The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: studying

The paperless law student – part 2

Earlier, in the back to school period, I discussed the benefits and costs of going paperless as a student. I think it’s a really worthwhile choice which has a lot of benefits down the line. My main concern is simply the high initial cost of converting from paper to paperless which means that it is a better option for people who are making money from doing it as a job because it will severely cut into your beer money.

I think it’s hard to talk about people going paperless in 2009 without mentioning the eBook reader, the new group of devices which are being marketed as a way to replace the printed book.

The science bit

The market has pretty much expanded from very little into the next big thing based almost entirely on the invention of a small (but growing) American company that worked out how to make very small magnetic objects reliably rise and fall in a grid pattern. Unlike the great majority of modern technology this relies on moving part because once you’ve moved the parts to where you want them you can leave them there with no extra energy use. This means that the ereader expends energy “printing” the page – putting the eInk particles where they’re supposed to be – but then doesn’t need any more to keep the text on the page.

This differs from a traditional display because earlier technologies do not create a fixed image – a CRT monitor draws images onto the screen with a scanning electron beam on a phosphor screen and an LCD monitor uses an arrangement of gates which produces a coloured filter for a backlight to shine through. That electron beam and that backlight both require continuous power to operate. The main benefit of a fleeting, dynamic way of generating images is that it can be very good for conveying moving images, whereas eInk is limited by the physical speed of the particles. That’s bad for movies but text has never moved in its life and that means the technology is good for dedicated book readers.

This is really all by to the by, because how the underlying technology works rarely affects how good it is for users.

Ebook readers

The message to take away is simply that because it’s not a continuously operating device means that you don’t measure the battery life by how long it can be on for (because the device is only on for short spurts) but by how many times the display changes. That’s why the Sony Pocket Edition is rated as having enough “battery life for nearly 6,800 page turns.” The amount of time that is depends on how quickly you can read that number of pages.

Ebook readers have the option of, generally, being used to display books licensed from the sponsoring bookseller’s shop which is great if that’s how you buy books (it isn’t personally). I think it has great potential for updateable textbooks which apply their own errata and apply the differences between editions if that’s the way publishers want to play it. Right now I think the potential lies in the ability of these devices to display your own documents. I think the ability to load up an ereader with a load of case reports and then read that on the bus is paradigm shifting.

This has additional benefits in that because the image is static it doesn’t cause headaches from forcing people to squint at flickering displays and because there’s no backlight you aren’t forced to stare at a light.

The competition

Just because the underlying technology is well suited to displaying text this doesn’t mean that you should buy every product which uses it and displaying text on its own is something that computers have been able to do for a very long time. Ebooks readers are not the only option available here.

Your laptop

The obvious alternative is just a laptop – it will read any format you should care to name, runs off a battery, is portable, does more than just text and you probably already have one. It’s not ideal for reading on the bus, the LCD screen is backlit and the battery won’t last particularly long. But it does so many other things as well and it is likely to be a product that many people will already own, and that makes it practically free to use as an ebook reader.

The mobile phone

An unexpected new contender is the mobile phone, people have been using PDAs to read text for many years and the phone is converging on the same areas. These are good because they’re so much smaller and more portable and have long battery lives. On the other hand, this all depends on the quality of the screen. One of the most often recommended devices for reading books is the iPhone, which has an undeniably pretty screen, on the other hand it is an excruciatingly expensive way to read on the bus. It’s a good product and if you use it as a phoning, mobile emailing, mobile webbing, app running device then it’s really good. If you’re only using it to read Westlaw PDFs on the bus, though, the initial cost and monthly fees make it a difficult purchase.

The photocopier

A good photocopier costs many thousand pounds and weighs an unbelievable amount. It is beyond the dreams of any student to own. However, many facilities give you access to such a photocopier for around 3-5p a sheet. That means that you can have a 5 page report to read on the bus in black and white for about 25p, and the truly frugal student will take steps to get that price down further – by printing on both sides of page or by fitting more than one page onto each physical page. I think the photocopier is the main enemy of the ebook reader because you need to print between 3600 and 6000 pages before you would have saved money by buying Sony’s cheapest ebook reader (the Pocket PRS-300). That’s a really long term investment to save a bit of paper. I think you’d need to really need the extra advantages of the ebook reader to make it a more convincing option.

Reasons to buy right now

This is the hard thing, I don’t see a reason to buy just right now. I think the technology is extremely impressive and I think the datapad from Star Trek is nigh but at present buying one is a huge expense, particularly because you know it will get better and cheaper as time goes on. It’s hard to justify the expense when centralised photocopying exists. Once prices come down I think we’ll really reach a point where it’ll be hard to tell why you’d ever print a document out but we’re really not there yet.

The main reason to buy now is simply if you want one, it’s not long til Christmas, but I imagine this will rapidly change as prices come down (and they will).

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Legal Websites and some thoughts

I believe there are two ends on the online legal resource continuum – sites can be inward looking or outward looking or some combination of the two. With inward looking sites being those intended for people studying, practicing or merely reading about law itself. The outward facing sites are for those affected by legal issues as lay people. The difference, is generally, but not always, simply the amount of evaluation and editorialising that goes on with the content and the approximate degree of separation from the original source material – inward looking resources are used by people who, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, have to tell a tutor, examiner or another professional that the dicta in paragraph X of case Y or that section a(b)(c)(i) of statute Z supports their position better than the other guy. Users of the outward facing sites simply want a reasonably straight forward answer to questions like “can I build a fence in my garden?”

Sites are not entirely one or the other, there’s a definite continuum online, but users of one kind may find themselves disappointed by the other. I quite like the soft edges of outward facing resources to gain a general, big picture analysis of what I should expect to find when I have a look at the source materials – I learned the basic provisions of the Unfair Contract Terms Act through consumer rights education while still at high school. It put me a good position when I studied statutory interpretation in my first semester of first year and needed to make some sense of the quite notorious piece of legislation. I find statutory interpretation very difficult – though not nearly as hard as statutory drafting – simply because there’s so many techniques, some modern and some truly ancient, to help you gain meaning from statute. Let’s not even mention Pepper v Hart which is distilled essence of “more hours researching in the library” wrapped up in a cute case name. Effectively knowing what I’m going to find is a massive crutch that will be awkward if it’s not there but certainly helps if you’re already just finding your feet. That means that reading sites that I’m perhaps not going to cite in my bibliography is still very helpful – the whole concept of academics is based on “standing on the shoulders of giants” and there’s nothing wrong with standing on the shoulders of giants who write in simpler language. Being able to back it up in a more scholarly manner, which generally seems to mean by quoting like a man possessed, is the goal but comprehension is a infinite help in writing an essay.

The ultimate inward facing legal websites are obviously Bailii, HUDOC, Lexis Library, Westlaw and the rest of them – sites that exist to give you access to source materials. The commercial databases do a remarkable amount of what database engineers would call “input sanitising” – Westlaw US checks so thoroughly that it often sends source documents back to the courts that wrote them with errata, for example, but all remain initimately connected with the original text and are fairly hard going for someone without a legal background of some description.

Up from this very source level are sites where there is still heavy reliance on source documents but they are accompanied with editorial content – I particularly like eulaw.typepad.com for this sort of thing.

The next level up are what is effectively the online textbook. I’m actually unaware of anything that I would class in this category which is still very much material for those studying, and perhaps practicing – I was certainly pointed to my textbooks as the basis of a mooting submission and the advice seems very sound – law. I would certainly use it though, so I’d appreciate a pointer for that if any reader can think of one.

Beyond that is a marked distinction into those intended to “simply” provide an answer – the Wolfram Alpha to Westlaw’s Google, if you like. Writing high quality legal reporting at this level is a very different beast which requires a much more reader friendly approach, sites may not even mention the source material or if they do it’s in very vague terms – like the “Sale of Goods Act” (an act with 64 sections and 4 schedules) providing you with “statutory rights”, rather than talking about Part II ss.10-14 adding “implied terms” to “contracts of sale”. These sites are generally very easy and quick to read, and while they don’t really provide the sort of detail you’d get a particularly meritorious mark for at uni they will hopefully settle your legal issue quite straightforwardly. Sites like this are relatively numerous but are generally fairly specific in the material they cover – taking ukecc.net or gardenlaw.co.uk as examples. Consumer advice sites are most helpful, frankly, at this level.

Generally the simpler things are the hardest to write. It’s easy to read out a bit of statute, point to it and say “that’s the law” but it’s unexpectedly difficult to point a statute, decide what’s relevant, what it means in context and then decide if it helps. It’s not a flaw with legislation, it’s just a result of living in a complicated world. The harder material is still extremely hard to write but being able to explain concepts to someone without a background in the particular field – even intelligent people with skills in another field – is a bit of gift. For example I certainly know that a lot of medicine goes straight over my head, even though a reasonable amount of computing and an increasing amount of law won’t, and I need it explained to me in quite small words.

The most unlikely law study aid ever?

As I am an avid reader and notorious for it, it’s not unusual for me to get books at Christmas, and last year I received a copy of Derren Brown “Tricks of the Mind“. This book, although not ever intended specifically for it, may actually become the most unususal law study aid I have thus far tried.

My reason for this conclusion – the title of Part 3 : “Memory”

A law student needs to remember a great deal for closed book exams and this is a common complaint – I’ve already written about the issue in the short time this blog has been established.

Now, in no way am I suggesting that reading Brown should supercede reading Gane & Stoddard but any law student, any student whatsoever, on reading him recount listing Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order of their being written by mentally walking a path through a theatre wishes to God that he’s giving a genuine tip that might help him to remember, for example, common law case lines. Teasingly, Derren Brown himself studied law while at university and applies his system to remembering a case name and year – very promising stuff.  For those interested, it’s Pharmaceuticals Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists 1953.

For example, a very common problem seen before the court is that of parties making a mistake in their contract or their understanding of it and disputes arising from it. Obviously not all mistakes are equal so the law has created a series of tiers and definitions of these – one of which is Unilateral Error, the induced version being close to misrepresentation and ending with the contract becoming voidable and I learnt that the cases of Morrisson v Robertson and Shogun Finance Ltd v Hudson told me the common law principles that govern this form of error. However, should that unilateral error be uninduced then the issue is much more unclear and I have to remember that MacBryde has written authority on exactly this issue so it would be good to be able to quote it and I know that case wise it was decided in 1875 through the case of Steuart’s Trs v Hart that mala fides, knowledge and non-disclosure were relevant factors. This seems fine and reasonably memorable, however, as far as I understand it in 1890 Stewart v Kennedy pretty much denied the very existence of uninduced unilateral error, instead prefering “error plus” and declared that it had to be induced to be effective and that was upheld and followed several times as recently as 1990, that’s confusing but it sounds like the later cases have superceded the earlier one. However in 1992 Angus v Bryden went back to the 1875 case and decided that knowledge and bad faith were once again indeed remediable faults.

Thus, there were two lines of active case law operating in the same area of law and a lot of authoritative cases, which cruelly happen to have the same sounding name. This is the kind of situation where you need a visual alternative to a sound and it is the kind of thing that Brown teaches in his book – moving everything to images, even using rhyme to convert numbers to images. It’s a fantastic plan but I’ve always been concerned that it seems like more work than just learning the facts as they stand. I think if you managed to leverage the visual memory system that he advocates you would see a marked improvement in your ability to recall facts and their relationships with other facts and that would pay off very well.

Just as you need to be able to read quickly in law school, a good memory for what you have taken in is essential if you want to get the most out of your reading and note taking. There is nothing like struggling to remember if a case was anomalous because it was decided after a landmark authority or came before and represented the established way of thinking and remembering cases as, for example, things on plinths in alcoves of a hallway (my attempt at transferring this method to contract law) would help you remember if the case came before or after another. Physically remembering the year on the case report which you studied is my current method for exam preparation but I think it is too fleeting, I effectively bulk up on rapidly memorised facts and stomp into the exam hall and forget everything I ever knew in the stress (large blocks of higher maths are no longer clear memories to me).

However, I was watching one of his TV series, Trick or Treat, on channel 4 and spotted the mother-lode of research gifts. In that he apparently managed to get a regular human being, Glen, to record the contents of a library by dragging his fingers down each page in a book and sort of glancing at the page.

Let me tell you, I’m an authority on sort of glancing at the page while studying and I’m pretty certain it doesn’t work. If it did work though, that is an unbelievable system which seriously changes how schooling will happen around the world. Until then I will dream on that the speed reading + eidetic memory is as effective and as effortless as Derren has made out.

The fact that Glen, a man who by all accounts cited his poor memory as a failing when he applied to go on the show single handedly managed to beat off all but one team in the All England Pub Quiz just rubs my quiz loving nose in it. I literally had a daydream while watching the show of being able to do that with Stair, Hume, the dear Scots Law Times and basically the rest of the library too. It’s a dream of students on reading heavy courses to be able to speed it up, so improved retention and improved speed will both help and I realised I needed to make this a priority.

Derren, aside from his sometimes evil nature, is very entertaining and I make a point of watching the majority of his shows as they’re broadcast. I would never go to see him live because he’s a scary man but I’ll watch him on TV and cheer him on from a safe distance. This is a man who has rolled a human being -tied up in a sack- into a lake and not been particularly shook up about it.

In the words of Charlie Brooker, my favourite columnist for the Guardian, Derren Brown is:

“Clearly the best dinner-party guest in history – he’s either a balls-out con artist or the scariest man in Britain.”

Amen to that.