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.
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