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Letter from the Dean

spring 2003

Dear Alumni and Friends of Boston College Law School:

I was nosing around this afternoon in my favorite room at the Law School--the Daniel R. Coquillette Rare Book Room--looking at some student notebooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and I was struck by how similar the process of legal education was then to what I myself experienced thirty years ago. The handwriting is a little nicer than mine, and some of the books are bound in vellum. A few of the subjects are obsolete: Ulysses Selden's notebooks from Litchfield Law School deal with Pleadings in Chancery (though they also cover Contracts, Torts, Criminal Law, and Evidence). But method of transmission from teacher to student, and from one student to another (even in those days people swapped and swiped notes when they missed class), was familiar-lectures copied by hand. Things were not very different for students who graduated five years ago. This got me to thinking about the remarkable transformation that has occurred in the process of legal education since 1999, when I arrived at Boston College Law School. It has been largely invisible to alumni, even those who visit the library and the rest of the campus. I refer to the role that personal computers play at the Law School. Just as computers have had an impact on your personal and work lives, so too have they changed the way law schools operate.

First--and Lasting--Impressions
A student's introduction to the Law School today is likely to be an electronic one. She will visit our homepage (/schools/law/) to look at the school before filing an application, and when she files it will be with a lot less fuss than in the past. The online process is so convenient, in fact, that these days most applicants file nine or more.

This change in technology, coupled with the fact that law school is an attractive career choice in hard times, has led to a dramatic increase in the volume of applications. Last year we had 7,232. This year we have 7,818, an increase of 8 percent over last year. Our Admissions Office, setting aside financial aid, is the same size it was in the mid-1980's, when our applicant pool was half what it is today. We simply could not handle this volume of work manually. As it is, the use of electronic filing and our software for handling it (a program called Admit M) allows us to be more service-oriented than ever before: we can provide tours, offer information sessions, and devote attention to marketing.

The Changed Classroom
Students who accept our offer of admission (this still arrives the old-fashioned way, by letter) do their work in a different way. You probably are familiar with how computers have changed legal research, because Lexis and Westlaw are three decades old. What many may not know is how much laptops have changed the way we teach classes.

Each spring I teach Constitutional Law to first-year students. Five years ago 10 percent of them took notes on laptops. Today most of them do, thanks in part to our technologically up-to-date classrooms, where every desk is wired for computers and students may use wireless connections as well. Laptops make it easier for students to draft outlines and exchange notes (and, alas, to read the newspaper online in class). The universal availability of laptops has also changed the way I communicate with my students.

A week before classes began this spring, a suit was filed in federal district court to enjoin the war in Iraq. It was a good case for introducing questions of justiciability and separation of powers, so I decided to use it on the first day of class. Four years ago I would have had to copy the complaint and track down ninety students somewhere on break. Like many faculty members, though, I have a web-based course page (WebCT) where I can post my syllabus, cases, and news stories; carry on discussions; store old exams; and so on. I posted a revised syllabus and a copy of the complaint, sent an email to alert the class, and on the first day they were all prepared.

Grading bluebooks is the most unpleasant part of a faculty member's job, chiefly because the art of fine penmanship died out in the middle of the last century. But bluebooks themselves are now almost a thing of the past. Two thirds of our students take their finals on laptops. Moving to this simple system was trickier than it might seem.

Laptops can store vast amounts of information that students can easily retrieve, which makes it hard to give closed-book exams. Since all of our buildings now permit wired and wireless connection to the internet, students taking exams can search Westlaw, Lexis, and online databases. Worse, they can talk with one another via instant messaging. Two years ago we acquired exam software (ExamSoft) that shuts down all of a laptop's whiz-bang functions and turns it into a simple typewriter. Instead of bluebooks, students now generate a floppy disk; and faculty get legible, formatted, double-spaced, spell-checked exams. ExamSoft also allows students to download and take tests at remote locations, and faculty to score and curve the results.

A Way to Connect
At the other end of the pipeline, students worry about jobs. The Career Services Office used to help them in this process with Martindale-Hubbell, a copy machine, long lines, and schedules written in pencil. Two years ago we brought this process into the twenty-first century with an online program called eAttorney. It allows students to upload resumes and cover letters, view schedules, and bid for interviews. It permits the Career Services Office to schedule employers, communicate with students, and collect internal statistics.

Even this letter has its electronic counterpart on the Alumni Relations and Development webpage (/schools/law/alumni/). At present we encourage alumni to find us at this site if they want to learn about news or events, make a donation, send us a message, or read a back issue of our BC Law Magazine. As our directory of email addresses grows, we hope to be able to reach out to you, and to provide timely information about alumni activities such as the annual Supreme Court swearing-in and class reunions. It is tempting to say that these improvements in communication have made life better in all ways. On the whole they have. This is certainly true for our most important constituency--our students. It is easier for them to apply, and they get better and quicker service from our Admissions Office. The move to laptops for classes and exams has been entirely student-driven; we have just responded to the demand. With a web-based system in Career Services we can begin the recruiting process in early August when students are still away at their summer jobs. Our software allows them to sign up for interviews and leave resumes from remote locations.

The computer culture has also changed the way young people learn. On balance, this is neither good nor bad, just different. Students today have the ability to do three things at once. They can do some kinds of research that were inconceivable ten years ago. (A search engine like Google can find the annual mean temperature on Antarctica in two seconds flat; consider where it can take the legal researcher.) And the culture of scholarship has begun to adapt itself to this reality. One of our young professors, Larry Cunningham, edits an online journal, part of the Legal Scholarship Network, that publishes working papers on public law and legal theory.

But laptops are so fast and seductive that we need to educate students about their limitations, a mission we incorporate into our Legal Reasoning, Research, and Writing classes. Online sources are a supplement, not a substitute for reading statutes, annotations, and secondary sources. The information computers locate is not always as reliable as an official report checked in Shepard's Citations.

The Ripple Effect
I have been speaking about the effects on our students. Think now for a moment about the administrative rearrangements these innovations entail. Nearly all the changes I have mentioned have been managed by a group of four computing professionals in our library. Those jobs didn't exist here ten years ago. We need fewer secretaries and more technically skilled staff in departments like Admissions and Career Services. Research librarians are not what they once were. They used to offer research assistance to library patrons. They still do. But they also develop print and web publications, help faculty with classroom technology (like my WebCT), do technology training for students, and collaborate in teaching legal research. The net change in personnel may be small (more professionals, fewer secretaries), but it is all in the direction of greater technical proficiency.

It's not just the people who are different. These changes depend on an infrastructure (power, internet connections, servers) that was laid in the construction of the Library and the East Wing, and incorporated in the renovations of Stuart House. They produce some obvious cost savings. (It costs $7,250 to print and mail this letter to 10,000 alumni. At virtually no cost, our website gives us another way to disseminate the letter to alumni who prefer to read it online.) Overall, though, more and faster communication is more expensive. Every few years we need to replace 175 of our computers. In the library we face a complex set of new challenges. The availability of sources in both hard and electronic formats has, for the time being, forced us to subscribe to both. (We can't be sure that databases on the web will still be around in twenty years.) The software revolution has given us better and faster tools for cataloguing, finding, and lending research materials, but it means we must continually adapt our services to build them in.

The application packets thick with paper, the colorful doodles in notebook margins, the writer's cramp at test time, the tedium of resume revisions-these centuries-old hallmarks of legal education have become nearly obsolete. It took humankind five millennia to advance from handwriting to moveable type. It took a little more than five centuries to move from the printing press to electronic communication. It's surprising how we have become accustomed to doing things electronically in the space of five years. I wonder how long it will be before we have to learn something new.


John H. Garvey