Back Then

“Richmond was first, Stanford is second ...” the dean bragged in a headine in the Winter 1995 issue of Richmond Law, the law school’s magazine. “And Southern Cal, Chicago-Kent, Harvard, UCLA, Cornell, and other law schools may be close behind.”

And what was Dean Joseph Harbaugh’s bragging point? Personal laptops. Richmond Law was in midst of unrolling a first-in-the-nation requirement that law students come to class equipped with their own laptop computers and personal printers, which took effect for the fall 1995 semester.

For the 46 percent or so of Americans under the age of 35 today, the idea of college, let alone law school, without a laptop is bananas. But when Harbaugh was writing, the role of laptops in higher education was an open question. In his column explaining Richmond Law’s new requirement, Harbaugh describes educators’ views as split between laptops as “a pedagogical necessity” or “an expensive fad.”

Safe to say the fad caught on, and Richmond Law’s early adoption launched the school’s reputation as a tech-forward school. In April 1995, it launched the Journal of Law and Technology, the first law review in the world to be published exclusively online. One of its founding editors, Rick Klau, L’96, went on to leadership positions at several successful startups in Silicon Valley. He came into the Google fold in 2007 and today is senior operating partner at GV, the venture capital investment subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

In 1995, the computer technology that we take for granted today was just emerging throughout the legal field. A survey of 500 Richmond Law alumni conducted in fall 1994 showed that only 42% had access to “electronic mail,” and only 79% of those who worked in offices with between six and 10 lawyers had a computer on their desks.

Richmond Law identified a specific model of laptop for its students, the NCR 3150 (below). Advertisements of the day touted its color-optional 9.5-inch screen, hard-disk capacity up to 170 MB, and its feather-like weight, just 6.3 pounds. The sticker price started at $1,995 and went up to $3,805, depending on features. Compute! magazine, which reviewed the model in 1994, said this “stylish” machine “might just be worth the investment.”

Hindsight makes it tempting to chuckle, of course, so it’s worth noting how seriously the law school and university have long grappled with rapid changes taking them in directions they couldn’t have anticipated. The law magazine issue describing the laptop requirement included a 13-page story package about how new technologies were impacting the legal profession, legal education, and the lives of alumni.

At the university level, leaders were also exploring the possibilities of emerging technology. The Spring 1995 issue of this magazine, for example, touted another bold new step, the May 1 public launch of what you see on the screen in the photograph: the university’s very first home page.