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LEO alums found opportunity to excel


“You need programs that show people there is a way to succeed and there is help out there.”

Hon. Louis B. Butler Jr.,
Wisconsin Supreme Court

The University of Wisconsin Law School boasts an alumni roster replete with the crown jewels of the legal profession both in Wisconsin and beyond.

Alums include a state Supreme Court justice, the current president of the Wisconsin State Bar Association, several current and past members of Gov. Jim Doyle’s cabinet, several prominent judges and a bevy of Who’s Who in the Legal Profession types.

Coming from a campus in south central Wisconsin isn’t all these prominent professionals have in common, they are all former participants in the Legal Education Opportunities (LEO) program for minority students. Lumping groups of people together and labeling them with one moniker or another is actually the antithesis of the backbone of LEO — which was to promote inclusion in an otherwise exclusive profession. The LEO program is a common thread between these leading lawyers, but certainly not the whole cloth that wove their respective mantles of success.

As State Bar of Wisconsin President Michelle Behnke says, when you have the high caliber college atmosphere found at Madison or Marquette you’d expect a cadre of cream of the croppers. The LEO program provides additional support for those future leaders.

LEO Program

Wisconsin Court of Appeals Judge Paul B. Higginbotham, the first person of color appointed to the state’s appellate bench, said that, but for the program, he probably wouldn’t be a lawyer, much less a judge today.

"I paid my way through college and everything over and above the grants I got through LEO. I had a job since I was 11 years old. I was always having to fight for myself and it was nice to get that support and not feel like I had to fight through that process alone," Higginbotham said.

"There was a point when I was really ready to ditch it all. I was struggling. The support system there is so critical. The threshold of getting into law school is life altering, staying there is more so. As far as LEO is concerned, it’s all about helping students move through the process so they come out the other end feeling like ‘I can do this.’"

Behnke said she and her LEO compatriots, especially the earlier classes, could well have thrown in the towel, at least in the world of law, but for the program.

"People who are in the majority culture perhaps just don’t know what it’s like to be the only one in the room all the time," she said. "It’s stressful and it’s difficult and it takes its toll."

The Legal Education Opportunities Program

The Legal Education Opportuni-ties (LEO) program at the University of Wisconsin Law School is a program for the recruitment, retention and success of law students of color. The LEO program has grown 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.

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 a role in increasing the number of attorneys from groups that have long been under-represented in the legal profession.

The LEO committee maintains that students of color may bring a special perspective on the legal system, expanding classroom discussions. The student-run organization comprises four groups: students of Asian-Pacific Islander descent (APALSA), African-American students (BLSA), Latino/a students (LLSA), and Native American law students (ILSA).

Students plan a two-day orientation, both academic and social, for incoming LEO students and coordinate first-year discussion groups in Contracts and Property, led by second- and third-year LEO students. The group produces an annual newsletter 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.

LEO students comprise more than one-fourth of the UW Law student body.

Composed primarily of LEO alumni and UW Law faculty, the Friends of LEO, now in its second year, helps maintain and improve the program. Members assist in the recruitment of talented minority candidates as well as in the mentoring of current LEO students. In addition, there is a Friends of LEO Mentorship Program that recruits lawyers and judges in the Madison community to serve as local mentors. An outgrowth of the Friends of LEO has been the LEO Enrichment Fund. Also begun in 2000, the Fund provides support to LEO students.

Another LEO legal eagle, the first black to sit on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Justice Louis B. Butler Jr. says the program was precious to him as well.

"You need programs that show people there is a way to succeed and there is help out there," Butler said. "When I left home, my mom gave me $100 and a new sweater and said ‘good luck son.’ There are a lot of people out there who don’t have the money and don’t know where to turn. I am not ashamed to say I had help along the way. I think it’s a good thing and we’d do our society a lot better if we helped these young people get to their goals."

A crucial component of LEO according to Butler is what he terms the "p
ay now or pay later" platform. There are kids, smart kids especially he says, who see the fine cars, fur coats and fancy digs and there are essentially two ways of achieving those goals. One, the wrong way or, two, the right way where kids are encouraged to work hard, so they can be the best they can be.

Support for Success

When you bring up the LEO program certain themes resonate, but the fundamental foundation seems to be the feeling that everyone in the program feels as if everyone in the school is vested in their success. Students supporting each other is critical, but faculty urging students is paramount.

"It’s a very nurturing environment. It’s the one place at the University of Wisconsin where you have real diversity," says Wisconsin Department of Revenue Secretary Michael Morgan. "It wasn’t just folks who were part of the LEO program; the law school as an institution saw value in the LEO Program. In fact, I think our university would be a much stronger place if it attached some of the same values the law school has for years."

In a nutshell that’s the premise behind the program. Ironically, it was a white second-year law student, Jim Miles, who glanced around one day back in 1967 and asked, "Why aren’t there any black students here?" Culling support from the law school, Miles began his campaign to woo students of color and other traditionally underrepresented groups to the campus in Madison. The student-run recruitment program began with four or five students of color and to date the law school has matriculated over 1,000 LEO students.

Everybody can probably name a favorite teacher from their past. But when you speak to former LEO students, the same names leap from their lips. Professors William Whitford, Dan Bernstine, Dean Kenneth B. Davis Jr., and many others, but the name that consistently surfaces is James E. Jones Jr., who came to the law school in 1969 to teach labor law and to this day still has his fingerprints all over the LEO program.

Butler says Jones was probably one of the best naggers — a necessary nugget in the nuances of law school — and while you won’t find his name on any charters, or other LEO documents, Jones is possibly the cornerstone, the chief cultivator of the covenant between the school and its students. Cory Nettles, who served two years as the state’s secretary of commerce and currently is a partner at Quarles & Brady says he never would have settled on Madison, but for Jones.

"I was not even considering going to UW, I was considering so-called Ivy League schools," Nettles recalled. "A LEO alum friend of mine insisted I consider Madison and at the very least meet Prof. Jim Jones. To placate this friend of mine, I agreed to meet with Prof. Jones for what I thought would be a few minutes. A few hours later Prof. Jones extracted a commitment from me to come to UW Law School."

At the time, Nettles said Jones was contemplating retirement, so he extracted his own commitment from Jones, that he’d stay on until Nettles graduated. A dozen years later, Jones is still hanging around campus, urging the students to succeed.

Another prominent alum, Eric Jackson, a partner with the Washington, D.C., firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi LLP fondly recalls being on the receiving end of a Jones kick in the butt.

"Jim Jones was the type of professor to kick you in the pants and encourage you to be the best you can be," Jackson said. "He said ‘if you are going to be wrong, be gloriously wrong.’ He meant always take a chance, step out there, assert yourself. He always had my best interests at heart even while he was kicking me in the pants."

Friends of LEO

To make sure that students today have similar opportunities Jackson and Nettles joined a group of other LEO legacies in forming the Friends of LEO, a fundraising arm that has raised $325,000 in the past five years for scholarships. The group just finished a banner year, raising $77,501 from 134 separate contributors. Jackson and Nettles extracted substantial financial commitments from their firms and others from around the state and the country have followed suit. Jackson noted that putting your money where your mouth is also isn’t totally altruistic, one of the beneficiaries of the Friends largess, Busola Akinwale, is currently doing great work for his firm.

"It’s been a win-win situation all the way around," he said.

Another winning LEO proposition is the relatively new mentoring program, which pairs law students with local lawyers, so they can get a firsthand feel for the profession. Wisconsin’s Commissioner of Insurance, Jorge Gomez, a LEO alum Class of ’86, says actually putting a friendly face on the legal profession was one of critical components of the program even 20 years ago.

"They did quite a bit showing us all the legal options there are out there, that many of us would know little about because a lot of us came from backgrounds where our folks were not lawyers or doctors or professionals," Gomez said. "It gave me a sense of purpose. I really can’t distinguish some of the accomplishments I’ve had without giving credit to the professors and students who supported me 20 years ago."

Related Links

University of Wisconsin Law School

Wisconsin Court System

Ironically, LEO started as a program to include kids who had traditionally been excluded from the legal profession, but it also served to set those students apart from the mainstream in some ways. Jones notes that he still has to urge students to break out of the mold.

"I’m always teasing them, saying get out there and find out what other people are saying and talking about," he said. "I’ll tell them ‘There are four of you all standing right here, what if that beam fell down off the building and killed you, I’d lose half my crop, now get out here and integrate.’"

Jones has been around the law school since the days when diversity was only a dream. He said Madison had that dream and didn’t let anything deter, but unfortunately, even in this day and age, some people still choose to exclude, which he finds as silly as the nutty notion that women have nothing to bring to the table.

"The real benefit and the richness of the people resources you have in a democracy, to exclude parts of it and not use it, the notion that we’d do all this and the woman’s perspective is not included, you’ve just dismissed 50 percent of your brain power," he said. "To say nothing good is going to come out of this go home and have some babies. Talk about an idiot approach. That’s basically what this is all about."

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