Diversity: Leading By Example

Thursday, February 1, 2007 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Lee, would you tell our readers something about your professional background?

Lee: I grew up in Boston's Chinatown. My parents are immigrants from China. My mother worked in a sewing factory and my father in a Chinese restaurant six days a week. I first attended Columbia University, where I got an engineering degree, but decided to go into law. It took a while to convince my parents that the legal profession was a good idea for an Asian American; nonetheless, I went to Cornell Law School and since then I have been in a corporate practice at law firms for over 30 years - five of them at a big firm in New York City, and 25 at Goodwin Procter.

I represent public companies in corporate governance matters. I also work with private companies, particularly venture capital firms and technology start-ups (software, hardware, life sciences and, more recently, renewable energy and solar power), many of them in California as well as Boston.

Editor: Why Goodwin Procter?

Lee: I chose Goodwin Procter because I was impressed with the people and the culture. This is a place where you are judged by the quality of your work, not by what family you came from. The clearest example of that is our managing partner Regina Pisa, who grew up in a working class immigrant family in Somerville. She and I find we have a lot in common. Also, Goodwin Procter has been and remains very supportive of my work on boards outside the firm.

Editor: You have also enjoyed a kind of parallel career with the ABA. What got you started with the ABA, and what has happened since?

Lee: When I got to law school, I found very few mentors and role models for law students of color. This led to my commitment to minority bar associations as well as mainstream bar associations such as the ABA. In the early 1980s in Boston I helped found and became the first president of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts, where we created programs to mentor Asian lawyers and law students. Later, I became involved with the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), where I served as president in 1995.

What I have also found exciting is being able to work extensively with other minority bar associations, which the ABA has enabled thanks to its outreach to national minority bar associations. The ABA brings us in, trains us on how to run a bar association and essentially makes all of its resources available to us. Through these gatherings I have met people such as Robert Grey, who became the second African American President of the ABA. He and Federal Judge Bernice Donald of Tennessee served as chairs of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity. They invited me to join that Commission, and during the 1990s we worked to promote opportunities for minorities in the legal profession. In addition, the four major national minority bar associations meet annually as the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color to discuss issues of common interest and adopt joint resolutions.

I have served on the ABA Board of Governors, the House of Delegates and, last year, on the search committee that identified the new executive director, Hank White. Currently I am chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Publishing Oversight.

Editor: Congratulations on winning the ABA Spirit of Excellence award this month.

Lee: Thank you. The award is really a great honor. I was serving on the Commission when we established the award to recognize the efforts of lawyers of color in making the legal profession more diverse. I know many past honorees, and I feel very honored to be counted among them now.

Editor: You have also served on the boards of a number of associations related to the Asian American community. Can you tell us something about this aspect of your civic and community undertakings?

Lee: Locally I have served for 20 years on the board of the Asian Community Development Corporation, whose mission is to build affordable housing projects in Boston's Chinatown. In fact, one of the recent projects was built on the very site where I used to live! We have also been designated for the development of 300 units on a parcel of land, also where Iused to live, that is being reclaimed from the Big Dig.

I am on the board of the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, which has done pioneering work in educating the public about the problem of domestic violence in Asian American families. This summer I was involved with a group that secured the enactment of legislation in Massachusetts establishing an Asian American Commission, which will identify and work on issues affecting Asian Americans in Massachusetts and will be a resource to the state on such issues.

Finally, I sit on the board of the Boston Center for Community and Justice, which promotes racial understanding across different ethnic communities. Editor: What have you found most rewarding during your service on these boards?

Lee: I would like to believe that the community service I do will inspire others to give their time as well. (It seems to be working with my kids: both of them separately volunteered to give up their spring breaks last year to go down to New Orleans to help with the rebuilding.)

One of my most rewarding experiences has been my role in creating the NAPABA Community Law Fellowship. In conversations with my good friend Karen Narasaki of the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, DC, I learned that there is a serious shortage of entry-level positions for young lawyers who want to become public interest lawyers because most funding organizations will not pay for the training of a new lawyer. We came up with the idea of this Fellowship to create an opportunity for a dedicated young lawyer to learn the craft and become a public interest lawyer for the Asian American community. In order to get the program started, I endowed the first two-year fellowship in 2005, which was granted to a very talented lawyer named Juliet Choi. Her interest in language access led to important work to ensure that the service agencies assisting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina had language capabilities. Following completion of her two-year fellowship, she is now head of the national language access programs for the American Red Cross. The second fellow, who started this fall, is concentrating on immigration matters.

Editor: Do you play a role in promoting diversity at Goodwin Procter?

Lee: Throughout my 25 years here I have worked on recruiting and mentoring of lawyers of color. I learned this from the firm's first African American partner, Richard Soden, who took me under his wing when I was a new associate and gave me a lot of direction.

Today I am repaying that debt to Richard by working with young lawyers myself. I was happy to participate in the firm's Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity a few years ago. I have worked actively within the Committee on mentoring, recruiting and retention. Last year I organized Keys to Success, which was a panel discussion of general counsels of color who came to speak to us about their career histories and about the qualities they look for in outside counsel today. The program was attended by over 100 lawyers in the firm, including many partners.

Editor: Have you seen diversity improve the level of service at the firm?

Lee: Absolutely. As lawyers we are in a service business, a people business. We serve the needs of people, our clients. We have seen an increased diversity within the corporations that make up our client base, and the diversity in our workforce allows us to relate to them and understand their needs better. Greater trust and understanding between our clients and ourselves will lead to a better work product. This approach has worked so well that some of our clients have been collaborating with us to explore ways to partner with them to promote diversity.

Editor: When you go out to recruit candidates, how do you make a case for Goodwin Procter?

Lee: The best way to do it is talking one-on-one with candidates and giving them the opportunity to get to know you. I think they get a better sense of the firm and feel more comfortable asking questions than they might in a less personal setting. It also reflects the kind of attention they will get if they come here. And, we have a lot to offer at Goodwin Procter: we are a national firm with outstanding practice opportunities at a high level in a wide range of areas.

We also have a strong commitment to pro bono work, which has been an important factor for law students of color: pro bono work is a great training ground for the young lawyers and gives them increased responsibility and enables them to feel a sense of fulfilling their responsibilities to the community.

Our efforts at recruiting law students of color are getting a lot of traction. Law students of color will make up 30 percent of our summer associates this year. To underscore our commitment to law students of color, we instituted a Diversity Fellowship Program last year, awarding $15,000 fellowships to three outstanding law students of color. This year, we are awarding five fellowships.

Editor: How are the retention levels at the firm?

Lee: We are doing reasonably well. The Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity has a task force that is dedicated to retention. Again, one-on-one contact is the key. Working directly with young lawyers gives them a sense of what my practice is like. When I was an associate, I was very intimidated by the partners. Now that I am on the other side, I feel it is important to show your mentee that you have strengths and weaknesses like anyone else, that you're not perfect. We also have regular meetings of the lawyers of color in each of our offices which builds a kind of community-within-the-community. This creates a sense of belonging which can be crucial to a lawyer's success.

Editor: Where would you like to see Goodwin Procter in the next five years?

Lee: The success of the firm depends on our creativity and talent. It has been said that communities of color will be a majority of our population soon. This is a huge talent pool we will be missing if we do not value diversity in the work force. The other aspect is that diversity is reflected in many of our clients and we need to have that same diversity so we can relate to the clients effectively. A lot of clients are demanding diversity within their law firms and want to know about our progress, which I think is very positive.

I would like to see more partners of color at the firm. As lawyers of color who achieve a level of success in the organization, we can help serve as role models and mentors. With more partners of color there will be more mentors available to younger lawyers of color. Then we might reach a "critical mass" of diversity throughout all levels of the firm.

Please email the interviewee at plee@goodwinprocter.com with questions about this interview.