The Legal Education Opportunities Program at the University of Wisconsin
Law School is a thriving program for the recruitment, retention and success
of law students of color.
From its humble beginnings in 1967 with the recruitment of four African-American students and two Latino students to today, when LEO alumni number well over 1,000 African-American, Asian-Pacific-American, American Indian, and Latino-American graduates, the LEO Program is a nationwide model for recruiting and retaining students of color. And a source of pride here at home.
LEO’s stated purpose is to recruit and retain students of color and those from other traditionally disadvantaged groups, but its objective is more far-reaching. In addition to providing an informal academic and social support network for its students while they are in law school, the LEO Program plays an important role in increasing the number of attorneys from groups that have long been underrepresented in the legal profession. According to the LEO Committee, (the student-faculty committee that facilitates the program,) students of color may bring a special perspective on the legal system, expanding classroom discussions. It is the LEO committee’s position, and the bedrock of belief that sustains the LEO Program, that the benefits of diversity are gained by the non-LEO community as well as by the LEO community.
The student-run LEO organization comprises five groups: students of Asian-Pacific Islander descent (APALSA), African-American students (BLSA), Latino/a students (LLSA), Middle Eastern students (MELSA), and Native American law students (ILSA). These groups perform the day-to-day tasks of the LEO Program. Students plan a special one-day orientation, both academic and social, for incoming LEO students. The LEO Committee sponsors discussion groups in vital first-year courses, Contracts and Property, primarily led by second- and third-year LEO students. The annual LEO newsletter, “On The Rise,” offers constituency groups a forum to report on their activities, and highlights achievements of LEO students. LEO students also organize community outreach projects in an effort to provide positive role models to children in the Madison community.
Perhaps the most visible student activity is planning the LEO banquet, traditionally held each spring. More than 400 people attend the banquet each year, including many alumni, lawyers, judges, and politicians. It is also an event to which prospective students often are invited.
The History of the LEO Program
The LEO Program began, not surprisingly, in the late 1960s, a time of social upheaval and discontent with the status quo. There was a nationwide feeling that many of our country’s institutions were bastions of the white middle class, with little hope for change. In 1967, a white second-year law student, then president of the Student Bar Association, echoed what many young people were noticing nationwide: Why aren’t there any students of color around here? The student, Jim Miles, with the approval of the faculty, developed a recruitment strategy to find students of color and convince them to try Wisconsin. One of those first students recruited was Nathaniel Friends, Sr., formerly General Attorney in the Law Division of AT&T in Washington, D.C. Nate credits Jim and his recruitment strategies for bringing him to Wisconsin. “They were so organized,” he laughs. “They put up a flyer in my college – Loyola University in Chicago – and they made it sound great.” After conversations with Jim and a visit to Madison, Nate made his decision. He has never regretted it. “I was one of four black students in the Class of 1971. Once I got acclimated, Jim and I actually began the process of developing the LEO Program. [Professor] Larry Church was the first chairperson of the LEO committee, and we really made it into something.”
By the time Nate graduated, there were 14 or 15 African-American law students at Wisconsin Law – all of whom he and Jim had recruited. The pair became roommates and are best friends to this day, and although bi-coastally challenged – Jim practices in Seattle – they meet at least once a year.
While Nate Friends and Jim Miles were planning their strategy, another Jim was on the horizon: a Jim who would be influential in taking the LEO Program farther than its founders had dared to dream: Professor Jim Jones.
Jim Jones, the Nathan P. Feinsinger Professor of Labor Law, Emeritus, was the first African-American professor at UW Law. The grandson of a slave, Professor Jones has been an igniter for the program almost since its inception. Prior to his arrival as a young law professor in 1969, Professor Jones had worked at the United States Department of Labor under John F. Kennedy. In 1961, when President Kennedy had issued an executive order on Affirmative Action, Professor Jones wrote the rules and regulations that created its framework. Upon arriving at UW, Professor Jones asked pointedly, “Where are the Blacks?” and began to lend his expertise to the new LEO initiative.
Today LEO students comprise more than one-fourth of the UW Law student body, well ahead of many other national law school averages.
Professor Bill Whitford, LEO faculty adviser from 1990 -2003 and a fervent believer in the LEO Program, says his commitment to diversity came when he went to Tanzania in 1967 to teach – its multicultural environment demonstrated to me the remarkable benefits – intellectual, social and personal – that flourished in a multicultural learning environment.” Upon his return to the United States, Professor Whitford determined that he would do what he could to ensure that the Law School would benefit from such cultural riches. “It’s so good for everyone in the Law School. Many white people grow up knowing maybe one black family. It’s sad.” According to the professor, benefits accrue to people both in the majority and in the minority. “It’s good for white people to interact with people from another culture, and it’s good for the minority community to have minority role models. It raises the level of expectations for youth.” And having a bar that reflects our national demographics just makes good sense, he adds.
One of the most remarkable outcomes of the LEO Program is the outstanding alumni group that stands ready to connect with and encourage the current LEO students. With more than 1,000 LEO graduates across the country, our current students have role models and advisors to help them succeed. And because of the long tradition of LEO, these alumni have attained career success. For instance, alumni located in Madison, Wisconsin include:
Louis Butler '77 Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice
Michelle Behnke '88 President of State Bar of Wisconsin 2004-2005 (elected in state-wide election)
Paul Higginbotham '85 Wisconsin Court of Appeals
Jorge Gomez '86, former Wisconsin Commissioner of Insurance
Michael Morgan '84, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, formerly Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Revenue
Alumni from across the country include:
Senior Trial Attorney
Eric S. Jackson
Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP
Michelle Ramirez Lopez
Senior Vice President & Employment Counsel
New York City, New York
Burnelle Venable Powell
University of South Carolina School of Law
Columbia, South Carolina
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Stanley B. Stallworth
Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP
Ricardo J. Soto
Deputy General Counsel
San Diego Unified School District
San Diego, California
LEO graduates often speak passionately about their experiences at the U.W. Law School and the importance of LEO to their successes.
A recurrent theme: the benefit to everybody at Wisconsin. From LEO alumni,
to professors, to the Dean, each believes that the entire community is strengthened
by this program that from its humble beginnings more than thirty years ago has
evolved into a vibrant source of pride for all associated with the University
of Wisconsin Law School. The little program that roared continues to be heard
in quarters far beyond these halls on Bascom Hill.
On The Rise
On the Rise is a student-produced publication that features current LEO student organization activities, highlights program growth and accomplishments, and builds LEO Program cohesiveness and integration throughout the law school. Each issue demonstrates how the LEO program continues to grow and thrive due to the initiative and passion of its student organizations. On the Rise is provided to all LEO Banquet attendees and is also sent out to LEO Program alumni. Distribution includes not only banquet attendees, but also the current law school students, law school faculty and staff, LEO alumni, and the Madison community. Contact Emilie Buckman for hard copies of the current issue.