UW-Madison: Law School Diversity Successes Chronicled In New Book

CONTACT: Kenneth Davis, (608) 262-0618, kbdavis@facstaff.wisc.edu

MADISON – A new publication traces the history and success stories behind the Legal Education Opportunities Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.

The program has been critical to the Law School’s efforts in diversifying the legal profession. Called LEO, the program has been key in helping the school graduate more than 1,000 lawyers of color.

The booklet, “LEO Success Stories,” details the program’s history and traces the careers of more than 60 graduates. LEO is considered a national model for recruiting and supporting students from historically underrepresented communities. The Law School has a strong tradition of diversity, with about 25 percent of its students being students of color.

Law School Dean Kenneth B. Davis Jr. says the program has been central to the school’s diversity efforts and to guaranteeing that students of color succeed.

“LEO is a very small word with a very large significance,” says Davis. “It has changed the lives of countless individuals, helping them to fulfill their potential and realize their dreams, and it has contributed immeasurably to the diversity of the legal profession in this country.”

Students who took part in the program often went on to break barriers in the legal profession. They include Paul Higginbotham, a 1985 graduate who went on to become Wisconsin’s first African American or person of color to serve on a state appellate court; Glenn Yamahiro, whose appointment to the Milwaukee County bench made him the state’s first Asian-American judge; and Michelle Behnke, who became the first person of color to be elected president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Another graduate of the program was Louis B. Butler Jr., who visited with LEO students just hours after being sworn in as Wisconsin’s first African-American Supreme Court justice.

“I’m standing on other people’s shoulders,” Butler told the group. “I did not get here by myself. I appreciate the help I’ve had along the way. I appreciate the LEO program and all it does for all of the citizens of Wisconsin. These are the types of programs that pave the way for everyone else.”

Other graduates feel much the same way. Christine Jones, associate professor and director of legal writing at the Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia, says the backing she received through LEO was crucial to her career.

“I remember the LEO program as a lifeline for students of color. I have never felt more supported by a school than I did as a law student at Wisconsin,” says Jones, who graduated in 1978. “When it comes to broadening access to the legal profession – really opening doors that were once shut and locked – the University of Wisconsin’s LEO program is the gold standard.”

LEO was formed in the late 1960s by the Student Bar Association, which was seeking more diversity in the student body. Two law professors – James Jones Jr. and William Whitford – took central roles in guiding its development and success. Both built strong bonds with LEO students and helped to champion their causes.

Davis says the pair were vital in making diversity one of the Law School’s core values, diversifying the school’s enrollment and in affecting the perspectives of all law students. “The Law School is indeed proud of our unique, nationally recognized program, which has generated so many success stories and helped so many individuals to fulfill their potential,” Davis says.