Law school time defies logic. The first semester can be both a whirlwind and a total slog. Ideally, you have been briefing and outlining to prepare for final exams, but if you are a student with a disability, there is something else that you need to address before finals approach: exam accommodations. Your first-year grades can have an outsized impact on your job and clerkship search, so getting yourself in the right position to succeed on your exams is critical.
The best time to apply for accommodations is the summer before 1L begins, but if you find yourself in the middle of your first semester (or even later!), don’t panic. You would not be the first law student to realize that you need exam accommodations later into the school year, and you’re not even likely to be the only one in this boat this year.
Exam accommodations can range from extended time on all of your exams to a scribe to makeup tests for an unanticipated illness or sick family member. Different disabilities require different accommodations, but for the purposes of this post, we will focus primarily on requests for extended time.
What are Exam Accommodations?
The simplest way to answer this is to identify what exam accommodations are not. Exam accommodations are not meant to give any student an advantage on the test. Rather, exam accommodations make sure that all students have equal access to the testing materials. This can take many forms, and depending on the accommodations you seek, the process can be simple or complicated. Remember you are seeking equal access, not special access.
A request for extended time to allow more frequent bathroom breaks or nursing breaks will look a lot different from a request for double time or a private testing space due to a learning disability. A disability coordinator is more likely to grant the first set of requests with less stringent documentation.
What is the First Step?
Your instinct may be to go to your professor to see what your options are. Ignore this instinct! Blind grading is the finest feature of law school exams. This means that your professor should never know that you received accommodations on a final exam, which makes the grading process fairer.
Visit your student services department website. Different schools have different names for this, so go to your law school’s home page and search for disability services. Look up the disabilities coordinator.
If your law school is large, it may have a dedicated coordinator, but some law schools share a department with the whole university. Email this person. Introduce yourself, explain why you are looking for accommodations now and why you did not apply for them prior to the start of law school.
The disability coordinator will almost certainly request documentation of your disability and will ask you if you had accommodations on your undergraduate exams or your standardized tests. Do your best to have any medical or psycho-educational documentation with you for easy reference.
This process can take several weeks, so depending on your needs, you may need to request an extension for your exams. Whether this extension will be granted depends heavily on the school and your reasons for delaying your request. Sometimes students learn about a probable disability during the first year of law school. If this is you, explain this to the coordinator. Something like this would weigh heavily in your favor, especially if you are already seeking treatment.
Your Request was Approved! Now What?
This is the best-case scenario. Stay in touch with the disability coordinator throughout the rest of the semester. Ask for details about how your exam accommodations will be implemented. Will you be in a classroom with the rest of your classmates? Will you take the test separately with a proctor? Will the test be administered via the internet? These are all things you will need to know. Follow the timeline instructions you receive carefully.
As a practical matter, when you study, make sure you keep the accommodations you have been granted in mind. Do your practice essays and tests in conditions as similar to your actual testing conditions as possible. You do not want to be taken by surprise during the exams, so it is always best to mimic the pace of the actual exams during your preparation.
Your Request was Denied. Now What?
Most schools have an option that will allow you to appeal a denial of accommodations. Look carefully on the disability services website for any language that hints at this process. If you cannot find anything, ask the disability coordinator if there is an appeals process and how you can initiate it. The appeals process will take even more time, so make sure you ask for an extension as soon as possible.
If the appeals board continues to deny your request, make sure you get as much information from them as you can. You may learn that you have insufficient medical documentation. Do the best you can on this round of finals, but then make it a priority to make any appointments necessary to get the diagnosis and documentation you need to reapply in time for the next semester’s exams.
If you do poorly on your exams, make sure to schedule time with your professors to go over your weak areas. This is a good practice regardless of your disability status, and it will help you prepare for exams more effectively when you do have accommodations.
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