Having shelled out for your shiny new (or shiny used, both suit law school) computer you will need to fill it with software. You will not find yourself needing a great deal of software for your study at law school – as requirements go it’s a pretty straightforward list.
Firstly, you will need a word processor, this is a given at law school and it will be difficult to use a computer without one for any school. Generally the only requirement is that you submit marked work in a format which your law school can understand – in my case this means .doc (or .rtf, but you lose some of the features of the former). These formats cover nearly every word processing system in the world. .Doc is officially Microsoft Word’s format but it has been reverse engineered a number of times over the years and is now available in nearly all competing products.
I personally use Microsoft Word 2007 for writing my papers and even these posts but there are a number of extremely good competing programs available. The most famous is probably OpenOffice.org which is available for all the systems a law student would consider using, the best element in OO.o’s favour is that is sold free. Another is Google Docs which has the advantage of letting you access any documents you have written using a web browser – this avoids problems of leaving files on your computer at home. You are able to edit the documents as you would in any other word processor and, like the others, this also supports .doc. If you are willing to convert files between programs you may be interested in using a program such as DarkRoom (originally seen on the Mac as WhiteRoom) which allows you to simply write onto the screen with no other distractions, it’s a good move if you’re using your computer for taking typed notes, but beware – DarkRoom lacks features such as a spellcheck, word count, most certainly does not complete words for you and cannot save in .doc format, but never the less it is an entirely different way of writing which can avoid you being distracted by any other items on the screen and that is a valuable .
Secondly, presentation software – today you can often use the Powerpoint slides that a professor has lectured with to help you study. These files are a lot less compatible with competing products but I have had good results from both OpenOffice’s presenter and Google’s in displaying the slides. Fortunately the first casualties in a compatibility problem are fancy effects while you are really only concerned with the content of the slide. PC and Mac versions are available for each of the options given. OpenOffice and Google Docs will also run straight away using Linux if anyone wishes to use that option – probably most likely on an ultra low cost laptop like an EeePC. Running Microsoft Office on these ultra low cost laptops is very possible but somewhat more convoluted.
Third is a good pdf reader. I happen to prefer PDFs to doc files for files I want to have a permanent, read only record of – like case reports. I would not want to run the risk of having accidentally erased part of a case which I would like to later rely on and it also helps me physically distinguish my own work from research at a glance.
Options abound for pdf readers, Adobe’s own free Acrobat Reader is very effective but is becoming increasingly bulky with features added which are not necessarily helpful. You may get better performance from a lighter program such as Foxit Reader which provides the same functionality – you’ll still be able to read your case reports but you’ll also be able to annotate it as well, which is a major advantage that the free Acrobat Reader can’t do, the $299 version of Acrobat can but that’s extremely expensive and not really intended for students to use. All of the major legal databases provide an option to save cases to your computer in pdf format so this makes a lot of sense while researching.
Finally, a web browser, as mentioned there is such a thing as a online legal database which you will use a lot at law school, my personal favourite is Westlaw but there are many others available which provide subtly different sources and interfaces for you to use, some resources such as HUDOC (the European Court of Humans Right’s portal) are nigh on essential for taking part in some classes. I’m still waiting for someone to develop some form of meta search for these but I think that day cannot be long off. Through these your web browser will give you access to case reports, journal articles and legislation. In fact, the internet is rapidly becoming the best research tool you have. Critically, your university library will almost certainly use an electronic record service, this may allow you to browse the catalogue and reserve books until you travel to the library physically, one of the sneakier moves is to reserve books from the lecture hall as they’re announced to improve your chances of getting the rare library copies of assigned textbooks. This saves a lot of time looking for books and time saved away from fruitlessly perusing the stacks is worth its weight in gold when you are working hard on assignments. Your web browser will probably be the only program that you use for degree work more than your word processor.
I should mention that LexisNexis has changed greatly since even I started my law degree and is much more responsive when used with a browser other than Microsoft Internet Explorer. I was disapointed with the need for Lexis to reload its sources page every time I clicked one box, as opposed to letting me select a number at once, this has now been fixed and the main draw of Lexis – the dizzing array of searchable sources – can now be properly used in Opera and other non Internet explorer browser. This also makes the choice of using a Mac or Linux computer a better option than it used it to be as there is no loss of functionality when using Lexis.
My copies of Word and Powerpoint are official versions which came as part of Microsoft Office 2007 Ultimate, normally this is hugely excessive and I would not recommend it but in the first part of my first year Microsoft started a teachers and students only service allowing them to buy the Ultimate version for £40 if they could provide a valid .ac.uk email address, which I consider reasonable enough to purchase, considering that I will use the program for years as it has all the functionality that I need. Had this deal not come around I was planning to use OpenOffice but decided that I wanted to use OneNote so this made the deal very good.
OneNote is really a good program – it provides you with a mixed media digital notebook, it lets you combine your pdf case reports, typed (or recorded) lecture notes and supports handwriting support. I’ve even been able to use the movie insert function for webcasts. It means that all your notes are combined into one searchable form, and searches are not always perfect for law students to use (I advise everyone to avoid searching for words when reading cases), but being able to find specific points in textbooks or lecture notes (like being able to search for “remedies” for instance) very quickly is a great time saver which would have taken a good deal longer even with a casual scan through yourself. I find the virtual printer that it adds to your system indispensible as a way of getting a permanent record of a page without using a printer. I also use OneNote as a way of saving my receipts from online shops without wasting paper, if it should happen that I need to print a copy of the timestamped record off – I have one stored in OneNote.
Computers have really revolutionised the way that people study law and if you plan out your methods in advance you can really benefit from having a computer with you while on campus. Don’t underestimate how much of your degree can be solved through books and there’s nothing worse than reading a book later in the year and realising it would have been helpful.
I personally try to do as much research as possible online, as far as finding reports and journal articles goes – simply because photocopying begins to be a considerable cost when you factor in the amount of reading that we have to do – and not to mention that I find myself sidetracked by getting into conversations with people once I’m at the library. I also prefer having a .pdf record of the case on my usb stick rather than a thick and heavy paper stack in my bookcase, not to mention the effect this must have on the environment. When presenting you should have a hard copy of the case or article which you are relying on, ideally with a copy to hand out to the significant parties, such as the other side and the judge during a moot, ready to hand in case clarification on a point you do not personally remember is called for but when researching to type up assignments there is a lot less difficulty in simply using the copy on your computer, especially for bibliographical data.