While applying to and attending law school are difficult for anyone, people with disabilities often face extra hurdles on the path to practicing law.
“Applying to law school requires strong self-advocacy and patience that puts a unique burden on students with disabilities,” notes Burton Blanck, university professor of Syracuse University in New York and chairman of the school’s Burton Blatt Institute, a global advocacy organization for people with disabilities.
Depending on an applicant’s specific disabilities, those burdens can take many forms, from stress and time burdens to practical barriers.
Law schools have become increasingly sensitive to such issues. The range of accommodations available expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to new remote learning options and American Bar Association-accredited, fully online J.D. programs.
Of course, applicants with disabilities may differ widely in the challenges they face. Some may have less-visible impairments, like cognitive or learning disabilities or mental health issues. Others, like applicants who are veterans, may have other intersecting considerations.
Disability Accommodations for the LSAT
The LSAT presents an early hurdle to some law school applicants with disabilities, since the test requires sustained focus, careful reading and logic puzzles solved with the aid of visual diagrams.
Fortunately, the test has become more inclusive now that it is a digital test taken at home and proctored remotely. The Law School Admission Council, or LSAC, has agreed to alter the LSAT as a result of recent litigation to better serve test-takers with disabilities.
LSAC offers many options to accommodate candidates taking the LSAT and LSAT writing tests. Examples include additional testing time, additional or extended breaks and alternate testing formats such as paper-and-pencil or Braille printed tests.
LSAC has established processes to determine eligibility for each type of accommodation, and each test-taker’s situation is addressed individually.
Applicants interested in testing accommodations should first review the information available on the LSAC website as well within individual online LSAC accounts. Applicants may request accommodations directly through their accounts. They may also reach a team of customer relationship specialists by email or telephone for further advice and assistance.
When a candidate completes a request through the online request accommodations portal within his or her LSAC account, the system will provide step-by-step guidance. The process allows candidates to include a personal statement of need along with any supporting documentation.
After submitting a request, candidates should review the copy of their submitted file made available on the LSAT Status page in their online account, to ensure it is complete and accurate. Candidates may submit changes or additions until the deadline for such requests passes.
There is a streamlined documentation process for candidates who meet the eligibility criteria and have previously received an accommodation on other standardized admission tests. If you take the LSAT multiple times, testing accommodations will be automatically approved for subsequent tests without having to submit a new request.
Disclosing Disabilities as a Law School Applicant
It is illegal for law schools to discriminate against applicants or students with disabilities. However, applicants may struggle over how much they want to share with law schools about their individual circumstances.
Ultimately, this is a personal choice. Many applicants choose to discuss the hardships they’ve overcome in their personal statement or diversity statement. Others may discuss their diagnosis in an addendum, to provide context for academic underperformance or a gap in schooling.
One thing that applicants should know is that law schools do not view testing accommodations negatively, and there is no obligation to disclose them. LSAC does not provide information to law schools about which candidates received accommodations. For example, if you received extra time to take the test, this will not be reported with your result or have any impact on the admissions process.
Disability Accommodations in Law School
Like other educational institutions that receive public funds, law schools are legally required to provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities.
The ABA works through the law school accreditation process and site visits to ensure that all accredited law schools provide reasonable accommodations that don’t lower academic or performance standards or result in undue financial or administrative burdens.
These accommodations depend on a student’s particular diagnosis, documented history and need. Common examples include extended time on exams or written assignments, use of a computer or private room during examinations, reduced course load, or a designated note taker or recording of lectures.
Applicants interested in requesting accommodations should contact a law school’s dean of students or disability services coordinator. It may be necessary to provide a written request substantiated by a medical diagnosis or documentation of any previous accommodations received. The school may also have an evaluation process in place, depending upon the accommodation requested.
David Jaffe, associate dean of student affairs at American University’s Washington College of Law in the District of Columbia, advises: “Start the process early. Try to anticipate all of the needs you feel you will or may have, and lay them on the table for an understanding of how they will (or might not) be handled. Ask if a current student or recent graduate with similar needs is available to consult on how their challenges were met.”
Depending on the applicant’s disability or disabilities, Jaffe adds, “one or more visits to the law school if possible in advance of making the commitment might be beneficial.”
Law students with disabilities should be prepared to communicate regularly with relevant personnel at their law school about any challenges faced or accommodations needed.
“For a law student with one or more disabilities, not raising a concern in a timely fashion can result in a buildup of academic challenges,” Jaffe says. “The process of creating and maintaining a level playing field must be an iterative one, revisited as often as needed to ensure equitable outcomes.”
Programs, Resources for Law Students With Disabilities
There are many resources available for law students with disabilities. One good place to start is the ABA Commission on Disability Rights, whose online resources include a directory of disability-related programming available at each accredited law school.
The National Disabled Law Students Association supports and advocates on behalf of law students and recent law graduates with disabilities. The association has members and partners at more than 50 law schools nationwide. Like the ABA, this association can provide answers to specific questions that applicants with disabilities may have about navigating law school, securing employment and qualifying for the bar.
Even if a law school has limited courses available in the field, look for relevant internships, clinics, research experiences and other opportunities.
“A complete absence of substantive courses, of relatable internships, and of a knowledgeable career services office may be signs that the law school will not be the best overall fit,” advises Jaffe. “Ask if there are alumni who have pursued disability law, and then meet with them to gain both a perspective on the ease or challenge of finding their path at the particular school.”
Whether a law student faces disabilities or merely has an interest in the field of disability law, it is important not to miss the forest for the trees.
“Just be the best lawyer you can be,” Blanck advises. “In a competitive legal environment, it is important to have a basic grounding to be a well-rounded lawyer.”