Author note: Spenser is a second-year law school student pursuing joint Juris Doctor/Master of Public Policy degrees at the George Washington University School of Law and the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy. He spent the past summer as an intern at AccessLex Institute.
Some law students with disabilities have been seeking and receiving disability accommodations ever since they were young children; others may have not been diagnosed until later in life. No matter how long a student has had a disability, however, or how long the student has known about necessary accommodations, such a student may still face difficulties getting accommodations for the bar exam, the highest-stakes exam most will ever take.
For some students with disabilities, getting necessary accommodations on the bar exam may mean the difference between passing, or not passing, on the first attempt. How can law schools help their students with disabilities get the accommodations they need? The following proposals represent starting points for action.
The Importance of Applying Early
Documentation requirements for receiving accommodations on law school exams are typically less strict than those for receiving accommodations on the bar exam. There are also significant differences in accommodations requirements in different jurisdictions. This can create a disconnect— information gaps and misunderstandings about what is and what is not required. To resolve this disconnect, schools can inform students who are granted accommodations in law school that extra documentation will be needed to obtain accommodations on the bar exam. If law students have adequate and timely notice, the process of gathering sufficient documentation will likely be easier, especially for students with executive functioning issues. (And students with ADHD, a common disability that warrants accommodations on tests including the bar exam, are also likely to have executive functioning issues.1) While difficulties with executive functioning affects students in all areas of law school and the legal profession, these difficulties pose challenges for a long-range detailed process such as applying for disability accommodations on the bar exam. This process requires time management, organization and planning abilities, as well as seeking, gathering and organizing a wealth of documentation that must be completed well in advance of the standard filing deadline.2 Advance notice about bar exam accommodations requirements will not resolve executive functioning issues, but it does give a “head start” to those who have such challenges.
Dedicated Institutional Support Helps
It might also help for law schools to have their own departments for disability services, separate from the larger university. Law school departments would likely be more sensitive to the particular needs of law students with disabilities, including but not limited to bar exam accommodations. Such a department at the law school would process requests for disability accommodations on law school exams, administer those same accommodations (ensuring accurate and smooth implementation of decisions), and assist students in the process of applying for bar exam accommodations. Professionals whose work is dedicated to law students would have the focused incentive to develop contacts with bar examiners in respective jurisdictions where their students sit. (Note: the recommendation for a law school to have its own disability services department that is distinct from the larger university’s disability office was made by disabilities experts interviewed in the course of research on disability accommodations and the bar exam but who asked not to be quoted.)
Clear Information Is Vital
Another relatively easy but useful step law schools can take to assist law students is to add information about disability accommodations for the bar exam to their websites. Many law schools have useful information about the bar exam generally, in the form of “go-to” resources for students as they begin the bar admissions process. It would be helpful for students with disabilities, for whom accommodations on the bar exam are paramount, to know where to go on their school page for more details regarding this process. However, many law schools have no readily available information on their websites about disability accommodations for the bar exam. One school that has particularly helpful information about disabilities accommodations is The Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University. It advises students on how to write a strong personal statement for the Board of Law Examiners, and to reach out to the person in charge of testing accommodations at the student’s middle school if they received accommodations at that time.
Undoubtedly, many schools are informing students about how to navigate the process of applying for accommodations on the bar exam, in a variety of ways that were not captured in my summer research. But from what I did study, the steps outlined above would be among a number of changes that could make a world of difference for those of us who may need accommodations to clear that final hurdle and enter the legal profession. It will also be important to continue to research related issues and track the efficacy of particular interventions so as to develop a body of empirical evidence regarding how best to assist law students navigating this path in the future.
1Alysa E. Doyle, Executive functions in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder., 67 J. Clinical Psychiatry 21 (2006); Joseph Biederman et al., Impact of Executive Function Deficits and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) on Academic Outcomes in Children., 74 J. Consulting & Clinical Psychol., 757 (2004).
2The Florida Board of Bar Examiners states that “Because some of the accommodation request forms require input from third parties, the appropriate individuals should be asked to complete the forms well in advance of the deadline.” Many other states have similar recommendations on their webpage for bar exam ADA accommodations, including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Nebraska.