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Today in Legal History: October 21, 1876

One hundred and thirty-eight years ago today legal research and the way we understand law changed forever. On October 21, 1876 John B. West, founder of West Publishing Company, published his first law reporter, The Syllabi. The eight-page pamphlet was published weekly, delivering to its readers the decisions of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Within a year, the publication enlarged to include the decisions of Minnesota’s federal courts, and notes from Wisconsin cases and other nearby jurisdictions. 

Though other case reports had existed in some states, The Syllabi was the first serial publication issued on a regular basis exclusively devoted to the publication of court decisions. West focused on publishing all of the court’s decisions, unlike American Reports, a popular publication featuring only outstanding decisions. This made his product attractive to practitioners, who were able to buy his reports more quickly and cheaply than certified copies from the court. West made his mission clear in The Syllabi’s first issue:

"The syllabi of the decisions of the Supreme Court of Minnesota have heretofore appeared in the daily papers only as it happened to suit the convenience of a reporter, or when a scarcity of news made them useful in filling up space, sometimes being in one paper, and sometimes in another.

"It has been a matter of much annoyance to the attorneys of our State that these decisions have not been published regularly in some one paper ,immediately after being filed, and well knowing the importance of such a publication to the profession, we purpose issuing the "Syllabi." . . .

"We shall endeavor to make the Syllabi indispensible to Minnesota Attorneys, by making it prompt, interesting, full, and at all times thoroughly reliable, and the better to enable us to do so we respectfully request the cordial support of the members of the Bar."

By 1879, the publication had grown to include the decisions of the supreme courts of states surrounding Minnesota, the Northwestern Reporter. From there, West continued to expand, publishing reports across the nation. This was the beginnings of the National Reporter System, the primary publication route for opinions from the federal courts of appeals, the federal district courts, and state appellate courts. Now that opinions were available in such great number, they needed some system of organization. West created the American Digest System in response, which allowed for cases to be classified by topic and key number. Though most today do not know there was an actual “West” behind Westlaw, what John B. West began 138 years ago today still informs American legal research and has shaped the modern practice of law. 


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