By Ling-Mei Wong
Paul Lee is a proud son of Boston’s Chinatown. Born in 1950, he lived on Hudson Street, until highway construction tore down his home. The Lee family relocated to Ash Street — bought by Tufts Medical Center when Lee was 11— and finally settled in Brookline.
Lee joined fellow Hudson Street neighbors Neil Chin and Tunney Lee and other community leaders to found the Asian Community Development Corporation 27 years ago. Together with other concerned citizens, they developed Oak Terrace and the Metropolitan. One Greenway at Hudson Street is underway, with at least 40 percent affordable housing designed into each project.
“My parents benefited from living in a community where they didn’t need to speak English to get the support of family and friends,” Lee said. “We need to preserve that kind of community.”
Lee studied engineering at Columbia University, but chose to go into law. Despite completing law school with honors in 1976, he received 50 rejection letters from Boston law firms.
“I couldn’t get a job at a Boston law firm because they had no Asians then,” Lee said. “It was more open in New York, so I worked there for five years.”
With help from his New York firm’s partners, Lee was hired at Goodwin Procter in 1980, and was elected a partner in 1984. Recently he has transitioned to Of Counsel. A corporate lawyer by training, Lee now spends his time volunteering and doing community work.
“A lot of work I’ve done in the legal profession has been to promote diversity at law firms, corporate legal departments and government agencies,” he said.
As one of the first Asian American partners in Boston, Lee wanted to find lawyers like him and worked with a small group of Asian American lawyers to develop a mailing list of 35 individuals in 1983.
“I felt there were so few of us in law and public service,” Lee said. “We formed the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM), and mentored and supported each other in our professional pursuits. We felt isolated where we were. We were experiencing the same issues and could all share our experiences.”
Today, AALAM has 400 members. It became an affiliate of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), which was founded in 1989 and has grown to 50,000 members. Lee became president of NAPABA in 1995.
“I’m proudest of helping younger people find their voice and succeed in their professions,” Lee said. “I try to spend as much time as I can mentoring, I really enjoy it.”
Lee’s wife Mary is a Tufts Medical Center doctor and former associate provost at Tufts University, specializing in global health. His son Gregory, 28, is an app developer in San Francisco and his daughter Samantha, 25, is studying law to pursue a career in human rights.
Lee is thankful to his mother, who came to America when she was 19 and worked in the garment industry for her three children.
“She gave us a safe and comfortable home, a nurturing one,” Lee said. “She gave up a lot because she was a good student in China and couldn’t pursue her studies in America. By doing community work, I hope I’m paying it forward.”
This post is also available in: Chinese