Thomson Reuters Celebrates 150 Years: John Elstad on Small Innovations Making Big Impacts
Thomson Reuters is commemorating 150 years of customer partnership and innovation to honor the 1872 founding of John B. West Publisher and Book Seller. West’s innovative spirit lives on in Westlaw – a product that still carries his name – and in the AI-driven products and legal research technology tools used by legal professionals worldwide.
Our Legal Current series features voices across Thomson Reuters sharing how West’s legacy of customer partnership and innovation endures today. We hear today from John Elstad, head of Content Transformation, who has worked at Thomson Reuters for 33 years.
“Letting go of sacred cows”
Elstad recalled a defining moment early in his Thomson Reuters tenure.
“When I started, one of my first jobs was measuring our competitive current-ness – how quickly we got content loaded to Westlaw,” Elstad recalled. “Dwight Opperman [president of West Publishing, the predecessor to Thomson Reuters] had a goal of loading U.S. Supreme Court decisions to Westlaw in 15 minutes.”
“At the time, we had just cut from a day or two down to two hours,” Elstad added. “Everybody thought that was amazing and fully automated.”
He noted that their process included conducting a test, after the content was loaded, to validate that everything had worked. This validation test took 15 minutes to complete.
“When Dwight set a 15-minute target for uploading decisions, we said, ‘that’s not the physics of how this works,’” Elstad said. “But within 12 to 18 months, we accomplished it. Today, we often load U.S. Supreme Court cases to Westlaw 60 to 90 seconds after they’re handed down from the court.”
“One thing I learned from that experience is that setting hard goals is worthwhile to stretch people,” Elstad added. “If you set a high standard, it teaches you to unlearn some of your basic assumptions. Our assumption was that we always had to do the validation test before we released to customers. Instead, we fixed a lot of the problems that showed up in that test and realized we could make quick fixes afterward if something went wrong. And it was such a small percentage of time. So, letting go of sacred cows is where big movements forward come from.”
“Small innovations add up to big impacts”
Another takeaway for Elstad of his time with Thomson Reuters is that the small things are just as important as the big things.
“We’ve done some big things, like KeyCite, WestlawNext, Westlaw Edge, and Westlaw Precision,” he said. “But we’ve done a lot of small things too by listening to customers and where they’re seeing pain, or where they want something more done. And those small, day-to-day changes we’ve made around improving speed and quality matter for customers. Small innovations add up to big impacts.”
These small changes are especially notable when considering the scope of content Thomson Reuters manages. Writing earlier this year about caselaw taxonomy and the evolution of the legal system, Elstad noted that Thomson Reuters attorney editors annually “manage changes to more than 100,000 U.S. statute sections, manage a collection of more than 20 million index references, create over 490,000 headnotes, and assign over 550,000 Key Numbers.”
Elstad noted that the level of scale Thomson Reuters delivers today is a testament to John B. West’s vision in the 1870s. When John B. West Publisher and Book Seller – the predecessor to West Publishing, now Thomson Reuters – was founded in 1872, the U.S. legal system was a collage of laws and caselaw.
“No one could catch up”
“John B. West was part of a new generation that actually viewed America as something more than a collection of states or colonies,” Elstad explained. “At the time, the thought of regionally collecting materials like appellate caselaw and commentary was kind of laughed at by the East Coast publishers. They thought it was a bit of a folly. But he had no choice because in states like Minnesota, it was hard to get.”
For context, Minnesota was a 14-year-old state in 1872.
“Lawyers didn’t have a lot of depth of caselaw,” Elstad added. “They had to get caselaw from other regions to have enough material. But 10 years after John B. West started, he had the whole country covered. And 10 years more beyond that, no one could catch up. Within 10 years, competitors tried to emulate it, but by then he had the leader’s advantage.”
Elstad added that Thomson Reuters has sustained this leader’s advantage as the company has transformed from primarily a print business to a content company to a content-enabled technology company.
Elstad said “technology, growth, and complexity” best describe the evolution of the legal space during his 33-year tenure. When he started at what was then West Publishing, he intended to stay for a year before going to law school. He eventually earned an M.B.A, rather than a J.D., and took on additional roles such as serving on the board of Books for Africa.
“People always ask me, ‘How could you stay at the same company for 33 years?” Elstad said. “But it’s not the same company. It has changed multiple times.”
Elstad said he has admired the strong processes and commitment to getting it right that are engrained in the Thomson Reuters culture.
“If you want to be a leader in the market, it isn’t the work of just a few heroes,” he noted. “It takes a whole team of people committed to it. That’s what makes us the best in the business: it’s our whole organization committed to our customers.”
Read more about the Thomson Reuters legacy and watch Legal Current for additional stories in the coming weeks.