The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Month: May, 2008

Computers for law school

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.

Desktops

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.

Laptops

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.

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Blog Recommendation – Baby Barista

There are many different blogs in the world with very different takes on their many different subjects – as law blogs go Baby Barista manages to be one of the scariest to read.

Baby Barista is the fictionalised account of a trainee barrister as he goes through his pupilage at Chambers down in Oxford. I originally started reading it because it is written by a real world barrister and I hoped it might show me some of the things that training involves, at least in England, and what common problems do advocates and barristers suffer. As I read on, however, I found myself utterly terrified at the attitude of many of the characters of BabyBarista.

I have often said that anyone who manages to become a lawyer in today’s climate is razor sharp, hardened, determined and you can be assured has never failed a test in their life, and in one sense this is extremely good – even if you have a young lawyer that young lawyer will have worked staggeringly hard to get to a point to be able to represent you, but it also raises the concern that the young lawyer has almost literally fought off hordes of his peers to be able to represent you.

The English Chambers system for barristers means that the number of positions for barristers is practically nearly as fixed as that of the judges they appear before. Chambers are literally the offices in which barristers work and are often truly ancient. (In Scotland the system is a lot more open and instead of a stone Chambers building an advocate receives the use of a pigeon hole in the upper court in Edinburgh which means that they are much more flexible as far as numbers go.) Places often open up only on retirement of a current member and competition is terrifyingly fierce for tenancy in the most renowned Chambers.

Needless to say, BabyBarista is competing for tenancy in the one of the most renowned Chambers – one so elite they refuse to have names like “Shawn” on the members list outside and there are 4 or 5 candidates willing to spend years competing for the single tenancy spot at the end of the process. The author even points out that in every other field an interview of hours or at most days is considered perfectly able to select the right candidate for any number of roles. Only barristers (and advocates) have this process of years of fighting just to be selected for the job. Any similarity to Sir Alan Sugar’s “The Apprentice” is not wholly undeserved.

As BabyBarista himself says, if the system was set up to encourage cooperation he’d cooperate better than anyone but the system’s set up for a fight, so they’ll get one. So, rather than justice and wisdom we see a group of stunningly specialised professionals fighting with each other and any weapon is acceptable (even to the point of hiring a “girlfriend tester” to blackmail one of the other candidates). It might be dramatised for entertainment purposes – and it works, the blog is nothing short of enthralling from my perspective – but it makes altogether too much sense.

In contrast, there are the stories given by OldRuin, the “grandpupilmaster” of BabyBarista who appears periodically to give a snippet of wisdom and humanity. His stories are wonderful, touching and disturbingly come across as idyllic, he stands out from the rest of the crowd by simply being the decent, ethical professional most of us wanted to be at university but he seems to be a distinct minority in these Chambers.

As an aside, the character of TheBusker really interests me – this is a barrister who does the job as an art not a science and seems to benefit enormously from it, from the point of stress alone, and it may just be how positively he’s described but that’s who I want to be, the artful, eloquent, ruffled but just about still acceptable professional.

I think that would be fantastic.

BabyBarista is found at:
http://timesonline.typepad.com/baby_barista/

“How hard is law school?”

As degrees go law is generally rated to be on par or slightly below medicine as far as the degree difficulty goes (if it’s any consolation these are reportedly also the most highly paid afterwards). It’s not an easy degree by an means, accredited law schools operate on a syllabus set out by the controlling professional bodies which keeps the level of graduates high in what is a field that relies a lot on the prestige of its members. Law is a definite increase on top of university acceptance qualifications and will very probably be hard enough to get in the way of compiling a proper student record of hard partying.

You will have to sometimes refuse to go out to get work done at university, there’s just no other way but my friends in other subjects have not had the problem of workload to the same extent that myself and my law friends have, so the consensus is that there is more to the course to cover. You’ll probably find it to be a very quick course trying to cover a great deal of information very quickly, the Scottish LLB (my course) tries to have a lot of students ready to study law further in two years while third year and honours provide an opportunity to broaden skills and cement them.  The specifics of the degree will differ depending on the law school you decide to go to but the standard form in Scotland is a four year degree (three years to Ordinary/Pass level and an additional year of honours, sometimes two years for the pass degree to give more time) this is then followed by a number of post graduate options which take between 1 and 3 years depending on what you want to be able to practice after your degree.  Graduate students can opt for a very quick degree which lasts 2 years.

So the pacing may take you by surprise – I was stunned when, on my first day, in my first lecture of higher education I was handed an assignment that would count towards my future employability. Law believes in learn by doing in a huge way. There’s really no messing about as a law student.

It’s not all bad – the course is supposed to stretch and it’s a really good challenge. It just won’t be as easy to maintain the sort of records of going out that people in other degree courses manage to do. You will hear people from the business school boasting about their 17-18 hour stints at the students union and your first thought will honestly be how they find the time. Many students on my law course have survived without becoming a studious recluse, myself included, and it will not stop you enjoying university as much as anyone else. Just consider that a lot of your academic success will be from a knack of pulling off coursework and exams which the markers like – like all English based subject law is also very subjective with the learned principles you have given providing a guide to your own style – your ability to compose, frankly, arty answers to questions is what will propel you though.

So, how hard is law school? Enough to be getting on with and you should consider if you feel up to the work before you start and always remember that in Scotland you are allowed a “false start” without losing your free education, so if you find it horrible after the first year be aware that there are options to get you away from it. Don’t believe the horror stories though – there’s no “book of laws” to memorise for the exam at the end of the year, it’ll resemble high school English and Modern Studies a lot more than the profession is probably happy with.

Blog recommendation- The Legality

I have been following blogs on the subject long before I decided to write my own law blog. One of the best I have seen is the University of Oregon’s The Legality.
The Legality describes itself as:

The Legality is written and maintained by students from the University of Oregon School of Law and outside submissions from professors and practitioners. We’re dedicated to providing accessible legal opinion on current events, and update twice a week (Mon & Wed).

And this is exactly what it manages to do, I’ve been entertained and interested by the articles I’ve read so far. The blog is well written and very well researched, finding legally correct details in a number of different jurisdictions- including ones directly relevant to my own, the one I’ve shown below is from England.

As any first year law student struggling with the “reasonable person standard” can tell you, the last thing the legal world needs is more imaginative standards and tests. One novel concept, however, might be an exception: the charmingly named “moron in a hurry.” Like the “reasonable person,” the “moron in a hurry” is a legal fiction employed to represent the decisions someone might make under a given set of circumstances. That “someone,” however, isn’t reasonably prudent at all. Instead, it’s an imaginary conception of the least informed, least diligent consumer in a given market – and it’s making the transition from informal phrase to bona fide legal concept.

The idea of a client needing to be compared to a moron in a hurry so he can get off is a particularly happy thought for when the world gives difficult clients. I’m interested in the level of standards that exist in the law – the balance of probabilities, beyond reasonable doubt to name just two. The more levels, particularly one so “charmingly named” just adds to the nuance.
The Legality runs “Word of Week” articles, as seen above with “Moron in a hurry” as well as “Journal News” which carries the same purpose as General on this forum and finally, and perhaps most interesting is the regular articles – on as wide a range of topics as how far as you can go to improve your odds in a casino before it breaks the law to how Tupac relates to defamation. In my opinion these two sections are legal journalism at the best.
The legality is found at:
http://www.thelegality.com/

The word of the week article “moron in a hurry” is found at:
Moron in a hurry

Final Exam

I felt today’s exam went well; I certainly left feeling good about my chances. I did three questions on the beginnings of contract and then afterwards took advantage of the bright sun to explore the West End – all in all a good way to end the university year. It’s been a very good year and I’m looking forward to the next.

I’d forgotten what I love about exams, the thrill when you go in and try to show what you can do. I had a bit of trouble getting up in the morning which surprised me as I’d taken the standard precautions in the run up to the exam – no late nights, going to bed in a regular schedule and using an alarm clock to wake me at the same time every morning – but once I was up I started to feel the butterflies in my stomach going as my adrenaline levels started to rise. It’s horribly geeky of me but I genuinely get physically excited at the prospect of exams, I truly love them. I don’t enjoy waiting for results as much but there’s something primal about a well done exam – it gets the heart rate up, maybe even causes a flush in some people and you simply show single minded focus on a set of intellectual challenges for hours of your life. It’s pretty unsurprising that I happen to enjoy quizzes for roughly the same reason.

I’ve never been able to understand why people wouldn’t like to do exams, I came close in maths, a field that both fascinates and escapes me at the same time, and I recognise the frustrated feelings that arise from the answer seemingly never coming. To my shame, when my friend in front asked “3 times 40 is 120, right?” I couldn’t place it, but she was timing essay change-overs like a true student, using maths in an English based subject, no less.

One new concept I had in my exam today was being able to bring a text to help. I brought Avizandum Legislation on The Scots Law of Obligations (3rd ed.) compiled by Laura J MacGregor, a really useful book to have. It seems insane to purchase this book when law schools provide students with easy access to online references via Westlaw and LexisNexis, and simply HMSO provides people with free access to statutes themselves but it proved its worth by simply being the book I was allowed to bring in (and, with that stamp of approval promptly went out of stock at the library for the rest of the year) and including a collection of books which my introductory course would not seem to attribute to the area of contract law, so I hope I can use the book again in future, I think it may be handy to have it on hand at Honours. I had expected the book to make the question asking about the effect of statute pretty much a case of reading the book and stitching the relevant provisions into a story. Not so, I actually found myself confused to the point of forgetting my original introduction to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977, in my 5th year at secondary, and somehow forgetting that the question was asking me a question on the effect of limitation clauses regarding personal injury. I talked a great game about the negligence of the company not being mentioned in the terms of the limitation and therefore the court would never support a hypothetical defence of a case of negligence but somehow skated past the answer I was expected (and, in truth, expecting myself) to give. I nevertheless quoted at length to prove my skeleton argument was supported by the facts and by provisions of the act, but somehow never going as far as to say “clauses which limit liability in the event of personal injury or death are void” and the reason for that slip evades me. I don’t think I will ever make that mistake again. I’m surprised that my practices with older papers never showed this problem but I think I wasn’t able to copy the adrenaline rush that I love so much in the exam experience and I couldn’t predict that I would react that way. That’s one risk of the exam day.

If you talk to students, not just this one, who have really prepared and enjoy the challenge and tried after an exam, they will either be emotionally and physically drained or euphoric. Today, since it was a shorter paper than we’ve become used to the mood was euphoric. There’s not much more satisfying to a serious student than a test which they have studied their hearts out for that comes off well for them. It’s a wonderful feeling to have and you leave the hall feeling psyched for anything, you feel “ready to run a marathon”.  Obviously, this same adrenaline rush will mean that a few hours later you will be yawning into your tea and snoozing on the bus but that initial buzz is well worth taking the exam.

Law school is hard, tedious, and long

(But it is not a bad experience.)

I should really say that Law School can be hard, tedious and long but conditionals lack punch in headlines.

Brute force memorisation of the common law principles of the Scots Law of Contract before an exam is hard, tedious and long but once you know the principles a little revision will keep them fresh in your mind and, if you play your cards right you will be able to have a book near by anytime you need to use them again. As far as I can tell the intent of time limited questions is to provide a good way of eliminating cheating and to train students to think on their feet. It’s also possible that it gives those students who are just out of school a familiar format of paper – that of the exam you dive on as soon as the invigilator says start.

It’s a million miles away from the slow, inexorable image of justice and wisdom which the profession, especially the judiciary presents. The number of case reports marked with cur. adv. vult. (curia advisari vult) show that a great deal of respect is placed to deliberate thinking and not immediate answers in the search for justice but at the same time it is not so strange a strategy for the profession to, in the first year at least, train their pupils to be able to process a question quickly and sketch out a passable answer using learned material. It’s not so good if your handwriting may not be the neatest in the world (I excuse myself by conceding that it is rapid if not beautiful) but that is a fault I may only lay at the doors of my handwriting teachers in primary.

The mixed nature of examination is another issue, perhaps in a move to even out the success of skin-of-teeth exam crashers over the slow and steady workers who, despite working harder fail to produce the same results on the day of an exam as the stunningly intelligent or very lucky. We’ve all been in classes with the stunningly intelligent. My favourite stunningly intelligent classmate spent two years of higher and advanced higher having a laugh in class, going as far as (myself as an honest witness) banging his head against the wall behind him and then going on to scoop the highest mark of the year, in a private school, twice. A stunning achievement and one I am frankly very jealous of because it was a great class that I sadly didn’t continue after higher. I counted myself among the very lucky and every results day had pangs of guilt when I scored higher than friends and classmates that I knew had worked harder than me throughout the year. (Readers will be glad to hear that luckily, for my conscience at least, this trend has since reversed.)

The worst side of the exam system is that I, strangely enough, left the hall after the exam feeling disappointed that there was not more. For example, before I started university, I spent a fantastic sixth year learning as much as I could retain about Shakespeare but come the exam there was only one question on Shakespeare and that question only asked about one elements of two of his plays. I had 90 minutes, give or take, to show what I had spent a year of my life doing and I couldn’t help wondering if this was a fair exchange – a year for 90 minutes of questioning.

However, time planning so bad it has on occasion alienated friends has also led to me not feeling as much love for the alternative – the coursework assignment that is much maligned in university today. Oxford University has been reported as going as far as to use what sounds like heuristic analysis on pupils’ essays to check for cheating, and it is possible to gain an A in some university acceptance qualifications without ever needing to attend the exam, “merely” submitting stellar coursework. Checks and balances exist in the system but there is still a suggestion that there is too much reliance on coursework.

I disagree, if I didn’t get disorganised and put it off, coursework would provide the time required for a passionate student (remembering that some of law any school can be hard, tedious and boring) to really put the effort into proving their worth. It would also eliminate the advantage of the very lucky and apparently, according to a long line of educational research, disadvantage boys. I find this bad on a personal level but selfishness is not a reason to scrap coursework. I find coursework to be more stressful than flying, but only around the deadline, apart from that there is no endless past papers in front of a clock, no dividing clock faces up into essay segments like a hurdler timing strides – that’s not learning, that’s training to get the high score.

Study Leave

I’ve started this blog very late in the year but I hope I can get a jump on in it now and through summer.

The natural semester has ended and with it the university year- all tutorials and lectures are wound up and the students have settled into fervent study. There’s nothing like studying the beginnings of law – there’s no discussions of morality or reason or right coming up in my Contract exam, but there will be a lot of principles and authorities to learn on a very broad and very mature area of the law to apply to scenarios.

As a Scot I’m proud of the Roman roots of my legal system but sometimes when you’re studying you have to wish the legal foundation didn’t go quite as far back.

Applying law to scenarios is an interesting exercise and it’s one that I’ve really come to enjoy as the year’s gone on – I’ve found myself looking forward to tutorials where this task was assigned, and not just for the Legally Blonde references you find your mind dropping in. It’s a similar arrangement in mooting, although the performance is a big draw too but the academic exercise of taking principles extracted from wildly disparate cases and books and twisting them into a semblance of an argument is strangely relaxing and very satisfying when it works out. The horror you feel when your take on the scenario does not only differ from the correct version but is also noticeably weaker as an argument will likely never wear off, but is one of the charms of law school.

And very quickly I realised I love it.

Believe it or not.

So roll on the exams, which I don’t love but need to pass regardless, it’s been a wonderful year.