Publishing Co. when the brothers took on two outside partners. With fresh capital, West began to buy out several emerging competitors and, eschewing the curation favored by other digests, expanded coverage to include nearly every case decided in the venues where West operated. He wanted to provide all the cases available, but in a form that could be useful to the practice. So West focused not only on the collection and reporting of case decisions but also on upgrading the indexes that made them useful.

In 1887, West announced the “American Digest Classification Scheme, “which allowed lawyers to quickly locate decisions related to virtually any legal issue they were researching. West later added even more utility with the creation of “key numbers,” which assigned a unique identifier to each point of law. According to legal historian Robert Jarvis, West introduced the first bound volume of his keyed digests to rave reviews at the August 1897 meeting of the American Bar Association. A year later, the “American Classification Plan” was formally endorsed by the ABA as the standard for case reporting.

West steps down

But in 1899, for reasons that remain unclear, West abruptly left West Publishing, reportedly selling his stake in the company for $250,000 (nearly $9 million today). He resurfaced three weeks later behind a competing publisher, the Keefe-Davidson Law Book Company, named for two of his former employees. Over the next dozen years, perhaps in bitterness over leaving his company, West became a critic of the indexing system he had created, predicting that it would prove “inadequate in the future” as the law itself became more complex.

West remained at the helm of Keefe-Davidson until January 1912, when the affairs of the company were handed over to court-appointed receivers. More than a century later, the disposition of his company can be found just as West might have indexed it: Bigelow v. Barnes, 140 N.W. 1032, 1033 (Minn. 1913).

After the failure of his company, West moved to Southern California, where he died in 1922.

This story was originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Bringing Case Law to Lawyers: John B. West launches the Syllabi.”