John Briggs West was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on August 6, 1852.

His father was a bookkeeper and had married in Boston. John was one of five children.

According to law professor Robert Jarvis, in an article written in the American Journal of Legal History, John B. West had three other siblings but all died as infants.

John's older brother Horatio, born in 1848, would loom large in the legacy of West Publishing Company.

In 1870, his father got an accounting job in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family moved and upon arrival, John got a job at a bookstore. He was never a lawyer but started as a salesman. He travelled to small towns and became aware of the needs of the legal profession.

West, Law Publisher

In 1872, he quit his job and started his own book-selling business, focusing on lawyers, “John B. West, Publisher and Bookseller”.

According to Jarvis:

“He created a line of legal forms (branded WEST), reprinted hard-to-find treatises, and produced a much-needed index to Minnesota statutes.”

In 1876, he brought his brother Horatio in as partner. That same year, West retained a local lawyer to help him publish The Syllabi which, according to the October 21, 1876 edition summarized “the decisions of the Supreme Court of Minnesota”.

Instead of making lawyers wait one or two years for decisions to be published in the official annual law report book published by the courts, West had them summarized within days in the Syllabi, along with full text access. West published the cases, as they were issued, in booklets which were readily bound at the end of the year.

The Syllabi was so popular it was renamed in 1877 and included coverage of Wisconsin courts. The new name: the North Western Reporter. As subscriptions came pouring in, the scope of N.W. expanded in 1879 to include the opinions of the supreme courts of Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and the Dakota Territory.

John B. WestIn 1879, his company also began the American Digest system. A year later, West Publishing commenced publication of the Federal Reporter, containing decisions of the US circuit and district courts around the country. Thus, the North Western Reporter was the first law report of the Westlaw empire.

By 1882, the company was continuing to grow and brothers made the fateful decision to bring in two new men. The partnership was converted to a corporation, the West Publishing Company. The two new stockholders were Jesse Payton Boyle and Charles Ames.

West Publishing Company continued its expansion publishing new law reports:

In 1887, the American Bar Association took a fancy to the successful law report publisher and the endorsement helped West expand.

So aggressive was West, that other law report publishers surrendered such as the Rochester-based Lawyers' Cooperative Publishing Co.'s decision to cease publication of rival law reports. Meanwhile, John moved his family into a mansion and as a member of the St. Paul elite, was soon a senior Mason.

Implosion

In 1899, West Publishing Company imploded, in circumstances never since fully discovered.

The Consolidation of the American and the General Digest suggested that John:

“ ... retired.... [D]isagreements arose, under the stress of which one of his associates purchase his shares for a round sum of a quarter of a million dollars.”

Martin, in an article written for the Ramsey County History Society, speculated that John’s sudden departure resulted from “a major rupture between family members”.

This appears probable since Horatio was promoted President upon John's departure.

In any event, three weeks after he had left his own company, John B. West lured two employees away from West Publishing and together, they opened a new competitor but ill-fated business: the Keefe-Davidson Law Book Company.

In 1906, the American Association of Law libraries was founded and John West was invited to speak at their 1908 annual meeting. At the time, according to an article written by Franklin Poole, West showed his amazing ability to see the future of law reporting. He proposed a universal citation style similar to the modern neutral legal citation, where opinions issuing from courts would have official sequential numbers, independent from any trademark or corporate name given by a private law report publisher. This was a perfect solution to the problem of multiple law reports already hindering law reporting in the United States but it was far ahead of its time. This was a direct attack on his former company who relied heavily then as they do, still today, on the market dependency on their branded law reports (eg. the North Western Reporter).

John Briggs West never got a chance to push his proposal any further as he became embroiled in a legal dispute which eventually ruined him. Ironically, the case which he lost was published in West Publishing's 1908 edition of the North East Reporter.

The case started in 1900, when John West hired Clark to write an update of his popular law book Clark on Corporations. West believe that Clark had a problem with alcohol and so the peculiar contract gave Clark $2 a page is he drank alcohol and $6 if he did not! Clark never did stop drinking so upon publication, when Keefe-Davidson gave him only $2 a page, he sued for the difference. Ultimately, Clark won the litigation and the time and money fighting the litigation right up to the New York Court of Appeals in 1908 appeared to have drained West.

Four years later, in 1912, Keefe-Davidson folded. In the financial ruin the company's collapse had wrought on his family, West's son suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.

In 1913, St. Paul lost a local icon never since properly recognized, when John West seemingly reconciled with his brother Horatio, following him in leaving St. Paul and moving to Los Angeles.

He died on March 14, 1922. His remains are buried in the family plot at the Oakland Cemetery, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Jarvis writes:

“It is rather stunning that so pivotal a fugure wallows in such obscurity...."

"[E]very day, were ever law is practice or plot, his remarkable innovations live on.”

As of 2010, Westlaw has 8,000 employees and sales of over $1-billion ... and virtually no reference or biography of their founder, John B. West.

In 1996, West was bought out by the Canadian publishing giant Thomson Reuters but still, other than Jarvis' academic article, a blank Internet search reveals the sad forgotten legacy of this brilliant man.

References:

  • American Association of Law Libraries (www.aallnet.org)
  • Clark v West, 86 N.E. 1 and at 193 N.Y. 349 (1908)
  • Consolidation of the American and the General Digest, 34 A.L. Rev. 243 (1900)
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law's Hall of Fame
  • Jarvis, R., John B. West: Founder of the West Publishing Company, Am. Jour. of Legal History, Vol L., #1, pages 1-22 (2010)
  • Martin, V., The View From The 17th Floor - Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly And Its 11 - Year History, Ramsey County History, Vol. 32, #1, page 4 (1997)
  • Marvin, William, West Publishing Company: Origin, Growth, Leadership (St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing Co., 1969)
  • Poole, F., American Association of Law Libraries, 33 L.L.J. 276 (1908)
  • Nova Southern University, Robert M. Jarvis profile (as of 16 APR 2010)

Photo of John B. West is used with the generous permission of the American Journal of Legal History.