Essential Law School Apps – Part III – Dropbox

Welcome to the third part of a series of posts in which I will profile the apps and services I found essential to my first year as a law student! The first semester I restricted use to a laptop. After receiving an iPad 2 for Christmas, the second semester was limited to in-class use of the iPad and free reign outside of class.

“Backing up your data is one of the most essential steps in using technology today.”

1: What Is Dropbox?

When first telling someone about Dropbox*, I explain that the service is a USB stick or thumb drive that you never have to carry with you. Dropbox and the files you choose to store with the service are easily accessible from any computer or device, provided you have an Internet connection. Dropbox is free at the base level and gives you 2 GB of storage space. I will discuss later how this can be increased.

My Dropbox folder is stored in ‘My Documents.’

I recommend starting with the installation of the Dropbox program on your main computer after creating an account. The installation will automatically create a Dropbox folder wherever you choose. I use a Windows laptop and created my Dropbox folder in “My Documents.” My wife created her Dropbox folder under the “Home” directory on her Mac. The program will always be running in the background. This is helpful to know so that if you aren’t near an Internet connection or need to save battery on your laptop, simply close the program (the bottom right corner on Windows, the top left bar on a Mac).

Installing Dropbox for school allows you to create folders for each subject and have the backed up automatically. The organization method is completely your choice. I decided to have a main folder for each year of school with additional folder inside each year for each semester, and then finally a folder inside for each class that semester. Some might find this overboard, but the organization method you choose should be based on how you function most efficiently. Leave a comment and tell me how you’ve organized!

You can create folder systems the same way you made them before. The only difference is Dropbox is backing it up!

2: Importance of Backups

Backing up your data is one of the most essential steps in using technology today. Technology can fail and most of the time will fail during the most critical times (i.e. exam week, midnight paper deadlines, presentation days). These ‘failure’ situations are when a consumer cloud service such as Dropbox comes into play.

Dropbox works by designating a section of your computer which it will then take and copy to the cloud. The ‘cloud’ is a term thrown around a lot in today’s marketing, but put simply – the cloud is a set of connected computers and servers made available to users for storing information and then making that stored information accessible from anywhere an Internet connection exists. (For more detailed information, I recommend this YouTube video.)

With Dropbox, a copy of all your files will be held on your computer for editing, viewing and managing; but, a copy of the files will be kept online by Dropbox at the same time. Let’s pretend you are working on a memorandum of law for your legal writing class. You open Microsoft Word, type a little, then save to come back later. When you save your file, you will save it within a Dropbox folder on your computer. The moment the document is saved, Dropbox begins to upload the document to the Dropbox servers. This guarantees that if anything happens to your computer, a copy of the file is still available online for you to access, either through a web browser on another friend’s computer or your smartphone (see below).

When you decide to come back and finish the memo, you will open the document and then save once completed. When you close the document, Dropbox will be able to tell that a newer version of the document exists than what they have on their servers. Your computer will automatically send Dropbox the newest version and, voilà!, your completed memorandum of law is stored safely on your computer and online. (Plus, an additional copy might exist if you have submitted the document using Westlaw’s dropbox.)

The toolbar will show you the up-to-date information about your Dropbox account and the files stored on your computer.

3: Using Dropbox In School

As I mentioned before, the organization method you choose is entirely up to you. The same mentality applies to how you access and use the different tools Dropbox provides. Your files can be accessed, modified, and shared through: your main computer, your smartphone, your tablet, the school library computer, and, yes, even your great-aunt’s computer! Dropbox does not have to be installed on every computer. All you need to do is go to to sign in and you will then see the same folder system as on your main computer.

Dropbox apps are available for Apple iOS devices, Google Android devices, Amazon Kindle Fire, Blackberry App World, and more. These mobile apps provide all the same capabilities as the desktop version of Dropbox, such as viewing, sharing, deleting and uploading. On the iPad, I can open a Word document in Pages, make edits and then send the file back to Dropbox! Integration on the mobile platforms does not fall short. If someone e-mails a file, I can send it to Dropbox and it is instantly available across all my electronic devices. I can even browse Westlaw’s TWEN website, download a file posted by a professor and save it to Dropbox… all from my iPhone or iPad!

On the iPad, an e-mail attachment can be saved to Dropbox. Once the Dropbox app opens, you are then able to choose the folder and rename the document if desired.

4: Sharing and Educating Others

I found Dropbox to be helpful in sharing files and folders. It can be something as simple as family photographs or files as large as HD video clips. One of the best aspects of Dropbox is the free 2 GB of storage they provide, with the ability to expand for free! If you invite people you know to join Dropbox, you get an extra 500 MB of storage for each one that joins and installs the program. You can also get additional storage for connecting Dropbox to Facebook, Twitter and other simple tasks.

One of the easiest ways to get someone to join Dropbox is to share a file or folder with them! When you put their e-mail address in the “link” icon in the web browser or right-click the file or folder, it sends them a referral link to sign-up if they don’t already have an account. Also, if they do have account, it notifies them that you have shared a file or folder with them and begins to download the shared items once they accept.

The Dropbox sharing window is easily managed through a web browser.

A great privacy feature in Dropbox is the ability to “kick out,” or unshare with another user. When one user discontinues the sharing, it provides the owner with the option of deleting the files from their computer along with revoking their access. This can be a helpful security tool in managing your files. Of course, they could have copied them to another section of their computer; but, it is nice knowing there is the ability to unshare and remove the files from their computer during the next sync.

Up next: Westlaw Next for iPad


*Full disclosure: The links to Dropbox in this article provide me with additional free space through the Dropbox referral program. Thank you for the support and best of luck inviting your friends to increase your space!