Jessica Lee’s grandfather gave her a copy of the U.S. Constitution and Black’s Law Dictionary at the age of 14. But the gift came with an assignment: She had to write out the amendments to the Constitution and send them back to him to prove she’d read it.
“I think, for him, going to law school was a way to realize the American dream,” she says, reflecting on her grandfather’s unique gift and early influence in her career path.
Lee’s mother was the first on her side of the family to go to college, but getting a law degree was the next level of success, and that assignment would set the stage for Lee’s bright professional future.
As a teen, Lee (like most of America at the time) followed the O.J. Simpson trial closely. For her, the case was less about the guilt or innocence of O.J. Simpson than the opportunity to watch a young Johnnie Cochran command the courtroom. “Seeing a lawyer that looked like me, who wasn’t afraid to challenge the jurors, the judge or the public to consider the issues of racism in the LAPD at the time was inspiring,” she says (acknowledging that she was too young at the time to understand all of the facts). She continued to follow Cochran’s career after the trial, and spent a summer with his civil rights law firm (then, Cochran, Neufeld and Scheck), which worked with the Innocence Project to challenge the police procedures that resulted in wrongful convictions. Although many remember Cochran for his role in the O.J. Simpson trial, for Lee, his impact was so much more than that one case.
The desire to be an agent for change like Cochran, along with her grandfather’s relentless encouragement, motivated Lee to pursue a career in law.
Finding a niche
Although she entered law school focused on civil rights law, she found her interests peaked by her copyright, trademark and electronic publishing courses and struggled between the competing paths. Immediately after law school, Lee joined a major law firm where she focused mainly on litigation. Ultimately, the contentious nature of that work, which involved disputes over issues she didn’t feel invested in, wasn’t a good fit.
A self-described social media enthusiast, tech nerd and “there’s an app for that” devotee with a penchant for art and entertainment, Lee found her creative, entrepreneurial spirit unfulfilled in those early days of her career.
After a couple years, she took some time away from private practice to figure out what she wanted her life and career to look like. She served as a law clerk for a federal district court judge and became active in various nonprofit organizations focused on reaching underserved youth populations through the arts.
Lee eventually landed at law firm Loeb & Loeb as an attorney in the firm’s nationally recognized Advanced Media and Technology Department. Instead of defending disputes, she now focuses on helping innovative clients who are using technology and emerging media to build new digital devices, websites, apps, and other products and platforms to serve and expand their markets. She helps clients strategize on their digital media initiatives from a legal perspective, and addresses complex data security, intellectual property and regulatory issues associated with these new business practices.
“I love technology, social media, and entertainment and have lucked out finding a way to put my J.D. to work in the intersection of all of the above,” she says.
Lee works with companies of all sizes and types, but says her favorite clients are often smaller startups who are still figuring out how to make their ideas work. They don’t have big in-house legal teams, so she is able to be a part of the creative process, to sit inside with them and help them work through their legal issues.
Though Lee has found her legal practice niche, she hasn’t lost her desire to play a role in addressing larger social and civil rights issues.
She maintains her connection to these issues through her position as a Director on the Board of Directors for Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, a nonprofit focused on providing college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated men and women.
“The programs Hudson Link supports reflect the best of this nation – one in which humanity and hope come together to create opportunities to change lives for often forgotten members of our communities,” Lee says.
She also works with Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, a nonprofit that offers free filmmaking programs to at-risk Brooklyn teens, matching them with mentors and a platform to tell their stories, build confidence and have their voices heard. At the end of each season, the teens have an opportunity to screen their films at HBO’s screening center in New York, a great space for them to showcase their work.
“It’s incredibly important that young people have an outlet and someone to inspire them to succeed,” she says. “The work has been extremely rewarding.”
Being genuine along the way
Reflecting on the path that led her to where she is today, Lee stresses the importance of being genuine to herself and having the patience to figure out what really matters. For others interested in pursuing a similar path, she advises to “bring your best self to work, make time for relaxation, and try to practice your passions both inside and outside the office.”
As a black woman in the legal profession, being genuine can be particularly challenging. “The hardest part is figuring out how to be your authentic self,” says Lee. “I come to work with bright colors and curly hair in an environment where I’m accepted and embraced for who I am.” But for many minority attorneys, finding a space where they feel accepted and comfortable can be hard. “Don’t give up before you find that environment,” she advises.
Lee is an active member of the Diversity Committee at Loeb & Loeb, where she is involved in efforts to enhance the firm’s culture of inclusion and recruit and retain diverse attorneys and professionals. She makes an effort to reach out to other attorneys of color to make sure that they feel comfortable, and that they know they have someone to turn to with questions or if they don’t feel confident.
She’s also helping to launch Loeb & Loeb’s Women’s Business Initiative, focused on partnering women entrepreneurs and women-owned startups with established mentors and business advisors. “The program will help maximize the great potential among women entrepreneurs – connecting them with legal and business resources, as well as advice and support from other successful women in business,” Lee says.
And how does she fit it all in? Achieving a healthy work/life balance is something Lee says she’s always working toward. She sets aside at least one day a week to do something she cares about outside of work. “If you have a doctor’s appointment, you make time for it,” says Lee, “Your personal passions should be prioritized among your professional pursuits in the same way.” She makes a time budget — like a financial budget but designed to make sure she is spending her hours in line with her priorities and always carving out time for what matters.
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