September 20, 2012
Key Number Classification
In the far southeastern corner of the second floor of Thomson Reuters’ D Building in Eagan, Minnesota, in an area that visitors sometimes refer to as “deathly quiet” or “eerily quiet”, sit the 28 attorney-editors on Judicial Editorial’s Classification Team. On a typical day, the team adds about 2300 Key Numbers to the 250 cases that move through the department. On June 28, however, the Team was preoccupied with one case: the United States Supreme Court Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act decision.
First, we should explain what is involved in Key Number classification. The Key Number System (KNS), which has been in existence for more than 100 years, is the premier classification scheme for caselaw. The KNS takes the entire universe of caselaw and breaks it into 400 major topics, such as Contracts, Criminal Law, and Insurance. Each classifier specializes in different topics in the KNS. Each of those topics is further subdivided into discrete legal issues that we call Key Numbers. There are about 100,000 different Key Numbers that may be assigned to any particular headnote, which is a summary of one point of law discussed in a case.
The Team began preparing for the health care decision weeks before it was issued. All employees were put on notice that they might have to stay late at work on the date of the decision. Lower court decisions were examined to see how the headnotes in those cases were classified.
Once the decision was issued, the Team examined the case and determined the likely topical areas for the headnotes. Classifiers who specialize in those topics were then asked to prepare to stay at work until the headnotes were classified. Throughout the day, the Team stayed in close contact with Loren Singer who crafted the headnotes for the case. After Loren completed initial work on a batch of headnotes, he forwarded a copy to the Team, which in turn made preliminary classification decisions. Upon Loren’s completion of all headnotes at about 5:20 pm, those headnotes were then forwarded to classification.
Over the next 1 ½ hours, the case passed through 10 different classifiers, who combined had a total of 242 years of experience with Thomson Reuters and 111 years of experience as classifiers. Given the complexity of the case, the classifiers eventually used 35 different Key Numbers and 12 different topics within the KNS. Some of the headnotes were extraordinarily difficult to classify and they sometimes required spur-of-the-moment conferences among several classifiers to resolve the unique issues presented by the case. Many classifiers worked several additional hours that day. No one seemed to mind the long day because, when you are classifying a monumental case, you feel like you are part of a historically significant event.
By 6:50 that evening, the case was fully classified and everyone was able to go home. For our customers, the Key Numbers became viewable on Westlaw Classic and WestlawNext at about 7:50 pm.
I know I can speak on behalf of my 27 colleagues who share the “quiet area” of the D building with me that we feel incredibly proud and honored to have worked on preparing this case for our customers who use the Key Numbers and headnotes to quickly understand the issues in a case.