I’ve been planning to make a post on this for a while now but I thought it would make the most sense during the summer. A computer is, near enough, a requirement for law school nowadays. We may not be at the level of business students who need a laptop with them to be taught how to present but there is still a lot of benefit to having a computer with you. My university has embraced IT in a big way and there are plenty of computers available for students to use on campus and it is very possible for someone to get by on these alone for their typing use.
The question is if someone needs to use a computer at irregular hours (typing a paper at 11pm for a midnight submission is not impossible) or for a long time because then using one in a university computer lab might not ideal. Having a computer available to use on your own terms is ideal, and will let you work in a way that you find more natural to you. People who study at night may particularly appreciate this freedom.
The requirements that law students have are pretty minimal and the most important factor is a word processor which can save in a format which markers will accept, most commonly Microsoft Word files (.doc). If you are shopping on a tight budget never forget that the primary medium you will use during your degree is the written word – coursework assignments for a media student stretch to DVD sizes, coursework for a law student can be around just 100 kilobytes of nonetheless painstakingly researched text. It could be just as much work but you don’t need nearly as powerful the computer to do it. It is very possible to buy a used computer and use it successfully during your degree: you will not be at a disadvantage if you use a non Core 2 Duo laptop.
PC or Mac?
This is a very general decision and the choice to use an Apple computer will not hinder you at law school. If you are able to afford a Macbook Pro or are happy to settle for using some older models of Powerbook you may find the particularly good keyboards make typing assignments a little more comfortable but it is a very subjective issue and the best test will be to try the keyboard out before buying the computer. Apple hardware is well made in my experience and is a useful accessory for university. PCs are just as useful and the programs you will need for your degree are generally very similar, a word file saved on a Mac will be identical to a word file saved on a PC and the reference databases are generally exactly the same on either platform. LexisNexis is picky about the system that you use to access it, however but is still usable without the Windows and Internet Explorer it recommends.
Briefly, I think that students who are living on or near campus are perfectly able to operate a desktop as their main computers, using portable storage and campus computers as needed. However, I do not recommend that someone buy a new desktop for law school over a laptop – many students in this situation will end up buying a laptop for themselves anyway. Desktops are bulkier, heavier and more flexible than laptops and there is still a price premium for portable computers, so there are benefits for a student aiming for one of these. As a student who is fond of using wireless networks to check my mail in the park I think it’s really worth the (now invisible) cost. However, you also eliminate a lot of the theft problem. The problem is that the primary benefit of desktops is the extra power that is available. It used to be that a basic desktop cost much less than a comparable laptop but the difference has narrowed greatly. Instead the advantage is now the extra power available – additional power which law students do not honestly need for their studies. If I was doing a media degree and needed to process video or similar at home (but universities allow you to process your video on their workstations) for coursework I would consider having access to a computer with a fast processor, big screen and lots of storage to be a positive investment for my education. Instead, I’m doing law, which is much less strenuous on hardware. A law student only needs a word processor and a web browser and for the most part everything else is extra functionality.
The quintessential law school laptop was highlighted by the movie Legally Blonde, released in 2001, and it contains a scene where every student (except from Reese Witherspoon) sat behind an IBM Thinkpad, which is now produced by Lenovo. This visual joke has a lot of truth to it; a Thinkpad is a wonderful tool for a law student. My own (slightly dated) experience of the keyboards is that they were as good as billed, and a law student can expect to be typing for their degree enough to be sick of it. A good keyboard is a very good idea for your own health and productivity.
Interestingly, Witherspoon’s own choice from Legally Blonde – the Clamshell iBook – is still a passable option for a law student’s word processing machine as it will provide all the functionality which they will need for their studies, at a price premium due to its rarity and sought after nature and at the cost of being under powered compared to newer computers – lowendmac.com can explain how to work with these older computers.
Personally, I use a budget laptop which I bought online new for a few hundred pounds a bit over a year ago. I agree that looks are important so I chose one which was powerful for the money but still pretty timeless in style. It’s black and grey and it’s a little over an inch thin when closed, thin and black will never be unacceptable in a laptop. It uses an older, single core Pentium M processor which does not provide the same power as the newer models (but cut around £100 off the price when I bought it) but I have hooked up an extended life battery and I get around 6 hours away from a plug, which covers me perfectly while I’m out of the house. I back up my files to a flash drive which also means I can use them on the campus systems – useful for centralised printing. The combination means that my work is secure enough to protect it from accidents like drive failure or, in the worst case, the theft of my laptop.
My very functional HP 510 (pdf) gets well looked after and will continue to serve me as a portable typing, emailing and browsing machine well after university, it is not a speed demon but the combination of low cost, highly clocked processor and long battery life means that I consider it to be one of the best purchases I have made in a long time. For people who want more power from a laptop, there are pricier options but my lower end option works extremely well for me as a typing and researching machine. All the posts on this site are typed on this machine.
Finally, if you are not a very technical person I suggest the first thing you do is find a techie friend at your university, my first love was computing so that shows it’s even possible to find one within your course, who can talk you through what can be pretty complicated configuration for campus networks etc which will save headaches in the future.