Local Voice: An education denied: The LSATs - Choosing between accreditation or access

By Richard Bernstein

It is application season for the future lawyers of America. Eager students from all walks of life prepare their transcripts, personal statements, work experience and letters of recommendation in making their case for admission to law school. One segment of these students, however, is faced with a distinct challenge that separates them from the remainder of the applicant pool. These students, the visually impaired, are disproportionately subject to the negative impact the Law School Admissions Test has on their applications.

The primary pitfall with the LSAT is an inherent visual bias to the exam, which results in low test scores for visually impaired applicants. Moreover, there are no standardized alternative testing methods offered to visually impaired students to account for the visual orientation tasks incorporated in the LSAT. Prior to 1996, law schools had the discretion to waive the LSAT exam requirement in considering the applications of blind students for admission to their programs. This allowed schools to offer admission to talented blind students who demonstrated the potential to succeed in law school and as future lawyers.

In recent years, with an increasing need for schools to separate themselves from their competition, law schools face substantial pressure to obtain and maintain a “high ranking,” established and promoted by the U.S. News & World Report and the American Bar Association.  The growing pressure placed on law schools to select students based primarily on high test scores and grade point average is cultivated by the Law School Admissions Council, the organization that administers the LSAT. A component of the LSAC, called the Law School Data Assembly Service (LSDAS), sends data concerning each applicant to law schools designated by the applicant. This data includes their LSAT score and an “adjusted” undergraduate GPA that both play a substantial part in how law schools are ranked by U.S News & World Report and the American Bar Association.

Tragically, the American Bar Association mandates that any law school seeking or maintaining accreditation require all applicants take and submit LSAT exam results for review in admission decisions. If a law school decides to waive the requirement for any applicant, even one whose disability makes it impossible for them to take the LSAT, then the ABA may revoke that school’s accreditation. Without graduation from an accredited law school the law student may be unable to take a state’s bar examination and ultimately be precluded from obtaining a license to practice law.

It is ironic and troubling that the Association of lawyers charged with promoting equality and access for all limits that opportunity for admission to the profession of law.  Ideally, law schools should be provided the broadest opportunity to admit a diverse group of law students to represent our diverse population and needs. The American Bar Association must end the practice of forcing law schools to choose between admitting qualified blind applicants or maintaining their accreditation if we are to uphold equality and access for law school applicants.

Despite the daily challenge of being blind, Richard Bernstein is a trial attorney at The Sam Bernstein Law Firm in Farmington Hills. He received his law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1999 and he is licensed to practice law in the State and Federal Courts of Michigan and in the State of New York.