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.
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. The program provides an informal academic and social support network for its students while they are in law school, and beyond. 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 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 300 people attend the banquet each year, including many alumni, lawyers, judges, and politicians. It is also an event to which prospective students 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.
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.
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.
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.
LEO Alumni Spotlight:
Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice
Founder and Managing Director
Generation Growth Capital, Inc.
Michelle Ramirez Lopez
Senior Vice President & Employment Counsel
Burnele Venable Powell
University of South Carolina School of Law
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Ricardo J. Soto
Deputy General Counsel
San Diego Unified School District
Leticia Evans Smith
Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity
Ho-Chunk Nation Department Of Justice
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 fifty 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.