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Massachusetts Life Fellow Paul W. Lee

November 15, 2013, Fellows in the news, Belmont Patch

Belmont's Paul W. Lee, founding president of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM), a corporate and securities attorney at Goodwin Procter, and a lawyer credited with making Boston a city in which Asian American lawyers and other lawyers of color feel welcome, was presented with the Boston Bar Association (BBA) Beacon Award for Diversity + Inclusion on Nov. 14, at the Park Plaza Hotel.

"Paul's impact in advancing diversity and inclusion in the legal community can be felt locally as well as nationally," said Susan Alexander, chair of the Nominating Committee for the 2013 Beacon Award and Chief Legal Officer, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary, Biogen Idec Inc. 

"For the Asian American legal community, Mr. Lee is truly the definition of inspiration. His noteworthy professional accomplishments have always been balanced with significant and meaningful community work. The entire AALAM community looks up to Mr. Lee as an example of how to lead and to give back to the community," reads the statement nominating him for the award.

A child of immigrants from China, Paul Lee grew up in Boston's Chinatown, where his father was a waiter in a restaurant and his mother was a seamstress in the Garment District. After being displaced from their home in Chinatown, his family saved until they could afford to move to Brookline when he began 6th grade. 

In 1987, Lee and a group of committed Chinatown activists founded the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC), which has become a leading developer of affordable and mixed income/mixed use housing in Chinatown. Thanks to his efforts and that of others at ACDC, the parcel from which Lee and his family were displaced will soon become a 362 unit housing project called One Greenway. 

On the wall of Lee's office is a framed letter from Goodwin Procter dated 1975, the year before Lee graduated from Cornell Law School, declining to interview him. Next to that letter is a framed announcement dated 1984, also from Goodwin Procter, announcing his election as a Partner.

Rejected by every firm in Boston because it was not common for firms to hire lawyers of color or women in the mid-1970s, Lee began his legal career in New York, going to Donovan, Leisure, Newton & Irvine, and worked there for five years until he was hired by Goodwin Procter in 1981.

Lee says, "One of the main reasons I became a lawyer is to be part of a profession that promotes justice and equality. I believe that in order to be effective in this mission, our profession needs to reflect the diversity of our society, especially those whose rights we are defending."

Inspired by Soden's efforts with the MBLA, Lee was a founder and became the first President of AALAM in 1984. From the beginning, AALAM's mission has been to serve the Asian American legal community and improve and facilitate the administration of law and justice. 

Because there were so very few Asian American lawyers in Boston in the early 1980s, Lee and a handful of other Asian American attorneys got together regularly to address feelings of being "lonely pioneers," create a supportive professional and social network, and advocate for Asian American issues. 

AALAM's initial mailing list of 35 names has since grown to more than 250 Asian American judges, private and governmental attorneys, and law students. 

Lee is a frequent speaker on career panels for law students and lawyers of color and provides support, guidance, and motivation to AALAM on an ongoing basis.

Lee's work to advance Asian Americans in the legal community continued on a national level when he was elected President of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) in 1995. Since that time, he has served NAPABA in various capacities. 

Lee said, "I believe that collaboration is the key to promoting diversity, whether it is working with other bar associations of color, women's groups or GBLT groups, affinity bar associations working with larger bar associations, or law firms working with in-house legal departments. While we have made substantial progress in the past 30 years, diversity remains a major challenge for us, and working together, we can continue to make good progress."

The BBA established the Beacon Award for Diversity & Inclusion in 2010 to recognize exceptional leadership on diversity strategies that will have a lasting impact on the Greater Boston legal profession. Past honorees have included GLAD and the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, Northeastern University School of Law, and MassMutual.

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