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Early on the morning of Dec. 13, 2000, shortly after arriving for work at West Group in Eagan, Minn., Chip Allen was in a foul mood. Late the night before, the U.S. Supreme Court had stopped the recount of votes in Florida and handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush. Allen was not upset by the outcome but by how the justices reached it. Allen’s first assignment of the day was to summarize the case and write the headnotes. He had to do it quickly and correctly, and neither was easy. Headnotes are West Group’s version of Cliffs Notes: concise, even pithy summaries of each point of law within a legal decision. Allen has been writing headnotes for West for 22 years, since the time when so-called attorney-editors wrote their notes using dictaphones. Over the years Allen has handled decisions that required more than 100 individual notes and decisions with a wrenching human story, like the Baby M case. But George W. Bush et al. v. Albert Gore, Jr., et al. was different from most cases that cross his desk, and not just because of its historical import. Allen does his job by breaking a decision into a linked series of inductive, if-then statements, tracing how the court squares facts with settled legal principles. “In that case, [the justices] didn’t have those principles, so it didn’t make any sense,” he says. It took Allen, 51, four hours to hammer out a summary and 10 notes. A case of that length and complexity normally would have consumed an hour. (West had published the case online the night before through its Westlaw service and added Allen’s summary and notes the next morning.) Lawyers often see only the electronic face of West: its online service, Westlaw; its electronic case-checking service, KeyCite; or its software arm, ProLaw Software. It is easy to forget that the company is primarily a publisher powered as much by human agents like Allen as by intelligent software agents. There are about 70 attorney-editors like Allen at West who write case summaries and headnotes. They are the company’s latter-day monks, a group of quiet “studiers” who “didn’t have Kiss posters on the wall” and didn’t go to keggers in college, says Allen. Their cubicles are 5 feet high — 12 inches higher than is the norm at West. They tend to be a quiet group, but not entirely insular. They field a softball team, and the team gives out one award each year named after Mr. Ed. It is awarded to the player whose average is closest to the team average. When Allen was hired, about the only requirement was to have graduated in the top quarter at a solid law school, preferably University of Minnesota. Today, attorney-editors are a more diverse lot, coming out of law school at Northwestern, Harvard, University of Chicago and elsewhere. The starting salary is in the low $40,000s, comparable to that of judicial clerks. Attorney-editors are expected to read about 80 pages of decisions a day, which averages out to about seven or eight cases. “The work is quite grueling,” says Allen. “There is nothing like sitting at a desk for two hours concentrating. You do not want to make a mistake. You want to nail a case.” Online search engines like Google are amazingly adept at telling us way too much personal detail about a prospective blind date. But keyword searches of legal databases just don’t get the job done for many lawyers, who need to know they have overturned every rock. That’s where headnotes and their cousin — key numbers — come in. West has been publishing headnotes for nearly as long as it has been publishing cases. It published the first headnote sometime in the late 1800s. Today, it produces headnotes on about 55,000 published cases a year. Just recently it started producing headnotes on unpublished opinions. The company hired nearly 20 attorney-editors to handle the extra workload. In West’s world, there are some 80,000 points of law divided into 440 topics. When a headnote writer like Allen finishes digesting a case, he or she assigns a temporary topic to each note and then passes the note along to one of about 20 classifiers. Their job is to discover the point of law that the note covers and assign a key number to it. Allen calls this classification system a “Platonic form.” If so, it is a movable one. Points of law morph from generation to generation. A point once known as “bastards” became “illegitimate children” and is now known as “children out of wedlock.” “You have to be very creative about how you classify cases in a way that makes the law easy to find,” says Bob Dodd, the company’s chief classifier. About three years ago, West reclassified insurance law to reflect modern practice more accurately. The exercise required about 400,000 notes to be reclassified, not the sort of task a computer can handle. For that reason, Elizabeth Buckingham, a partner at Minneapolis’ Dorsey & Whitney who practices trademark law, says that when she wants to know that she has exhausted a point of law, she relies on key numbers. About three years ago, Lexis Nexis, West’s chief online competitor, began to hire lawyers to write case summaries and pluck out the “core concepts” from opinions. It is doing this retroactively for all cases in its system. Computers may eventually be powerful and flexible enough to do this type of work. But, for now, the electronic delivery of cases still requires the human touch.

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