This article originally appeared in The Bar Examiner print edition, Fall 2023 (Vol. 92, No. 3), pp. 18-20.

By Juan Carlos “J.C.” Polanco, Esq., MBAA wooden gavel resting on a block, with a small graduation cap and tassel atop the gavel

For 55 years, the Council on Legal Education Opportunity Inc. (CLEO), which I am proud to have joined as its President and Chief Executive Officer in July 2022, has made attending law school and earning a law degree a reality for over 30,000 people from all over the United States and from various walks of life. CLEO’s founders saw historical barriers contributing to an incredible lack of access to services and opportunities for underrepresented groups, which made preparation for law school often impossible. Since CLEO’s 1968 inception, the organization has examined these obstacles and realized that making the legal profession reflect American society is about preparing those from underrepresented groups for the rigors of law school and affording them the opportunities they need to succeed.

To truly level the playing field for underrepresented groups, CLEO needed to develop holistic programs that help students start to read, write, and think as attorneys. CLEO has been at the forefront of helping students with limited resources go toe to toe with pre- and first-year law students with near-unlimited resources.

This has not been easy, but it is an incredible mission. CLEO serves students with backgrounds like mine. As a first-generation American with Dominican parents who was raised in poverty in the Bronx, I dreamed of becoming an attorney since the third grade. Unfortunately, I only knew of two attorneys: ­Matlock, who I watched on television with my dad weekly, and the attorney whose office my mother was responsible for cleaning. I never met that attorney, but my mom spoke highly of him and how the community respected him. So, for me, it was all about looking up to Andy Griffith’s television character. I see stories like mine in every student who participates in our programs—stories characterized by a desire to compete and succeed in law school with limited resources, and a determination to overcome the obstacles they’ve encountered.

CLEO Programs

I am so proud to be on this fantastic team. The CLEO board, advisory council, and staff, collectively, have hundreds of years of experience in law and education, which shines through in our many programs and services. Each year, our Academic Affairs Department serves over 1,100 students. Our programming has demonstrated success and is continuously modernized to keep up with the latest teaching method­ologies. To make our law school pipeline cutting edge, we must give students the tools they need as early as their first year of undergraduate studies.

CLEO initiatives are held nationwide and encompass programming to serve every year of a student’s undergraduate curriculum. Working with prelaw advisors and law school professors, we have developed a program to bolster existing prelaw programs.

CLEO programs consist of the following:

The Road to Law School (RTLS) is designed to help undergraduate freshmen and sophomores start thinking about what law school admissions departments seek in transcripts and to give students insight into how to best position themselves to compete for admission to law school. Often, our alumni come back to participate in this program by providing current RTLS students with critical mentorship and support.

Jump Start the LSAT (JLSAT) focuses on helping juniors, seniors, and postgrads prepare for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). We connect participants with some of the best LSAT professionals to ensure the former understand what this standardized examination covers.

CLEO Connection provides constant opportunities for aspiring law students throughout each year at partner law firms nationwide—from networking to mentorships, workshops, and internship opportunities.

CLEO Law School Application Services (CLAS) include Personal Statement Review, Resume Review, Application Readiness Consultation (ARC), and CLEO Application Review (CAR). Students work one-on-one with a CLEO professional.

Achieving Success in the ­Application Process (ASAP) helps prospective law school applicants understand the importance of factors in the admissions process that are often overlooked or undervalued.

Pre-Law Summer Institute (PLSI) helps students who have already been admitted to law school prepare for the first year’s rigors. CLEO’s PLSI graduates are an incredible group of accomplished legal professionals, including judges at all judicial levels, members of Congress, leaders of significant not-for-profit companies, and partners at prestigious law firms. 

1L Prep—Attitude Is Essential (AIE) provides entering CLEO law students with continued mentorship and support throughout the arduous first year of law school.

The NCBE/CLEO Bar Passage Program, launched through a partnership with and funding from the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), provides bar preparatory services to CLEO law students nationwide, ensuring that they can receive consistent support throughout their law school matriculation.

Increased Student Interest

CLEO is seeing more students interested in law school and our programs. We believe that the more people realize how incredibly powerful attorneys and those in the legal profession are in our everyday lives, the better. In my 23 years in academia, I have had the honor of teaching tens of thousands of students, and during the first week of each class I teach, I often ask a student to describe their daily routine. From waking up to getting on the train to coming home, they come to realize that attorneys and the law are involved in every aspect of their lives. Recent events such as the murder of George Floyd, the Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the end of affirmative action also reinforce the impact of attorneys and law in our society and contribute to students wanting to pursue a legal education and focus on breaking barriers to do so.

Law School Consortium

CLEO could not make access to law school a reality for students without the support of others. We work closely with law school deans and their admission teams to ensure we continuously provide cutting-­edge preparation. The many law schools that are part of our Consortium on Diversity in Legal Education, which is comprised of access-pioneer law schools that support our mission of preparing underrepresented students for law school admission, collaborate with us on programming and sponsorships. These law schools provide support throughout the year, and often, we bolster their efforts to increase access for students with limited resources but unlimited drive.

We also continue to work with incredible national organizations supporting our mission, including NCBE, the Law School Admission Council, AccessLex Institute, and many other organizations that share a dedication to creating equity of access. We have hundreds of pioneers in addressing access issues; even the NFL Foundation has been one of our leading supporters and has put its resources on the table to help students achieve their dreams.

The Future

The future of programs focused on facilitating access to law school for underrepresented groups is hopeful but also concerns me. We are seeing the chilling effect that anti-access activists pose when they work to shift public opinion on the importance of creating an equal educational playing field. Why some seemingly want to make it more difficult for students from underrepresented communities to break barriers and have an opportunity to succeed, go to law school, and become an attorney keeps me up at night. It is more important than ever for leaders in the legal profession to provide the necessary resources to help drive students who want to succeed to earn the opportunity to attend law school. 

Fortunately, CLEO has been laser-focused on preparing students for success for over half a century. Overcoming adversity is our specialty. Despite the current environment, witnessing students’ excitement to pursue a legal education is fantastic and genuinely refreshing. If law school access pipelines, alumni, law schools, foundations, and stakeholders continue working together, the sky is the limit in fulfilling CLEO’s mission of inspiring, motivating, and preparing students from underrepresented communities to succeed in law school and beyond—and, in so doing, training tomorrow’s lawyers and preparing tomorrow’s leaders.

Portrait Photo of Juan Carlos Polanco, Esq, MBAJuan Carlos “J.C.” Polanco, Esq., MBA, is the President and Chief Executive Officer for the Council on Legal Education Opportunity Inc. (CLEO). He earned his law degree from Fordham University School of Law and MBA from Fordham’s Gabeli School of Business. Polanco has served as president and commissioner of the New York City Board of Elections, and is a former New York City public high school teacher in the Bronx. He is currently in his 23rd year as an educator and, since 2007, is on the faculty of the Department of Ethnic and Race Studies at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

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