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Creating A Paperless Law School
Connecticut Law Tribune
Monday, October 06, 2008

Bulky textbooks could soon be replaced by electronic casebooks

By DOUGLAS S. MALAN and AMANDA BRONSTAD

It may be just a matter of time before law school students can shed their bulky books and carry them in digital form in a handheld device.

Professors and publishing executives met earlier this month in Seattle to discuss how legal casebooks could be made available electronically on a widespread basis, particularly on new instruments such as Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader.

Those attending the event said electronic casebooks would lighten a student’s heavy load and allow professors to customize the materials they require in their courses.

Inherent in the discussion, however, are concerns about copyrights and the ability to protect electronic casebooks from piracy. Others note that devices such as Kindle and Sony Reader, while applicable for leisure reading, do not allow users to highlight or write notes in the same way they would with a traditional casebook.

Yale Professor Ian Ayres, who did not attend the workshop, said he has yet to see a significant movement toward e-books on his campus, but he noted, “There’s a large demand on the student side…I think it’s something that’s ripe for the future.”

Ayres, a proponent of the electronic movement, has long criticized the cost of traditional textbooks and said that e-books would create more competitive prices for materials while being environmentally friendly. “Professors don’t bear the costs of books they assign and many don’t even know the costs of those books,” he said.

The session in Seattle was organized by Edward L. Rubin, dean of Vanderbilt University Law School; Ronald K.L. Collins, scholar in the Washington office of the First Amendment Center; and Dean Kellye Testy and Professor David Skover of Seattle University School of Law.

“The purpose of the workshop is to help develop a new generation of law school course books,” said Collins. “The real shift in legal education will occur when we move away from these tomes called law school casebooks to e-books, which are databases in cyberspace where materials are downloaded onto electronic readers.”

Kindle, which is sold through Amazon.com Inc., already offers some legal titles.

And West, owned by Thomson Reuters, launched its first electronic casebook, “Civil Procedure: A Contemporary Approach,” by A. Benjamin Spencer, last year, said Chris Parton, vice president of academic publishing at West.

Next year, West plans to add six more titles.

Going Paperless

Collins said he expects that in three to five years, “this could be the reality,” and “the books that law students are carrying around now would be a thing of the past.”

Much of the push for electronic casebooks is coming from law professors who want more control over the materials they use in their classrooms. Ayres already is moving in this direction by going paperless in some of his Yale courses and using PDFs of articles rather than books.

Jorge Colon, a representative on the Student Bar Association at the University of Connecticut School of Law, said some of his courses use PDF materials and he has largely gone paperless with his note-taking after struggling to keep up with professors using pen and paper. “It definitely makes the transfer of information a lot easier,” Colon said of working with digital materials.

Matthew Bodie, associate professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, who attended the Seattle workshop, said publishers should steer clear of simply making existing casebooks available electronically as they are. Instead, they should consider open source software, which would let professors make their own modifications electronically to a casebook.

He said “different professors would use it to mix and match to create their own casebooks. It would all be free and open and there wouldn’t be any copyright claims.”

But the conversion to electronic casebooks continues to present challenges.

“The devices are still very much primitive,” said Gene Koo, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. “If you look at the physical size of a normal law school casebook and Kindle, you’ll see a huge difference. When I was in law school, I scribbled the hell out of my casebook. That’s much harder to do in the Kindle." •