Students come to law school with strengths from past studies, jobs, and life experiences, yet many find that law school is a struggle. There are many tools and strategies to help you succeed; one of these strategies is to address learning disabilities proactively.
First, why is law school “different”?
Law school immerses you in the [needle in the haystack] case-based method, puts you in the hot seat in class, and demands high level analysis and writing. You compete with other high achieving students for grades that may be based on a single exam and subject to a brutal grading curve. Even students who didn’t break much of a sweat in college find that law school is a different ballgame altogether.
Put your best foot forward.
Knowing this, you should think about your game plan proactively. You may be one of many students who have been diagnosed—in childhood or high school—with a learning difference or a disability; or, you may have wondered if difficulties focusing on lectures or taking tests were signs of a learning issue. If either of these situations sound familiar, consider taking action now.
Schools are required to make reasonable accommodation for students with disabilities. The law defines a disability as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially impairs or restricts one or more life activities such as: caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning, and working.” Diagnoses such as Attention Deficit Disorder, learning disorders, or anxiety disorders may warrant accommodations in the classroom or for testing. Accommodations can take many forms including assistance with note taking, extra time on tests, and advising.
Get tested and seek accommodations as soon as possible.
Many law schools require that requests for accommodations be made through the parent university’s office of disability services. This means that your request is subject to the same review as any student in any of your university’s schools or departments.
Getting tested itself can be a time-consuming process. Psychological testing can take several hours and reports may take weeks to be complete. Even if you have a diagnosis and a testing report, it may not be recent enough for law school accommodations. You may have to arrange for more testing or be examined by a particular provider.
The process varies by university, but in addition to providing the requisite diagnosis information, you may also need to attend meetings and wait for a lengthy review of your application for accommodation.
Don’t want to wait to start the accommodation process until exams are looming or you have a bad semester. Get the ball rolling as soon as you get to campus (or before); you can always decline to use accommodations that have been approved.
Don’t worry about any misconceptions by your peers or professors.
Some students hesitate to seek accommodations because they worry that getting extra time on an exam, for instance, will be perceived as getting an unfair advantage. Regardless of perception, accommodations (and medication) are aimed at allowing you to compete with your peers on a level playing field. As for professors, they typically grade anonymously and accommodations will not impact your grade. Don’t let self-consciousness prevent you from arming yourself with the tools you need to compete fairly.
Consider taking medication if it is recommended.
If a qualified provider advises that you take medication to help with processing or attention, consider that recommendation seriously. Law school demands very high levels of executive function, which is the set of mental skills that help you manage time, pay and switch attention, plan, organize, and remember details. Some individuals with ADD struggle with executive function tasks and for many, medication helps.
Use your school’s resources.
Get to know the personnel at your school and use all resources available to help you succeed. This advice applies to all students, not just to those who might have learning differences.
Make it a priority to visit your school’s Academic Support, alternatively Academic Success, program (ASP) as soon as possible. ASP is designed to teach the skills that you need to be a good law school student. Take advantage of any programs offered by ASP to refine your skills in note taking, case briefing, outlining, time management, and exam taking. Get to know the professionals who work in academic support; they are a front-line resource and are generally knowledgeable about different learning styles and needs.
Find out if your school offers counseling services. Recognizing the link between stress and success, some law schools have therapists on campus and allow students a certain number of visits per year. Appointments with these professionals often book up quickly as the semester wears on students. If counseling is available to you, consider using it as an additional resource for help, strategies, and referrals.
Start soon. Think ahead. And give yourself the tools you need to be your best.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- Starting Off On the Right Foot: Surviving the First Few Weeks of Law School
- Call Your Therapist
- Do You Need a Sponsor to Stay Productive in Law School
- Leveling the Playing Field: Testing Accommodations on the Bar Exam
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