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I started law school in the fall of 1994. That was the year of the Rwandan genocide, the Contract with America, Nelson Mandela’s election as president of South Africa, the confirmation of the current junior Supreme Court justice, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the O.J. trial. Things have changed since then — not least in the law school classroom. When I sat down in my first contracts class, perhaps a half-dozen of my classmates were taking notes on laptops. We had to sit in the back row because that was where the electrical outlets were. The tangle of knotted extension cords surely constituted an OSHA violation of some kind. And today? A student walks into the average classroom and finds an outlet at every seat. The good rooms have Internet connections of one sort or another. For the students, this means that it’s easy to use a laptop; almost all of them do. They can take more notes, more quickly and more legibly, and the work product is much easier to convert into an outline later. It also makes it easier to play law school bingo, catch up on e-mail correspondence undetected and share thoughts about the competence and wardrobe of the instructor practically risk-free. Large firms have evolved along much the same path. Standard equipment for your average associate these days includes a laptop and a BlackBerry — that gadget that looks like a pager but is really a miniature e-mail machine. These technological wonders endow the associate with unprecedented flexibility to get work done and stay in touch with the office without having to be there. This works well for the associate — who can, for example, work at home sometimes and save commuting time. And it works well for the law firm — which can, for example, contact a vacationing associate on the beach via BlackBerry with an emergency assignment for her to complete using her convenient laptop. And it turns out that as associate laptops are to law firms, so student laptops are to new law professors — the benefits cut both ways. My biggest concern with teaching to a large class in a lecture hall was that it would be hard to know when I was reaching the students and when they were tuning out or were confused or bored. My understanding from my law school days was that one of the attributes of the best teachers was their ability to sense the collective mental state of the class, and to shift course to account for it, whether by revisiting important points or altering the pace or focus of the discussion. Fast forward to today — out with experience, in with the laptop. Now, even a callow rookie like me can fine-tune the classroom experience through the instant polling feature of student laptops: When the keyboards stop clicking, you know you’ve lost ‘em. Law students, especially first-year law students, take down everything that sounds even remotely like it might be useful come exam time. So when they stop typing, you can be pretty sure that your students don’t see how what is going on in class could possibly be useful to them down the road. Then it is time to backtrack or try a new tack. So I can vouch, based on the 150 total minutes I’ve spent in front of my own contracts class as I write this, that silence is not the sign of an awestruck audience. My own classroom computer is a blessing as well. From the lectern in which the computer is embedded, I can make PowerPoint presentations and show instructional films through the video projection system built into the ceiling of the classroom. I can store my presentations on my personal faculty Web site, where a student can access them and relive the experience, without the distraction of my commentary (unless the student recorded me using the microphone built into his or her laptop). I can even access the university registrar’s Web site from my lectern, call up the e-mail addresses for all students currently registered for my class, and send a mass e-mail containing the assignment for the next class and anything else I might want to tell them. On the other hand, since they are there in the classroom with me, I could just tell them. But it is not so clear that the BlackBerry will be an unalloyed boon to the legal academy. Consider its dangers. Anyone who has seen Regis Philbin and one of his guests use a lifeline on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” will understand the potential impact of portable e-mail on the future of law school exam proctoring. But there is one recent development in the world of technology that is serving me, and probably most new law professors, especially well: The dot-com bust. With jobs hard to come by for even the very well-qualified, law school has been attracting a lot of talented and hard-working people. The result has been intense competition for the available slots at good law schools, and they all end up going to strong students. It’s fun teaching to the smart and the diligent. One more reason why it’s a good time to be in the classroom, on either side of the laptop. Ross E. Davies is an assistant professor of law at George Mason University School of Law and editor in chief of The Green Bag, An Entertaining Journal of Law.

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