West's Dominance In Law Book Publishing Draws Cries Of Monopoly
Nov. 29, 1987
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ When actor Michael Douglas, portraying an attorney in the movie, ''Fatal Attraction,'' confesses his extramarital affair to a fellow counselor, the law books in the background are from West Publishing Co.
A Westlaw computer terminal sits in the office of the yuppie-lawyer television series, ''L.A. Law,'' and in one episode a character bound for law school is given a Black's Law Dictionary published by West.
So prominent is the company in the legal publishing business that Hollywood uses its books as a symbol of the law itself.
Founded in 1876 by two brothers, John B. and Horatio West, West now prints more than 50 million books and pamphlets each year. Its headquarters has never moved from the building the brothers built into limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River.
West's National Reporter System publishes judicial opinions from every state and federal court, and the company's Key Number Index System organizes and classifies case law. The company also prints books of state statutes for 20 states and the U.S. Code Annotated, a listing of federal laws.
That prominence has come with a price: The company is being sued by a competitor claiming it is an illegal monopoly.
Mead Data Central Inc., which owns Lexis computerized legal research system, alleges in its suit that some federal appeals courts have made West the exclusive publisher of their corrected legal opinions. Mead also contends West arranged similar deals with states and engaged in predatory practices including pricing Westlaw, its computerized legal research system, below cost.
Mead wants the court to declare judicial decisions an ''essential facility,'' which must be made available to competitors on equal terms.
''We're talking about access to the laws of the United States and there's a very distinct public interest in seeing there is easy access to the laws and rules that govern our lives,'' said Bill Gilliam, an attorney for MDC, a subsidiary of Mead Corp., a paper products manufacturer based in Dayton, Ohio.
West disputes that it has a monopoly in the law book field. Judicial decisions are in the public domain and may be printed by anyone, according to Jim Schatz, a West attorney in Minneapolis.
''The allegations made in that case are absolutely baseless and they're totally incredible,'' Schatz said. ''Many other companies publish the decisions of other courts, starting with Mead itself and Lexis. They publish all the same cases West publishes on the National Reporter System and many more.''
He added, ''Anyone can publish (legal decisions). All they have to do is get them from the same source West did - the courts.''
West, a privately held company with about 3,000 employees, won't discuss its finances. The Corporate Report Fact Book, an index of businesses in the Upper Midwest, will list West's annual revenue at an estimated $395 million in its upcoming 1988 edition.
Fourteen years ago, West branched out from publishing legal opinions into the textbook field and now publishes nearly 100 titles a year. Its Westlaw system was started in 1975.
Last year, Westlaw's database was expanded by 64,109 cases, and now lists more than 2.6 million, some dating back nearly a century. Each opinion is verified and corrected, and West's editors write headnotes, or a summary of the points of law, for each case.
Lexis, which was started two years before Westlaw, added more than 100,000 cases to its database last year and now has more than 2.8 million cases, said Sharon Peake, manager of public communications for Mead Data Central. Both systems have cases earlier than 1895, she said.
Lexis, along with a database of news stories known as Nexis, has about 200,000 users, Ms. Peake said. Nexis is available at no extra cost to Lexis users, she said.
West would not disclose its number of Westlaw users, but said it is available at nearly all of the 174 U.S. law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, as is Lexis.
The antitrust suit is not the first time the two competitors have been in court.
In 1985, Mead tried to introduce a page-numbering system for Lexis that referred to books published by West. West objected, saying its arrangements of legal decisions were copyrighted and therefore could not be replicated in Lexis.
West sued Mead over the plan. A federal judge has issued a temporary order against Mead which the Supreme Court declined to review.
Computers have become an essential tool in legal research, said Robert M. Wattson, a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Zelle, Larson and Kaplan, which uses both Westlaw and Lexis.
However, Wattson added, ''I think lawyers are conservative enough they're going to want books for a long time.''
That's West's stock in trade. The West brothers' first endeavor was the 1876 publication of a pamphlet, ''The Syllabi,'' which gave lawyers in Minnesota early copies of state Supreme Court opinions.
Three years later, the company began publishing the North Western Reporter, which covered opinions in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin. The system was expanded until 1887 when a series of seven Reporters covered the entire country, forming what is known as the National Reporter System. A modern printing plant was opened in 1982 in the St. Paul suburb of Eagan.
West introduced its Key Number classification system in 1890. A Key Number is a permanent number given to a specific point of case law. A lawyer who uses the Key Number for case research can find related cases under the same number.
''It (the Key Number system) was the first time there was any way of moving from one state to another, from state law to federal law, and having a uniform system,'' Arnold Ginnow, West's editor-in-chief, said.
''From the very beginning the company focused on performing one job really well. That was collecting, analyzing and reporting on a consistent basis all of the opinions of the state and federal courts,'' Ginnow said.