"Persevere" is a word you hear often when conversing with Paul W. Lee '76. It emblemizes a quality that has been key in his remarkable life. Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants who worked in hand laundries, is now a partner at one of the nation's leading law firms, Goodwin Procter. On his path, he's encountered obstacles - but he always believes in himself, tries to be better than those around him, and holds out a hand to help those following behind on the trail he's blazing.
Currently, Lee practices corporate and securities law, working on mergers and acquisitions, representing public companies in Securities and Exchange Commission disclosure, and forming venture capital funds. His favorite work is advising high technology start-ups. Lee also specializes in banking. The present economic downturn has made it a difficult time for both types of clients, but Lee is predictably patient. "What I like to do is help companies grow," he says. "My current focus, which is really trying to help them survive, is part of business cycles I've encountered before."
Lee's ability to wait things out can be seen over and over in his life story. He was raised in Boston's Chinatown and went to Columbia University to study undergraduate engineering. But in 1970, as Nixon expanded the Vietnam War to Cambodia, a wave of activism swept Columbia. Lee was part of a massive student strike that shut down campus. He was energized.
"After that happened," he laughs, "it felt like engineering wasn't going to be totally satisfying, so I started to think about law school."
Lee has fond memories of Cornell Law School, especially the friends and classmates he still sees: Mark L. Goldstein '75; Judge Phillip G. Rapoza '76; William (Bill) F. Lee '76; John A. Nadas '76; and Mitchell H. Kaplan '76, recently nominated as a superior court judge. He appreciates the rigorous education he received from Faust F. Rossi, the Samuel S. Liebowitz Professor of Trial Techniques; Ernie Roberts, the Edwin H. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emeritus; and William Hogan. "Professor Hogan was good because he was so intense and practiced the true Socratic method," said Lee. "He asked provocative questions and really developed our thinking."
Lee graduated cum laude in the top twenty percent of his class and edited the Cornell International Law Journal. Nonetheless, he encountered a puzzling situation: no one seemed to want to hire him. He applied to fifty law firms in Boston and was rejected by them all, including Goodwin Procter. "I still have the rejection letter from Goodwin Procter, framed on my wall!" he notes wryly. "At that time, in the mid '70s, there were not a lot of Asian Americans graduating from law school. It was a pretty foreign experience for the interviewers to see me walk into the interview, and they didn't know what to make of me."
Lee hesitates to call what he encountered overt racism, "but it just seemed there was a disconnect when I was interviewing," he remembers. "I just kept persevering and reminding myself that every time I have an interview, I'm learning something."
Finally, in late spring, he received an offer from Donovan, Leisure, Newton, and Irvine in New York. But his accent was Bostonian and his team was the Red Sox, so when his wife Mary Y. Lee entered Tufts Medical School in 1980, he tried again with Goodwin Procter. This time he was successful, and four years later he became a partner.
Lee was aware how unusual his success was and immediately began making efforts to help others follow along. In 1983, he was one of the founders of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM). "Our purpose was to get together so that Asian American lawyers, new ones in particular, knew that there were others out there," he remembers, "so that we could mentor each other."
Throughout the years, Lee has devoted an enormous amount of time to AALAM, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), and a dozen other public service groups.
"Paul truly believes in giving back to his community, and his example has inspired many people," says Marian Tse, a fellow partner at Goodwin Procter. "Paul is clearly the most outstanding Asian American lawyer in Massachusetts in terms of his service and commitment to our community."
"Paul is extremely intelligent, tenacious, and very humanistic," says Vivian Hsu of Hsu and Associates in Boston. "He recognizes that there are different segments of the community and adopts a very conciliatory approach in whatever he believes in, with a lot of consensus building. And he gives back to those who have helped him."
Lee is a leader in giving as well: in 2004, he endowed the first NAPABA Partners Community Law Fellowship, designed to develop future public interest law leaders.
"I really admire folks who have made the commitment to dedicate themselves to public interest," says Lee. "They're making tremendous sacrifices. One of the things we in private practice can do is to help support that. When I contribute to Cornell Law School every year, I earmark the money for the Public Interest Low Income Protection Plan to enable Law School graduates to work in public interest jobs."
Lee is enjoying his practice right now, but in the future, he sees himself doing even more public service. "I don't know what form that's going to take," he says, "but I will be looking for the right opportunity to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible."