CALL 2009 Conference Plenary With JURIST's Bernard Hibbitts
Hibbitts is perhaps best known as the founder of the legal news and commentary site JURIST.
For Hibbitts, it was a bit of a homecoming. A native of Halifax, he was educated at Dalhousie Law School, the University of Toronto, Harvard Law School, and Oxford University.
His presentation was about "The Technology of Law".
He provided a fascinating overview of JURIST's evolution since 1996 from a simple webpage to a fully staffed, student volunteer-run web news service, with expert editors and outside commentators.
But his main focus was about how the legal field is falling short of taking advantage of the promise of new information technologies.
There is a lot of IT in law and in legal teaching but he would describe little of it as innovative.
As examples, he referred to things such as :
- the addiction to Powerpoint in the classroom, which does not carry us much farther than older overheads
- student laptops, which are ubiquitous but little more than a newer dictation-taking tool
- academic articles online, which, even when posted to digital repositories, seldom exploit the potential of hyperlinking, or online commenting
- even the big databases (Lexis and Westlaw) are really legacy collections accessed now via the Net.
He prefers what he calls the conceptual approach to the study of the technology of law. At the University of Pittsburgh, he explained he has tried to follow this approach through classes on "Neteracy for Lawyers" that aim at developing the skills and the mentality to think and work effectively in cyberspace.
This involves teaching new ways of reading, writing and thinking in multiple online formats. This includes composing for the Net, the use of linking and the fostering of non-linear thinking, design and interface issues, the use of tagging, the emphasis on collaboration and sharing, etc.
JURIST, in fact, has become what he called "a lab to test a whole new student skill set", in a real-time, real-world environment: a news service about international and U.S. legal issues as they occur. Students are learning how to research legal stories as they develop on the Net, critically evaluate legitimacy and credibility of sources, repurpose, make use of linking to enhance the telling of the story, and write in a style appropriate for the shorter scanning reading style of the Web.
And they are covering and breaking top stories.
Overall, he explained that student reporters seem to him to have developed into more "innovative, globalist, flexible, and collaborative" thinkers.
He made a comparison between environments such as JURIST and the pioneering 19th century academic law reviews edited by law students. The student-run law review had a tremendous impact on the development of 20th century legal teaching and thinking, as the medium "galvanized students around an enterprise that teaches essential skills".