Ronald E. Kennedy created MLER in the early 1970s. Shortly after taking the Illinois Bar Examination in 1973, Kennedy learned that only 33% of the African-Americans who had taken the exam with him passed, compared to the 75% – 85% passage rate for the general population. With the assistance of other professionals and students, Kennedy began the staggering task of compiling statistics to track the number of African-Americans passing the bar exam.
In March 1974, Kennedy filed a petition with the Illinois Supreme Court in an effort to encourage the Court to investigate whether the bar licensing procedure disproportionately disadvantaged minorities. The Cook County Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union joined the petition. Although the Court never determined that the exam was biased against African-Americans and Latinos, Kennedy developed an innovative solution: he created a supplemental bar review program and, in the kitchen of his home, began to tutor minority graduates of Northwestern University School of Law where he was a faculty member. Kennedy’s program focused on developing essay writing skills, time management, stress management, and perfecting study habits.
In the summer of 1975, the Honorable Ann Williams (currently sitting on the United States Appellate Court for the Seventh Circuit) learned of Professor Kennedy’s success and expressed an interest in joining the program. Judge Williams wanted to expand the program because, at the time, it was limited to Northwestern graduates. She met with Professor Kennedy and other Northwestern graduates to discuss program expansion to include other law schools.
The “Kennedy Program” was initiated in Chicago in the summer of 1975 to assist law school graduates from other law schools in passing the bar exam. During the summer of 1975, ten graduates of Harvard, DePaul, and Northwestern participated in supplementary bar review sessions. Of these ten, seven passed the examination the first time, and the remaining three passed the second time. In the summer of 1976, the Kennedy Program was offered again – to 11 graduates of Harvard, Northwestern and the University of Chicago Schools of Law. Eight of the11 passed the first time, with the remaining three passing the second time. These rates of 70% and 73.5% for first-time takers and 100% for repeat takers compared quite favorably with the passage for the general population.
The collaboration between Judge Williams and Ronald Kennedy in the summer of 1977 resulted in the formation of a not-for-profit corporation named Minority Legal Educational Resources, Inc. (“MLER”). With the financial support of the Cook County Bar Foundation and several individuals, MLER was substantially expanded to assist 29 people in completing the program. Of the 29 participants, 23 passed the examination – a passage rate of 79.3%. Building on its early success, MLER expanded its program with the support of Northwestern University, Richard Conviser, and financial contributions from several individuals. Starting with the class of 1978, MLER was able to accommodate all of the first-time law school graduates from various underrepresented groups interested in participating in the Program as well as many repeat examination takers.
With the assistance of hundreds of dedicated attorneys who volunteer their time to the Program, MLER continues to offer its supplemental bar review program twice a year. In 2009, in furtherance of its mission, MLER began expansion efforts and now supports and implements pipeline programs for grade school, college, and law school students from various socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.