The Accessibility of the LSAT: A Response to Dean Sossin and Dean Holloway
Harvard Law’s recent relaxation of the LSAT requirements by allowing applicants to take the GRE has spurred a debate in the Canadian context about whether it is prudent to maintain the strict LSAT requirements for law school admissions. So far, the deans of two law schools – Dean Sossin of Osgoode Hall and Dean Holloway of Calgary Law – have taken a public stand in support of the LSAT. The arguments cited are not new. The LSAT, it is argued, is a useful comparative tool that allows admission committees to compare the logical reasoning of their applicants. It is also a tool, Dean Holloway argues, that allows for more access to law schools for applicants who are marginalized because it is a standardized test. The cost of taking the LSAT, it is argued, is cheaper than the GRE and, at least in this sense, is more accessible. Dean Sossin also highlights that Osgoode has a program to provide guidance and support for individuals who wish to take the LSAT, but are otherwise unable to afford paying for private courses.
In this piece, I want to question the argument that the LSAT is accessible from the perspective of an individual with a visual impairment. I am a visually impaired second year student at Osgoode Hall Law School. My application journey was not an easy one – not that it is for anyone without any form of disability. But, the experiences that the LSAT has put me, and others like me, through are unique and it is unfortunate that Canadian law schools are still relying on a test that creates barriers to some applicants. The LSAT, to be sure, is inaccessible in two ways – content and procedure.
From a content inaccessibility perspective, the logical reasoning component of the LSAT creates a daunting barrier for individuals with visual impairments. For most test takers, it is necessary, or at least helpful, to rely on diagrams in order to succeed in this section. It goes without saying, however, that the reliance on visual aids to deconstruct and solve the logical reasoning questions places test takers who are visually impaired at a great disadvantage. The logical reasoning section is peculiar in this regard. For example, there are other sections on the LSAT, like the writing sample requirement or the reading comprehension requirement, that do not require heavy reliance on the use of diagrams. The point here is that the true nature of the comparative process on the basis of logical reasoning must be questioned.
Such an impact on the comparative process is more acute to individuals who have a visual impairment because there are no materials or courses that I know of that are designed specifically for individuals with disabilities in general or individuals with visual impairments more specifically. Indeed, the published study materials that I consulted in the preparation for the LSAT relied on diagrams and often encouraged their use. Therefore, even though, as Dean Sossin correctly highlights, there are programs available for applicants who wish to take the LSAT, but cannot afford to do so, there is a complete absence of programs for those with a disability regardless of whether they can afford it or not. At least some components of the LSAT, in other words, are designed in a way that does not take into consideration that there are applicants with disabilities who will be taking the test and their results might be affected in a way that does not affect other applicants.
Now, it is argued that the probative value of the LSAT vis-à-vis the logical reasoning capacity of applicants is one of its hallmarks. With all due respect, this argument is not in accordance with how the law and the education of law operate in general. Arguably, what law schools should be concerned about is not merely logical reasoning skills, but analytical skills. We are not dealing here with a problem of semantics or distinctions without a difference. The logical reasoning value of the LSAT is extremely limited in scope – its focus is on the ability to undertake a logical reasoning analysis in a very formulaic way. Most of the logical reasoning questions are based on formats of “if a, then b” or “a + b = c”. These types of questions have little probative value in the study of law. From my experience thus far, the pedagogy of law is not concerned with applying rules to given facts in a formulaic way. Law is not taught and practiced like a course in calculus. It is rather based on argument, analysis and reasoning that takes into consideration, inter alia, contextual, historical, sociological, and normative factors into consideration in the analysis. The argument here is not that logical reasoning is irrelevant to law school admissions. Obviously, it is. Rather, the argument is that law schools should not be concerned with formulaic measures of logical reasoning. They should be looking for analytical skills and the ability to provide reasoning that is coherent, persuasive, and cogent. Law, for the most part, is a profession of argument, not formulas.
Not only is the LSAT inaccessible in its content, it is also inaccessible in its procedure. When I wrote my LSAT, I was required to bring my own computer and printer to the examination. As far as I know, this requirement can still affect accommodated applicants. Here it must be asked: how is it possible for a person who is visually impaired and cannot drive to transport a computer set and a printer via public transportation? Why is it assumed that all disabled individuals have the privilege of owning personal computers with the required software for their accommodation? Of course, I contacted the center where I was supposed to write the test (a university in Ontario), but no solution could be reached. This was more surprising to me as I had written many other exams at this center (I completed my undergraduate studies at the university) and knew, therefore, that it had the computers and software that I needed to write the test. While I am fortunate to have a strong support system that allowed me to have access to the required technology and logistics to write the LSAT, it would be imprudent and, indeed, unrealistic to assume that all individuals with disabilities will have the privilege of a support system that would assist them in overcoming these types of barriers and inaccessibility.
It is also argued that the LSAT is financially accessible, or at least more financially accessible than the GRE. I am not familiar with the GRE costs and procedures and so I will not comment on them. However, it is crucial to realize that the costs involved with the LSAT discriminate against applicants with disabilities. As any individual with a disability knows, the provision of accommodations for writing the LSAT requires the completion of forms by medical practitioners unless the applicant falls within predetermined narrow exceptions (approved accommodations for another standardized test, for example). It should be no surprise that the vast majority of doctors will charge to complete the forms and these charges are not covered by health insurance. Yet, individuals who do not have a disability do not have to incur these costs. Understood this way, the LSAT has hidden costs that are very real for applicants with disabilities.
To me, accessibility is not just about which test is cheaper or whether the majority of people who wish to take the test can afford it, but is about inclusiveness and whether everyone who wishes to take an admissions test will be treated in a manner that leads to an equality of outcome. Again, the argument here is not that all individuals with disabilities will not be able to afford paying the extra expenses associated with obtaining medical verification – inevitably some will and others will not. Rather, the argument is that at least some people with disabilities will be excluded on this basis and that the inequality of outcome that applicants with disabilities face vis-à-vis the potential extra costs is discriminatory in and of itself.
The most shocking requirement to me when I wrote the LSAT was an e-mail that I received shortly before my test date to the effect that I had to call the test supervisor a number of days in advance to confirm my attendance. This requirement did not make sense. I tried to fathom why I was required to do so, but I could not come up with a reasonable and convincing answer. Test-takers who write with no accommodations are not required to call. Why is it assumed that test-takers with disabilities are going to miss their test? What would the reaction be if this requirement was imposed on the basis of gender, religion, race, ethnicity, or age? Why do Canadian law schools accept such a discriminatory requirement as part of their application process?
I am not the only person with a disability to complain against the LSAT. Many have done so before me. The most recent outcry was in the U.S. and resulted in a class action settlement with the Law School Admissions Council (who are responsible for administering the LSAT). I was part of this settlement and received a cheque for a nominal compensation. Even though there was a settlement in this case, the agreed upon changes do not affect the content of the LSAT nor do they affect the procedures that individuals with visual impairments have to follow in a substantial way.
Given my critique of the LSAT, I think there are two choices that Canadian law schools have. The first is to attempt to place pressure on the Law School Admission Council to rectify all discriminatory practices against applicants with disabilities. I think this where the argument that the LSAT is an American and not a Canadian test comes into play. Arguably, it is more difficult for Canadian applicants and institutions to exert transformative pressure on a foreign institution. Indeed, an example of this is the boycott that law schools from Quebec have had by not requiring the LSAT because it is not available in French. As far as I know, there is still no French version of the LSAT available. True, universities like McGill still require the reporting of an LSAT score if the test was taken, but the LSAT is not an admissions requirement. It seems, therefore, that any attempts to rectify any potential issues in order to reach Canadian standards are not likely to succeed. For this reason, I think that the second choice is the only real choice that law schools in Canada have if they wish to create a truly inclusive admissions policy. This second choice necessitates that Canadian law schools move beyond the LSAT.
To be sure, I am not advocating for eliminating all entrance tests. I am rather calling for the establishment of a pan-Canadian law school admissions test that is accessible, reliable, and has validity. Canada would not be the first country to adopt this path. Many law schools in the United Kingdom, including Oxford, have devised their own law entrance test known as the Law National Aptitude Test. Maybe it is time for Canada to adopt a similar approach.
If Canadian law schools truly seek to diversify their student body, it is imperative to look deeper and beyond the usual arguments about the comparative aspects of the LSAT and its focus on logical reasoning. The LSAT, as it stands, is not an accessible test and this inaccessibility plays a discouraging factor for potential applicants with visual impairments. Hopefully, Canadian law schools will gather the required imitative to collaborate with each other and find room for innovation in the admissions process to create a truly accessible and diverse legal education system while maintaining the analytical rigor that is required to go through law school.
Thanks for such a thoughtful contribution to this debate, Abdalla. I’ve posted this to Twitter: https://twitter.com/johnkleefeld/status/867393909344874498.
As a deafblind lawyer who endured the LSAT, I agree with you Abdalla. The LSAT rewards the people who approach and answer questions in the same way at high speed. If law schools want to attract applicants who are resilient, creative, diverse, and have depth/intelligence, surely they can come up with a better way to efficiently weed out those who don’t make the grade in a manner that doesn’t also weed out an entire segment of the population.
Hi everyone, my name is Ben Fulton and I would like to draw some attention to some other factors to be considered in this discussion of the LSAT.
I am also a second year law student at Osgoode. I am blind and use a screen reader to access all my course material. Screen readers are software programs that turn text into speech, producing an audio output that blind users can hear to navigate files and information. One important thing to note is that for the screen reader to work properly it must be able to recognize the text. PDF’s are actually image files. These files can be created using a scanner, that takes a picture of the item being scanned. In order for this image to be read by a screen reader the computer must perform character recognition. This is a process where the computer translates the image into characters that are then read as text. Often the character recognition has difficulty discerning between a r next to an n and the letter m, for instance. The program can also be quite off when dealing with complicated tables and rows, like the way much of the LSAT is set up.
As a blind student writing this test I was appalled at the lack of acceptable study material available. One of the best ways to study for the LSAT is to simulate writing the test under the same time constraints that are imposed on applicants writing the LSAT. Although the LSAC allows for accommodated individuals to receive extra time, they determine the amount of extra time to be allowed, and applicants are still required to complete the portions of the test within the time allowed. No untimed tests are available as far as I know. Test takers requesting digital test taking are provided with an HTML version of the file placed on a USb key with high security. The HTML document has hyper links that allow for quick navigation, and users proficient with screen reading software may be able to utilize extra hot keys and place markers to quickly navigate through sections of the test. Especially useful for referring back to a passage in the reading comprehension section, or reviewing the propositions in the analytic reasoning section.
To study for this test many applicants would practice writing 10-30 tests under the time constraints. Unfortunately, when I wrote this test in 2014 I was only able to obtain 5 HTML versions of the test for practice. University book stores typically sell packages of 10 practice LSATs, for around 90$. Old versions of actual LSATs are excellent for practice, as the standardized test ensures a similarity of format. While I could purchase these for the same price as other students, I then needed to use a scanner to scan the tests into a document that my computer could read. This of course required access to technology that I was fortunate to have, but could easily represent a barrier to another individual. However, I had a further problem with accessing practice tests in this way. The scanner was not 100% reliable and there would frequently be problems with the translated versions of the document. Encountering these problems when working with the document resulted in time delays, and therefore, trying to use these tests under the time constraints was not very possible. If I took the time to correct the information first and then went through the test, my exposure to the information while fixing the mistakes meant that a timer would not adequately reflect how long it would take to answer the questions during the actual test, and if I tried to write the test under timed conditions without first correcting the mistakes then the extra time taken would not allow me to adequately answer the questions. I was also fortunate in having a support network, and some very good friends that would go through the document and make it more workable, so that I didn’t have the blatant errors obvious from the scanner not properly recognizing the characters, but even then it was still in a text file version, without the added features available in HTML. Nonetheless, I practiced on these corrected word files, and achieved a better approximation of the test.
LSAC would only provide 5 practice tests to study from, and even then you had to be registered as an accommodated student, you had to be registered to take the test, and they would only send 2 at a time, that had to be returned, before they would send the next 2 tests, and then they sent the final 1 available after those had been returned.
Due to the amount of time that you are allowed to preregister to take the test, I was studying the scanned versions of practice tests purchased from the University bookstore, before receiving all of the available HTML tests from LSAC, and as a result I had actually encountered one of the tests before receiving the HTML version, thus the problem of information exposure made this test unrepresentative of actual performance, and I had even less ability to gauge my performance, and improve my LSAT writing skills.
Furthermore, students could encounter more costs in practicing for the course. In addition to the costs associated with purchasing practice tests to study for, there are expensive prep courses that are available. It may be possible to hire a computer professional to take the hard copies of previous tests that are available and translate them into the proper HTML format – after showing the professional one example of the LSAT as distributed in that form by LSAC. However, as I would not have had been able to afford that it was not an option that I explored. For many individuals with a disability there are extra costs of living, and barriers to employment, that make added expenses involved with taking these kind of tests prohibitive. It is a form of discrimination, and schools like Osgoode have been able to alleviate some of the effects of this by looking past the LSAT scores to encapsulate an assessment of their applicants by looking at things like community involvement academic performance, and challenges faced by certain minorities in applying to Law school. Indeed, Osgoode does have a diverse range of students attending their campus, as Abdalla and I can both attest to, but this is more as a result of being able to see past the LSAT, than a rigid application of a formulaic approach. In this way the law school is much like the law itself, encapsulating a wide range of factors, in a system that goes beyond mere logic.
Rather than calling for an intranational Canadian test to replace the LSAT, which may just end up replacing one standardized test and it’s associated problems, with another test that would likely have similar problems, I would call for an approach that allows individuals to demonstrate an ability to study law that is unique to the individual making the request. Increase the ability of applicants to apply to Law school by accepting requests to evaluate the candidate based on criteria that do not include LSAT scores. A formal request would have to be made to the admissions committee, the individual would have to have a compelling reason for not taking the LSAT, the candidate would have to have some way of demonstrating their ability to study law, and the candidate would have to accept the decision of the admissions committee. For example, a candidate with an excellent GRE score may be able to use that, where in another example a masters student could supply a piece of legal writing, or some other academic work. I think that it should be taken on a case by case basis, but that this approach shows the most promise for recognizing the true diversity of the human experience, and allowing for the greatest access to law school, while maintaining high standards for admission.
Osgoode Hall Law School
JD Candidate 2018