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September 25, 1997

Law school Website wins honors

In July 1995, Bernard Hibbitts, associate dean for communications and information technology in Pitt's School of Law, received a new computer and began thinking about ways to use it.

Six months later, in January 1996, Hibbitts created a homepage and the following month posted an article that one day might stand with Thomas Paine's publication of "Common Sense" on the eve of the American Revolution. Well, at least Hibbitts's article, "Last Writes: Reassessing the Law Review in the Age of Cyber Space," might look like Pane's argument for independence to law school professors and other members of the legal profession.

For in that piece, Hibbitts argues that the Internet is rapidly making the gray, ponderous law review, so long the standard means for disseminating legal scholarship, obsolete as a format for academic publishing related to law. "Basically, I am of the opinion that the Internet enables us to do what the law reviews do and do it better and faster and cheaper and more accurately and with more media and to a broader audience," Hibbitts says. "You name it, we can do it. In Hibbitts's view, the only need for law reviews in the future may be as a print archive for material posted on the Internet. And if numbers of users and feedback are any indication, it seems as if a lot of other people are starting to agree.

Jurist: Law Professors on the Web, the World Wide Website that grew out of Hibbitts's posting of "Last Writes" and a prior site developed by him, is now the No. 1 Website for law on the Internet, as rated by the Lycos search engine. The newsletter "Legal On-Line" also gave Jurist its highest, five-star rating. Infoseek and the American Bar Association are others that have praised the service. In being selected No. 1 by Lycos, the Pitt site beat out similar Websites at Yale, No. 7; Emory University, No. 13, University of Virginia, No. 14; University of Pennsylvania, No. 15; University of California at Berkeley, No. 18; and Duke University, No. 25.

Overall, Jurist was rated No. 2 of all Websites by Lycos. Pomona College was given the No. 1 rating. Actually, Jurist earned higher scores for both content, 96 percent, and design, 88 percent, than Pomona, which earned a 94 percent for content and 86 percent for design.

But, Hibbitts says: "Obviously, there was a fudge factor that involves some intangibles that struck the reviewer and earned Pomona the No. 1 rating." Jurist regularly attracts readers from more than 25 different countries, including England, New Zealand, Australia, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, Namibia, Venezuela, South Africa, Japan, China and Malaysia.

Along with law professors and lawyers in private practice, among the 13,000 people who have checked out the site since it went on-line in March are business executives, academics from other disciplines and countless non-professionals, many of whom Hibbitts is certain have never seen a law review. Even the largest law reviews have circulations of only 5,000 and most people outside of the profession do not even know where to find them, according Hibbitts.

In a recent week, over 600 people visited the Jurist site, located at "It's very user friendly," Hibbitts says. "And I think that is a great thing, because one of our problems in law in the United States at the moment is the fact that the public feels alienated from law in a variety of ways. This is one way to reconnect people." Along with convenience, another reason why Jurist is receiving so much attention, Hibbitts feels, is because of the people who are providing the information. "These are not just hobbyists or people off the street, these are accredited law professors at named institutions," he notes.

The Jurist site also is a lot more appealing to the eye than law reviews with their mostly unbroken mass of gray type. Jurist contains illustrations, different sizes and styles of type, a variety of different layouts, even sound and video.

Contributors like the fact that they can present their material in so many different ways and are not limited by design, according to Hibbitts. To maintain quality control, contributors must be faculty members at accredited institutions.

The Jurist site itself attempts to duplicate the feel of a law school. It contains resource pages with articles on various aspects of law; course pages with articles on teaching law; a lecture hall where law professors present papers; the homepages of law professors at institutions around the world, and even a faculty lounge where copies of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications typically found in a faculty lounge are located.

A new version of Jurist now being developed by Hibbitts with help from a few law students is expected to be on-line some time in October. It also will contain information on conferences, examinations and more homepages of law professors.

Such widespread interest is bringing both Pitt and the law school at lot of good publicity and recognition on the Internet. And essentially for free. Hibbitts manages the site in his spare time. But he has begun seeking support from the outside legal community and foundations.

"We are looking actively for sources of support now that it has become quite large," he says. "We would like to hire staff. We would like to do a variety of things because I have a ton and a half of ideas. And there is a lot of running room here. There is a tremendous amount we could do with this with some good support."

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 3

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