Thrifty Law Student Goes Back to School Shopping

By Jamie Bence

Many public interest minded students (and students in general) are concerned with keeping their loans to a minimum. Law school is expensive, but there are things you can do to minimize the amount of money you lay out each month, with a little thought and effort. This list is by no means comprehensive, but here are a few thoughts about back to school shopping (geared towards new students).

Things You Really Need

A Good Computer: I say this first because it was the hardest thing for me to come to terms with. But a good computer is worth spending money on. While you probably already spend a lot of time on your computer, it will grow exponentially in law school. With any luck, you will also be able to take your exams (and ultimately the bar) on your laptop. One of the most stressful things that can happen is that you get a virus, experience a hard drive failure, or in some way physically damage your computer while you’re in the midst of the semester. While it might seem tempting to go with a lower end machine, this is one area where spending a bit more could pay off in the long run, financially and psychologically. On that note, you might also want a protection plan- no one likes to get an unexpected, high bill from tech support in the middle of the semester!

Decent Gear: Casebooks do not lend themselves to travelling in a chic shoulder bag, especially if you are facing a considerable commute. Especially during 1L year, your days will be long. You will probably want to bring at least a snack if not your lunch with you, along with any books or study aids that you will be taking back and forth. Your mp3 player, a good water bottle and decent headphones will also go a long way to making your more comfortable at school. No one looks cool while they are trying to figure out offensive non-mutual collateral estoppel, so I’d recommend setting aside your expectations and choosing something functional.

Comfortable, but nice, clothing: It varies among schools, but for the most part, people look put together in law school classes, more so than most undergrads. It’s not fun to endure a cold call in front of 75 people while you’re wearing your pajama pants and a college sweatshirt (trust me, this happened once). However, you don’t want to wear dress or work clothes every day either, because it’s simply not conducive to long hours in the library. If you don’t have much between the suits you wear to interviews and the grungy t-shirts you only wear to the grocery store, it might be wise to get a few things when they’re on sale.

Study Aids: Yes, they are expensive. Yes, you just spent a fortune on textbooks. But you will want these (not as many as some people buy, but you will need some commercial outlines). However, you can get them for cheaper than you think. Consider how much the newer editions have really changed (you can usually find information about this in the reviews of online booksellers’ websites, and from upperclassmen). Also, figure out what your library has available. I really enjoyed audio lectures, which were available to check out on reserve at my library, load onto my iPod, and listen to. Libraries also often keep practice exams (truly the best preparation you can get) available on file or online, available to you for free. Balance how much time you will be willing to spend using the study aids for free in the library with the extra cost of having your own copy at home. I’ll do a  separate post on this in a few weeks.

Things You Might Get By Without

Word Processing Software: Often students purchase this after they have already dropped quite a hefty sum on a new computer. A lot of people are just as well off using OpenOffice. It has quirks, so I would recommend downloading and installing it early so that you can get the hang of it long before your first memo is due, and make sure it works for your program. The only major problem with this software is that there is no compatible track changes function- so if you are going back and forth on drafts, it might prove insufficient. However, I’ve used it since college and have never had a problem.

Netbook or Tablet: Many people in law school have both a primary computer and a tablet. I do, and it is helpful. However, my netbook was around for a long time before school started (and my income disappeared). It’s certainly nice to have a light, small computer in my bag instead of my large lap top, but it’s not essential. Since tablets are often geared towards web browsing and apps, they can be a distraction. Moreover, when I work on major assignments and outlines, I feel that I need to bring my full size computer anyway (towards the end of the semester, the larger computer comes with me every day). So consider how much you will use a smaller computer before you buy.

Lots of Office Supplies: Many people buy a wealth of post its, flashcards and large notebooks before they start school, only to find that they do everything on their computers, or prefer to take notes in the margins of their case briefs. Ideally, you will go to class with a lot of notes already sketched out on the pre-assigned topic. I took 90% of my notes during 1L year on paper that I had already printed on. This helped me keep everything in one place, and probably saved a few trees. Moreover, you might find that making flashcards online is easier for you (and free- paper flashcards are surprisingly expensive). There’s nothing wrong with using a lot of office supplies if you are willing to pay for them, but think about how you will actually study and be open to trying something new before you buy.

Printer: This cuts both ways. At some schools, printing is expensive and can be a nightmare when all 1L’s have their assignments due. The last thing you want is to be down to the last minute with your law review write-on submission, only to be thwarted because there was a jam in the machine and all the other printers were busy. However, you might also find that there are other places (work, another site on campus, a local library) that work well for printing. I’d check out the options at your school before dropping money on a printer (and remember that ink isn’t cheap!).

Overall, I would recommend waiting a few weeks before you buy too much “law school stuff.” You will get into a groove quickly and realize what you need. And all-in-all, shopping will probably be one of the less stressful things this semester.

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1 Comment »

  1. tejanarusa said,

    July 15, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Interesting. And a sharp contrast between my law school experience 30 years ago. A manual typewriter (yes, extra old school/cheap – most people had electric, some, of course, couldn’t even type), and lots of paper and notecards.

    Online flashcards? I’m curious. Is that a special program, website, or app? I can’t quite picture flashcards online, unless it’s animated…take pity on an old school lawyer and be specific!

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