Last week, the United States Department of Justice issued a consent decree against the Law School Admission Council, the non-profit group that administers the test, accusing it of “widespread and systemic discrimination” and contravening the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The decision calls for LSAC to pay $7.7 million to compensate more than 6,000 students who applied for testing accommodations over the past five years.
The fallout could be broad, ensnaring Canadian law schools, the majority of which rely on LSAT scores as a key component of their admissions policies. While the LSAT is not relied on as heavily in Canada in terms of admissions, law school administrators are watchful of any domino effect.
Lorna Turnbull, dean of Manitoba’s Robson Hall Law School, confesses while her school must adhere to the province’s human rights laws that preclude discriminating against people with disabilities for any reason, she’s powerless to control how the LSAT is applied.
She adds the problem is not with Robson’s admissions policy, but with “an organization outside of my jurisdiction that I don’t control. That’s been a reality that Canadian law schools have faced for quite some time.”
Turnbull says if she didn’t take into account a student’s disability and didn’t offer an accommodation prior to rejecting his or her application, then she would be contravening Manitoba’s human rights legislation.
“The LSAT’s provisions for accommodations for disabilities don’t necessarily meet the requirements of Canadian law.”
Turnbull, however, still defends the LSAT as a “valid criteria for admission,” claiming it’s one part of a “holistic” appraisal system that also takes into account each applicant’s unique circumstances.
The costs to implement a policy that excludes LSATs would be “massive,” insists Turnbull.
Yet there are a handful of universities where the test is not mandatory. Because there is no French version, LSATs are not part of the admissions policy for Quebec-based law schools such as McGill University and the French section of the University of Ottawa. If, however, the student had already taken the LSAT then it would automatically be used in the appraisal process.
In the U.S., LSAT scores play a major role in how law schools get ranked, potentially contributing to more exclusionary practices.
“There’s some schools that place enormous weight on the LSAT,” admits Ravi Malhotra, an Ottawa law professor and member of the human rights committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities. “Deans of Canadian law schools don’t spend as much time focused on what the rankings are, they tend to focus on excellence and on their agendas so they’re not competing as much.”
The U.S. case focused on a provision of the LSAT that identifies when a person with a disability needed extra time to complete the test. The class action suit, initiated by three California students who claimed the practice was discriminatory, snowballed to include nearly 40 claimants.
Malhotra, who suffers from a physical disability that requires him to use crutches, says the concept of “flagging” LSATs of people with disabilities is “troubling” and not in keeping with Canadian human rights law.
“If a student wanted to challenge flagging it would raise real concerns,” he adds. “Students with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, that have to do the test have real problems in the United States.”
That was the case with Sarah Triano, a California teenager who launched the class action in 1997 after she was repeatedly denied an LSAT accommodation based on her immune deficiency disorder and battles with depression.
A 2013 Osgoode Hall Law School entering class survey showed 24 of 301 students, representing eight per cent of the class, identified themselves as having a disability of some sort.
“We don’t have them tick a box for disability,” says assistant dean Mya Bulwa, adding Osgoode does not require students to disclose a physical, learning, or mental disability.
Ontario assistant Crown attorney Shonagh Pickens, who has been legally blind since birth, was granted extra time to complete the LSAT. She also had the paper enlarged and was permitted to circle her answers instead of filling in the circles.
Pickens isn’t aware if her accommodation was included on her transcript that was submitted to Western University where she earned her law degree, but doesn’t think it should be flagged.
“The accommodation is supposed to even the playing field,” she says. ”If it’s marked that the person was accommodated, it takes the leveling effect away.”