The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: back to school

Kindle for law students

I got a Kindle for my birthday this year and I think it’s a great thing. The interesting thing is that I think it’s deeply flawed in a few ways (the annotation features and the keyboard for two) but regardless think it’s amazing.

In particular the current model begins to puts a dent into the logic of using photocopiers. I’m a huge fan of photocopying, of course, because it’s the best thing ever and all law students love doing it.

Interestingly, it’s suggested that students are actually doing more reading than they used to because of the increased use of computer resources. There isn’t the same need for students to spend time buried in the stacks fighting over the one copy of a set text and that leaves more time for them to read the set text. Whether or not students pouring over endless piles of PDFs is a good thing is, of course, something humans are not allowed to agree on.

2011 EWHC 1578 (Admin) is R v Hookway

The photocopy metric

I’ve written about paperless law students before and, although it’s getting better, the economics still don’t quite stack up. My university does 5p/sheet photocopying and this is relatively high as photocopying costs go. Nonetheless, at £111 for a Wifi-only Kindle you break even when you read the equivalent of 2220 A4 pages on your Kindle and I’m aware that’s a big number. I’m not sure exactly how many pages I read at uni but my impression is you are going to manage that at some point during your degree (it’s not all that many 20-30 page cases and journal articles spread over the years). That said four and a half reams is a big chunk of pages and it won’t pay for itself quickly compared to a photocopier. You’re still paying a fair bit for convenience.

You can’t completely replace photocopying with a Kindle because you may still need it for copying books and paper only periodicals as well as printing out submissions, bundles and so on but you’ll not need to spend quite so long printing out case reports and journal articles and it’s easier to read a kindle on the bus than a thick stack of A4. Bear in mind that, as you go through your degree, you start reading fewer and fewer textbooks and more and more journal articles so it becomes increasingly handy. In terms of reading it should be perfectly fine for law students. I can understand that certain disciplines are unsuited to a device which is designed to display text but law is not one of them.

The "flip through" problem continues for ebook readers and I still don’t see any practical way to fix it. I don’t think this is such a concern for journal articles as it is for textbooks. I think that you consume journal articles from beginning to end and flipping to the middle of an article doesn’t make sense in the same way that flipping to the middle of a textbook does.

Display

The Kindle’s stand out feature is its display. E-ink is effectively an electromagnetic printer which applies and removes ink onto a surface on demand. The screen is incredibly paper like and I’ve experienced no eye strain (to be fair I don’t really get eye strain looking at a backlit display either) when using it. It’s like using paper which changes which you press a button.

The black and white flicker effect when you change pages is a bit annoying but it lasts for a fraction of a second and it’s the very definition of a first world problem. The display works extremely well (perhaps better) in strong light which means that it can be used by windows or outside but there is a slight sheen on the display which can cause some reflections. As someone who has sat inside on nice days reading case reports on my laptop that is worth the price of admission alone.

Annotation

The markup features on the Kindle are just alright. They’re not brilliant by any stretch of the imagination. The lack of a touch interface means that highlighting is fiddly and there doesn’t seem to be a way to get your highlighted documents onto your computer. You can copy your highlighted text over a USB cable but you can’t display highlighted case reports on your computer. I prefer to write notes rather than highlight the text so this wasn’t a huge concern for me but depending on your style it could be substantial. I think Amazon should really make it easier to use your annotated "personal documents" (ie. documents on your Kindle not purchased from Amazon) with the desktop software.

Keyboard

The keyboard on the Kindle is frankly not designed to be used. It’s a waste of space in its current form. The only things on the Kindle that require typing are 1) the browser and 2) notes but the keyboard really hamstrings them. Amazon has to fix that.

iPad

There are some rather more substantial PDF based tools available on, for example, the iPad (which really blows the photocopy metric out of the water: the break even point on a 16GB iPad is 7980 pages) which I’m not going to recommend for a student. I think a student has much more pressing financial concerns than owning two computers, especially if one is just there to annotate PDFs. If you can afford it and you want one you should go ahead. My view on the iPad is that it’s a good device but it’s pretty expensive for a student.

Calibre

My main use of the Kindle in practice, mostly due to getting it in the latter part of my honours year, has been newspapers. There is a fantastic program called Calibre which lets you email the paper to your kindle every day and I find that convenient for the bus in the mornings as well as being cheaper than buying a paper.

Calibre also handles converting most document types into a format that the Kindle can understand (and Amazon can also directly convert documents themselves). The device itself has a relatively narrow range of supported formats but conversion programs exist to allow a wide range of documents to work.

I think all Kindle owners should install Calibre pretty much as a matter of course because it is such a useful piece of software.

Conclusion

As you can see I think the Kindle is a flawed device in many ways but it does something, for a very reasonable price, which is pretty hard to complain about. The e-ink display is fantastic and really makes the device, with the battery life and easy over-the-air sync being why you should it love it.

The Kindle won’t be your one-thing-to-get-you-through-law-school computing device but there is no such thing anyway. If you’re looking for a good, reasonably priced device for reading case reports in the park or on the bus I think you have to consider the Kindle.

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Taking a laptop to school or college

Mac Observer has published an article on the tips and details for students wanting to deal with the hassle and benefits of bringing a laptop to university. I think he makes some good points, although the advice certainly doesn’t depend on the brand of the laptop.

Transport

Transport is the biggest concern for students who stay at home and commute to university. Those living in dorms get away with, generally, less travel but with the concerns of possible theft.

I think the best way to transport a laptop at uni is a lot like how you’d do it with a bike. You want to immobilise it to stop it swinging about as you move and stressing the components.

Another good tip is to get a case which you can slide the laptop straight into – so a top opening, padded, laptop compartment in your bag is pretty brilliant. I use a padded neoprene slip case which fits in my backpack like a document wallet. It works and it protects my computer for less than a new bag but at the cost of being slower to unpack and pack when I want to use it, for example in lectures and tutorials. This needs to be added to the time needed for the laptop to be ready for you to use – starting up and loading programs. In this regard good and reliable sleep/suspend modes are a great asset.

Weight

Weight is an important issue but I think it can be overstated. Even for those who will never play prop on the university rugby team it is unlikely that any laptop you decide to pack in your bag will be cripplingly heavy. Today’s laptops are considerably lighter an d smaller than those of yesteryear. At the very worst you may find your bag works as weight training and you build some muscle. Obviously avoid a huge laptop because besides being weighty it will also be unwieldy. Most laptops are still portable enough for university without spending more for an ultraportable model. I think Mac Observer’s suggested MacBook Air is a lot of money to spent avoiding 680g of extra weight and the difference between that and a regular MacBook could probably be spent better elsewhere. Obviously if, on reading this, you realise that your MacBook Air is unsuitable for your university backpack please get in touch with the Scots Law Student MacBook Air Re-homing project because I haven’t got one. You will most likely find the extra weight pretty unnoticeable, especially when you add a single textbook or bottle of water (always an idea to have in your bag) and neutralise that hard bought weight saving.

Security

The security tips are a good move – if you have a couple of thousand. pounds (potentially) worth of computer equipment in a desirable and inherently portable product it is necessary to consider the risk that someone might take it.

This is particularly important for students living in dorms and halls because losing a computer is both a loss of corporeal movable property but also a significant loss of information, work and time.

Think Geek sells, for a lot of money, a wall mounted laptop safe which lets you bolt the laptop, secure inside a metal case, to the firmament of the building itself. I have no doubt this would be an pretty effective anti theft measure.

For people less worried about the threat of theft a cable lock is probably all you’ll need. These bike chain like devices attach to the rectangular slot on most laptops and then loop around a sturdy piece of furniture. This will protect you from people up to the point of lifting furniture / cutting the chain. If these methods both fail you could follow the example of an American law student who simply fought off his robber with a warcry of “not my case outlines!”

I think their encryption tips – encrypted disc images in particular – are worth noting but personally don’t use it myself. I don’t feel I have all that much in the way of files that need protection, I have an encrypted password database and that does me instead.

Insurance

If your laptop is still stolen the best option is to make sure your computer has been insured – you may lose your computer but you report it as stolen (as it may well be), and then replace it on, ideally, your parent’s home contents insurance and you offer to pay the excess. I wouldn’t be a law student if I didn’t point the need to check that your belongings are indeed protected under the policy while you are away at university.

Backup

If your computer is stolen you’ll probably lose a lot of your work. I keep a lot of notebooks, files and boxes of notes but I still have a considerable amount of work on my computer that I would desperately not want to lose. This differs from trying to keep possession of your computer, but is just as important.

Backup doesn’t need to be difficult. Mac Observer points its readers to the Time Machine feature on recent versions this provides versioning backup for all of your files with very little configuration. All that needs is a suitable Mac and a big external hard drive. Apple offer their own Time Machine wireless wireless hubs which are obviously wireless and convenient but any external hard drive will work and with Misco.co.uk offering a 1 terrabyte one for £67.8 – or under 7p a gigabyte (I have used just about 2 GB in my entire university career) so they are becoming very reasonably priced.

Backups don’t need ts be particularly fancy, just as as long as they are regular. Copying your home directory (Mac/Linux) or My Documents folder (Windows) onto a portable hard drive, assuming it’s done regularly, can be just as effective as buying a professional, automated product to do it for you.

A good backup protects your data from accidents that destroy your computer like battery fires etc and even robbery assuming if it isn’t taken along with the computer.

These tips apply to the lowliest netbook to the shiniest boutique gaming laptop, from the sveltest ultraportable to the chunkiest mediacentre. Get a good bag so you can carry it healthily. Get a security setup, make sure losing it isn’t irretrievable and be able to continue with your studies without, it even temporarily. This is particularly important around assessment time.

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.