Do you have a learning disability or a physical disability or illness that may impact your ability to take the bar exam? You may be entitled to accommodations for the exam, and you will need to specifically request them! Accommodations vary widely depending on the needs of the examinee, but some examples include: additional time, a quiet room, large print or Braille exam materials, assistive technology such as screen readers, use of a scribe to fill in Scantron sheets, the opportunity to lie down or walk around at intervals during the exam to manage back issues, or permission to bring snacks, medication, wrist braces, or other medical devices. Accommodation policies, however, are not uniform across all jurisdictions. Each state develops its own procedures for managing the accommodations process, and the specific accommodations granted can vary from state to state.
You may qualify for accommodations even if you did not use them in law school. The bar exam poses unique challenges – such as the length of the testing periods over two days and the need to work with multiple subjects back-to-back – that are not found in most work and educational settings.
One BarMax Student, Leah,* had made it through her entire education and was navigating a successful career without any awareness she had a disability, but at the bar exam she hit a wall: even with diligent study, she failed the bar several times. At the urging of BarMax Instructor Lavanya Sabin, Leah secured an appointment with an Educational Psychologist and was tested for learning disabilities. She learned that she had a processing disorder, which, while it had not been debilitating in other areas of her life, made it impossible for her to jump from subject to subject in bar exam questions without any time for a mental transition. Another BarMax student, George,* was a successful businessman who enjoyed the mental challenge of law school later in life, but again found himself stymied when it came to bar exam passage. After numerous attempts, he finally got tested for ADHD. In his own colorful words, "I knew my sons had ADD, but it turns out I have it out the wazoo!" Both of those students applied for and received accommodations on their next exam attempt.
No matter what, remember that the need for accommodations on the bar exam does not reflect on your ability to practice law, and the fact that you got accommodations will not affect your legal career. You have already succeeded through decades of education – and you can expect to succeed in law practice – by structuring and pacing your work in the way that works best for you. When you pass the exam, no annotation will appear on your score or in any other record indicating whether you applied for, or used, accommodations. This is not something that will follow you through your legal career, nor will anyone know about it unless you tell them.
Also, obtaining accommodations does not give a disabled person an unfair advantage; it merely removes an extra barrier posed by the disability, fulfilling the legal requirement of giving all examinees the same shot at becoming practicing attorneys.
On the flip side: even if you do have a disability, your state may or may not approve your accommodations application.
Securing the accommodations you need and then using them effectively on the exam will take Knowing the Law, Preparing your Application Materials, and Getting Everything Ready for Exam Day!
First, Know The Law:
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Reasonable accommodations are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as updated by the ADAAA in 2008. Under the Act’s implementing regulations, “covered entities” that must provide accommodations include those administering examinations required for “licensing . . . for professional or trade purposes.” 28 C.F.R. 36.309(a). This includes state bar examiners and the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE). The objective of the ADA in the bar exam context is to level the playing field, allowing people with disabilities the same opportunity as those without disabilities to pass the exam.
Any applicant who has a disability at the time of sitting for the exam has a right to testing accommodations. An individual with a disability is one that (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a life activity or (2) has an impairment of a major bodily function. A physical or mental impairment can include impairments such as limits in seeing, hearing, walking, processing, reading, or concentrating. An impairment of a major bodily function is an impairment of the neurological, digestive, or endocrine systems. The term “substantially limits” is a bit vague but essentially it means that a person has significantly more difficulty completing a basic task than the majority of the population. See 28 CFR § 36.105.
As we mentioned above, exam accommodations in no way reflect on your law practice abilities, nor will there be any annotation on your score report or law license indicating that you took the exam with accommodations.
Next, Prepare Your Application Materials:
The process of documenting your disabilities then applying for accommodations can be very time-consuming and stressful. Start well in advance! As a practical matter, you don’t want your accommodation application to interfere with your study time. Also, you will want to leave time for the possibility that your accommodations request will be rejected and you will need to file an appeal. You should aim to secure your accommodations before you start studying or as early as you can in your study process so you can practice for the exam under the same conditions you will have on the exam. For example: if you are using specific speech-to-text software, you want to be comfortable doing bar exam essays with that software, which will require you to use the software throughout your studying process. If your accommodations include extra time, the practice tests you do at home should use that same time frame so that you can get a feel for the pacing you will need to succeed. Ideally, you’ll want to start the application process six months to a year before the date of your exam. This is not typically something you can accomplish during the two months prior to the exam!
You also need time to secure documentation – possibly a lot of it! Typically, jurisdictions want both historical documentation and also updated medical documentation not more than a year old. If you don’t have it handy you will need to get the information and/or medical records from your doctor.
If you have a learning disability, it is crucial that you give yourself time to take the tests required to confirm a diagnosis if you have not already done so. A letter from a psychiatrist stating your medication and diagnosis is usually not enough. Usually, you will need a psycho-educational evaluation which is a comprehensive battery of tests that assess your academic and intellectual functioning, oral language development, and a variety of other skills.
And even if you already have had comprehensive testing and a clear diagnosis, you may also need to re-do the diagnostic testing so that it is recent enough to meet your jurisdiction's requirements. New testing might mean finding a new provider and getting on that person’s schedule. You will also need to give the provider time to create the report and complete any forms the jurisdiction requires. Sometimes the provider’s documentation can be lengthy.
Unfortunately, testing for learning disabilities is not cheap. It can range anywhere from $1,800 to over $4,000 dollars. That is on top of the bar application itself and any bar prep program or tutoring that you purchase – so be prepared! If you are a veteran check out what the VA has to offer. You can also check with the Department of Labor in your state to see if you are eligible to get services through them. Just be aware that going through these organizations typically takes longer than a private provider.
Research what your jurisdiction requires. This often means first locating the required forms, and even that can sometimes be tricky. Some jurisdictions, like California, have everything you need on their website while others may require you to call the bar examiner’s office to request that they send you the forms by mail. Our Webinar "Securing Accommodations on the Bar Exam" provides an overview of the process.
The application for accommodations is usually a separate process from the actual bar exam application. It is typically sent to a different office and then perhaps provided to an independent set of experts. Learn as much as you can about the review process for your jurisdiction. Is there a board, team of evaluators, or just one person reviewing the applications?
Review the forms in detail to make sure you understand exactly what the jurisdiction requires. As always, this will vary widely by jurisdiction: some are more specific than others. Create a checklist, as the requirements can sometimes be lengthy and exacting. Beware! If you do not follow the directions precisely, it is very possible that your application will be rejected or that you will receive lesser accommodations than you require.
Planning is critical! Treat yourself as you would a client. You must advocate for yourself and make it impossible for them to reject you without possibly facing a legal challenge. This means putting forth a solid, organized case for why you need accommodations. For example, there are usually two separate forms: one is a questionnaire for the providers as to what you will need and the other is a candidate questionnaire with similar questions. Make sure that your answers and the provider’s answers match up! Do not have the provider say you need time-and-a-half (in other words, your exam time will be 1.5x the usual) while you state that you need double time. This will just make the evaluator suspicious and confused. All of your documentation should be consistent.
You will need to communicate to your providers exactly what you need and provide them specific information about the format of the exam. Providers are usually familiar with other high stakes exams like the SAT or LSAT, but they may not be familiar with the particulars of the bar exam, which has unique requirements. Also discourage your provider from “guessing” what the evaluators might be more willing to give you. Sometimes providers may say, “well you need time-and-a-half but let’s say time-and-a-quarter because they might be more willing to give you accommodations if you ask for less.” No, you must ask for what you need!
IF DENIED: APPEAL
While your request may be approved outright, it is not uncommon for jurisdictions to give applicants a lesser accommodation than that requested. In Leah's case, her provider indicated that she needed time-and-a-half, but her state came back allowing only time-and-a-quarter: 1.25 times the normal time to complete each section of her exam. If this happens to you, consider filing an appeal with additional documentation.
When you do finally receive your accommodations in their final form, you are ready to put your focus entirely on exam prep!
Finally, Get Ready for Exam Day:
BEFORE THE EXAM
You should prepare to take the exam with the accommodation you will be given. If this is special software, start using it right away. If it’s extra time, do full sections of the exam or even a full day of practice following the schedule you will follow on the exam. Do not attempt to do practice questions in the "regular" time frame, which will only encourage you to rush. Do practice sets with your accommodated time so that you can adjust to the pacing you will need on the exam.
If you have a right to additional time, be aware that different jurisdictions administer accommodated exams differently. Some jurisdictions, like Oregon, administer the UBE in time-and-a-half over two long days of testing. This means with time-and-a-half you could have two days with nine hours of testing each, including an hour for lunch and additional administrative time at the beginning of each section – potentially a 12-hour day. What does a 12-hour day mean with regard to the effectiveness of your medications or your ability to sit in one place for a long period of time? You may need to adjust your medication schedule if you are granted longer exam days.
Conversely, some jurisdictions, like New York (another UBE jurisdiction), administer the exam to accommodated students over a four-day period, which means with time-and-a-half each day has just one section of 4.5 hours. This might require you to allocate more money for a longer hotel stay, extended childcare, or more time off from work.
In Leah's case, her jurisdiction had given her less time than she asked for and then denied her appeal. From the time she learned that, she started taking practice tests with her new time parameters of time-and-a-quarter: she practiced taking MBE Questions, writing essays, and completing a Performance Test all at her new testing pace.
DURING THE EXAM
Believe in yourself! You can do this. You have worked hard for this and you have been studying with your accommodations for the last few months. As best as you can, you’ll want it to feel like any other day of studying you have done, and with preparation and practicing in exam-conditions, it will! Just remember that you have prepared and studied, and you’ve got this.
And hey: the exam is pretty boring. If you tend to get wound up or anxious, it might be useful to remind yourself to, well, be a little bored. Just persevere, do what you have trained to do, and get through the testing days.
Whew! You did it. You went for something you deserve, and all the hard work is over. Take a moment to breathe and relax – and remember to thank anyone who helped you along the way!
And when you get that passing score, the real celebration begins. Both Leah and George passed the exam as soon as they took it with the accommodations – after years of trying without success. In fact, with just that little bit of extra time to pause and process as her brain required, Leah achieved a score high enough to pass in any jurisdiction! When you are in their position, CELEBRATE with those who helped you achieve this milestone – then take some steps to advance the legal career that awaits you!
*Both BarMax students discussed in this story are identified by pseudonyms.