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A volunteer staff of student editors churns out a flurry of legal news every day for JURIST, a Web site created by Pitt law professor Bernard Hibbitts. People are discovering the site and logging on—a lot of people, around the world.


The People’s Law


Bo Schwerin


  Pitt law professor Bernard Hibbitts. (Ric Evans photo)
 

Spotlights trace spinning sunbursts on the walls and cast disco-ball glitter across the domed ceiling of a Manhattan ballroom, the Cipriani Wall Street. In the shadow of a Corinthian column, Pitt law professor Bernard Hibbitts sits at one of the fuchsia-lit tables and surveys the jovial, cocktail-carrying crowd milling in front of the velvet-hung stage. New arrivals thread through the gold-hued room, looking for their tables among the growing throng, which includes an A-list of VIPs from the Web world.

Somewhere in the mix are political blogger Arianna Huffington; Chris DeWolfe, cofounder of the trendy MySpace.com; Robert Kahn, an Internet pioneer; and other personalities well known to “net” insiders. Notables are here, too, from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and National Geographic. People at Hibbitts’ table hail from NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, and Mother Jones magazine. Later in the evening, superstar musician Prince will perform for the crowd.

This is a bit different from the typical academic conference, Hibbitts thinks wryly. The law school’s minimalist setting and matter-of-fact bustle seem very far away tonight.

Hibbitts’ office in the lower level of the Barco Law Library has the feel of a monk’s quarters: spartan, yet jammed with books and papers, as if he were intent on continuing the medieval monastic task of copying texts by hand. It’s a task he identifies with as the founder of the Web site JURIST, a 21st-century rendering of law. The site provides a daily chronicle of domestic and international law and has an archive of more than 17,000 stories, available for free to the general public.

The academic ideal—the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge for the greater good of society—lies at the heart of JURIST. “In a way, we’re returning to the institutional roots of the university, a place of chronicling, like a monastery,” says Hibbitts, JURIST’s publisher and editor in chief. “We’re renewing our vows to the academic ideal.”

The Web site in its current form was launched in 2004, but its precursor originated eight years earlier. Hibbitts, a Harvard Law School graduate and Rhodes Scholar, was recruited to Pitt in 1988 by Mark A. Nordenberg, now the University’s chancellor. A specialist in legal history, Hibbitts spent the early 1990s studying the impact of technology on the history of law. He became frustrated by the limitations of law reviews, whose print format limited the number of visuals he could include with his text. He turned to the still-developing Internet as a better option.

“Trying to push the square peg of law through the round hole of print is self-defeating,” he says. “What print captures of law is only a small portion of what law really is. It filters out much of the human element; I saw the potential of technology to reintroduce that element.”

Hibbitts began spending his weekends teaching himself the HTML programming language used to build Web sites. His first site, “Law Professors on the Web,” was a forum for legal academics to post papers and share information. Eventually, as major events like the 1998-99 Clinton impeachment proceedings, the 1999 Kosovo crisis, and the 2000 presidential election recount happened, Hibbitts saw the potential of the Internet to help the public understand the complex underlying legal issues in each case. But the information was scattered across the Web.

“The Internet is this huge wash,” he says. “Finding anything is like finding a book when the entire library has been dumped on the floor. You’re crawling all the time.” Hibbitts created Web pages that gathered links to relevant material and provided timely academic commentary, giving a complete legal picture of news-making events.

The response was extraordinary. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times all took note. A NATO advisor in Macedonia asked for legal advice on the country’s refugee policy. “It demonstrated that there was a public desire to know more about ongoing legal events,” says Hibbitts.

In 2003, he shifted away from the idea of academics serving academics and pursued legal news exclusively. The result was JURIST. “JURIST is not a Web site,” he says. “It’s an idea. And that idea is legal news for a better world.”

Although an unprecedented amount of legal information and news is available today, says Hibbitts, most people’s understanding of legal events is limited, and in-depth analysis is typically only available through subscription services. Want to search the free Internet for an objective account of the complex legal issues surrounding the trial of ex-Liberia dictator Charles Taylor? Be prepared to spend some time.
What could take an hour searching the Web takes a minute on JURIST. The site provides real-time, objective coverage of legal news in its running news stream, Paper Chase. Each story provides links to pertinent documents, biographies, and reports on related issues. All stories are archived, so visitors to JURIST can track the development of a particular event, like the Saddam Hussein trial, or determine the shape of a broader topic, like same-sex marriage. Complementing Paper Chase are video clips of hearings, lectures, and events and exclusive commentaries by prominent legal figures, such as the
secretary-general of the Council of Europe. All of this is geared toward helping the lay public comprehend the often convoluted workings of domestic and international law in daily life.

“We don’t present things in a simple manner, because these are complicated issues, but we try to present them so that you don’t need a law degree to understand,” says Jeannie Shawl (LAW ’05), the Web site’s executive director. “JURIST is helping to create larger public access to law and hopefully that will engender greater trust in the profession.”

JURIST attracts almost a million hits a month by more than 250,000 visitors. Those are staggering numbers, especially considering the site’s limited budget, sole full-time staff member (Shawl), and lack of subscribers or marketing other than word of mouth. “But the voice of the people is a powerful endorsement, and the people are the point,” says law school Dean Mary Crossley. “Our law clinics, which serve clients who can’t afford legal representation, have a very direct impact on our local community,” she says. “But JURIST is a way we can benefit the larger community, whether it’s local, state, national, or international ... helping to create an informed citizenry so we can have a successful democracy.”

The fact that Hibbitts started JURIST at Pitt is not happenstance in his mind. After all, Pitt is the place where John Horty, a former adjunct law professor, pioneered the field of computer-assisted legal research. His 1960s “Key Words in Combination” search system made possible the eventual development of today’s legal databases. “Horty laid the groundwork for LEXIS and WESTLAW,” says Hibbitts. “Now we’re laying the groundwork for something else. We want to bridge the gap between the academy and the outside world and bring our knowledge and perspective to citizens, practicing attorneys, and policymakers.”

David Crane, former United Nations chief prosecutor for the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal, says the Pitt Web site is changing the nature of legal publishing. “JURIST provides an excellent forum to exchange information and stay current on a range of legal topics. It’s the gold standard for a new type of legal publication.” Real-time, on the Web, 24 hours a day.

Second-year law student and news junkie Krista-Ann Staley settles down at a computer in the Barco Law Library and opens JURIST's home page. She scans the “Latest Readers” tracker: In the last two minutes, there have been hits from Venezuela, Germany, France, and every major region of the United States. It’s 9 a.m., the start of Staley’s shift.

Almost all of JURIST’s news content is produced by Pitt law students who work two-hour shifts from 7 in the morning until 9 at night. The Web site uses Weblog (blog) software that makes posting material fast and easy. Hibbitts and Shawl scan news reports, press releases, and the latest court decisions for important stories and forward their selections to student editors, who create all of the real-time content.

On this day, Staley opens her e-mail and finds three stories: a Ten Commandments courthouse display ruling, the hunt for the mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole bombing in Yemen, and the trial of Washington, D.C., sniper John Allen Muhammad. She has about 40 minutes per story to assimilate information, distill the important law-related details, find links to relevant materials, and write a report, but it will likely take her only half that time. Speed is everything when it comes to delivering real-time news. “It’s such a quick turnaround,” she says. “You need to get out what you want to say as concisely as possible and move on.”

A senior editor for the Web site, Staley is one of many Pitt law students who are finding JURIST to be not only a significant public service but also a unique educational experience. The site exposes students to the practical aspects of law by taking the abstract concepts learned in the classroom and extending them into the real world. Students working on the site learn as they go. They conduct research, write on deadline, and deal with vast quantities of information beyond the usual legal databases.

Many students end up becoming experts in certain areas. Staley says she’ll be listening to a program on National Public Radio and think, Wait a minute! They left this part out. First-year law student and associate editor Josh Pantesco believes the experience also provides a valuable opportunity to develop legal reflexes. “Because we’re real-time,” he says, “this is one of the only law school activities outside of moot [mock] court in which you have to think on your feet.”

Dean Crossley agrees that the Web site is a good proving ground for future lawyers. “JURIST gives law students a way of getting engaged in the world of legal affairs, having to determine what, out of the universe of things happening, should be presented as a useful resource,” she says. That’s handy in a career that requires thoroughness, accuracy, quick thinking, effective strategizing, exceptional communication skills, and leading-edge technological savvy.

Hibbitts appreciates the pedagogical aspects of JURIST, too. A past winner of the Pitt law students’ Excellence-in-Teaching Award and the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award, he’s quick to emphasize the students are the driving force behind JURIST—and they’re glad to gain useful experience while having an impact outside their studies. “When I told a law student at George Washington University that I write for JURIST, she said ‘We use JURIST all the time!’” exclaims Staley. “A man in Nepal wrote thanking us for our coverage of Nepalese law. That blew my mind.”

It’s that kind of reach that has landed Hibbitts in a Manhattan ballroom full of Web pioneers and innovators. He’s attending the 10th Annual Webby Awards, called the “online Oscars” by Time magazine, because JURIST is a finalist. Awarded by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the Webbys honor the best of the Internet, choosing winners in 69 categories from 5,500 entries from 40 countries. At a gathering Hibbitts never dreamed of attending, host Rob Corddry of television’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart makes the announcement: JURIST is the People’s Voice Award winner for the best law Web site of 2006. An online election, with more than 300,000 votes cast, gave JURIST the win in a tight race with cable law network CourtTV and against stiff competition from large-scale legal Web sites FindLaw, Nolo, and Justice Learning.

Applause rises from every table as Hibbitts takes the stage to pick up the award for the first law school ever to win a Webby. He and Shawl finalized the school’s acceptance remarks just before the awards ceremony. He can only offer five words, which is the Webby limit. He leans into the microphone and calmly says: “Our news breaks law worldwide.”

Before long, Prince launches into an acoustic number that has the crowd clapping along, with some revelers standing on chairs. There’s a post-ceremony party that will end in the early morning hours, just as the staffers of JURIST Europe—Pitt law students studying abroad—begin their shifts.

The news about law never stops. JURIST is still developing, still evolving. Students from law schools beyond Pitt are beginning to contribute to the site. Google News is picking up JURIST content. Podcasts are under development, and the staff is considering other opportunities posed by increasing worldwide exposure.

The Roman statesman Cicero once said, “The good of the people is the highest law.” Tonight, JURIST is the people’s choice. On his feet, clapping his hands to the music, Hibbitts feels right at home.

 

 

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