INTERVIEW with Bernard Hibbitts: JURIST: Legal History in Action

Article excerpt

For University of Pittsburgh law professor Bernard Hibbitts, "The fun never stops!" Hibbitts is not only a law professor, he's also the founder, editor, and publisher of JURIST: Legal News and Research (http:// jurist.law.pitt.edu), which recently won the 2006 People's Voice Webby Award for the best law Web site.

Hibbitts, who carved out a few minutes from his busy schedule to talk about JURIST, devotes most of his day to the "fun" of managing a complex Web site that's operated primarily by a staff of students, academic volunteers, and commentators from around the world.

Some of those commentators include bloggers, academics, and lawyers from both sides of the current conflict between Israelites and Hezbollah. The ability to get content and comment from both sides of a conflict or issue, enhance that content, and publish it without bias is the hallmark of what makes JURIST a unique and respected legal content provider on the Web. From Feb. 19 to March 20 of this year alone, JURIST counted about 920,000 user sessions by nearly 300,000 unique individuals from more than 70 countries.

That's not bad for a Web site that was created on a cold, Pittsburgh morning in February 1996 by a man known primarily as a law professor and legal historian. Hibbitts, a native of Nova Scotia, Canada, was educated at Dalhousie Law School, the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University. His pre-JURIST work was focused primarily on legal history, with a particular interest in exploring law and communication.

A Broad, Empty Canvas

Hibbitts began to look at how different media influenced the ideas and practice of law. In the early 1990s, he became aware of the World Wide Web, which he saw as a "huge, broad, empty canvas" with enormous potential for instant, international, multimedia communication. Hibbitts' research had shown him the frustrations of print, particularly for communicating oral, gesture, ritual, art, and other nonwritten forms of communication. "It's like walking into an art museum and trying to write a masterpiece by da Vinci. You can't do it," he said.

So Hibbitts did two things: The first was to publish the provocative "Last Writes: Re-assessing the Law Review in the Age of Cyberspace," in the February 1996 issue of the New York University Law Review. The article predicted that the traditional printed law review would no longer be a viable communications tool in the Internet world. Although legal scholars were concerned about the article, librarians and information professionals found it very interesting.

A 'Sandbox Exercise'

The second thing that Hibbitts did was to create JURIST, which started out as a simple Web page with links to about 10 to 15 other law professors'Web sites. Hibbitts, who built the entire site in one morning, described it as a "sandbox exercise" to learn HTML and play in this new media. Later, he recalled that his research assistant told him that he had "created a monster."

The monster analogy proved to be close to the truth. JURIST grew rapidly as the strengths that Hibbitts first saw in the Internet took hold. Almost immediately, JURIST began to evolve, taking advantage of what Hibbitts calls the "fungible" nature of the Internet: readily interchangeable, free-ranging, and bound only by the law of unintended consequences.

Clinton's Impeachment

The Clinton impeachment proceedings in 1998 provided the turning point for the Web site. JURIST initially posted only a page of links to legal and policy resources. But it was soon more than mere links. Hibbitts and his small crew of students were evaluating, vetting, restructuring, and enhancing those resources. He was also able to recruit experts in constitutional law to create additional content by posting commentary on the proceedings and issues, while maintaining an authoritative and nonbiased posture.

JURIST's coverage of the impeachment proceedings attracted attention from major media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and CNN, all of which put JURIST on the World Wide Web cybermap. …