WASHINGTON, D.C.—As an eight-year-old child, Jean Lee immigrated to America from South Korea, not knowing a word of English. Now, she serves as President and Chief Executive Office of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, following a successful career as an in-house attorney at JPMorgan Chase & Co.
But Lee’s success story is no simple American Dream—no easy, direct path to the top. Along the way, she encountered challenges, obstacles and even prejudices, and throughout her career, she has worked to make the path easier for those who follow.
On May 31, Lee shared her story with Womble Carlyle in a firm-wide video conference as part of the firm’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Her presentation was presented by the firm’s Diversity Committee.
As a new immigrant, she and her younger brother were the only two Asian-American kids in their Philadelphia elementary school. Some older children bulled her and her brother, leading to a vice-principal trying to make things right.
“That was my first experience with the America justice system,” Lee said.
Her second experience was less pleasant. Some police officers in Trenton, New Jersey, where her family settled, were blackmailing Korean-American merchants in a protection scheme. Lee tried to organize the local Korean-American community to stand up for their rights.
“I learned that there is safety and power in numbers,” she said.
Lots of practice—plus sessions in front of the TV with “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”—helped Lee master English and earn admission to NYU. Initially, she pursued a career as a social worker, not an attorney.
“It was a tremendous experience,” she said. “I felt like I was making a difference in at least one child’s life.”
But she decided she could do more to help even more people as an attorney. So after going back to law school, she took a job first at a plaintiff’s firm and then in-house at JPMorgan Chase. She credits her involvement in such diversity-focused organization as the Asian American Bar Association of New York (serving as that organization’s President in 2012) and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) with helping her become a better attorney. She also said her participation in these affinity groups helped her find and land her in-house job.
Lee offers three pieces of advice for other attorneys, particularly young lawyers: 1. Take chances; 2. Build relationships; and 3. Understand clients.
“You’ve got to learn to sell yourself,” she said. “Networking is really just selling yourself.”
Womble Carlyle is a strategic sponsor of MCCA.