By Ani Torossian • November 09, 2015•Ms. JD, Law School, Pre-Law
This week, I would like to introduce you to Philip Lee, assistant professor of law at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law. Thank you so much, Professor Lee, for contributing to Ms. JD pre-law in such a meaningful way through this interview session.
What first drew you to law?
I wanted to be part of a profession that could help protect the most powerless and vulnerable people in our society. I realized in college that law, at its best, could do this.
How has your career trajectory evolved to include teaching law, and why did you take that route?
My career trajectory to law teaching was an indirect path. My initial career goal when I was a student at Harvard Law School was to become a civil rights lawyer. I applied to the Department of Justice (DOJ) as a 3L and was told to get some trial experience and re-apply in a few years as a lateral attorney. I chose my legal jobs from that point on attempting to get as much trial experience as I could and then re-apply to DOJ. My first job after graduating from law school was working as an assistant corporation counsel at the New York City Law Department, where I handled civil litigation matters on behalf of city officials and agencies. My next job was working as an associate at a white collar criminal defense boutique in Manhattan. My plan was to apply for the DOJ after a few years at the firm; however, my career took an unexpected turn.
One morning, after defending a deposition, I noticed that I had a message waiting for me on my cell phone. It was from the then-dean of Harvard Law School (HLS), Elena Kagan (now Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court). She explained that I was recommended for an admissions position by one of my mentors, HLS Dean of Public Service, Alexa Shabecoff. Dean Kagan asked me to call her if I was interested. I called her back and she invited me to interview for the position. I flew to Cambridge, Massachusetts a few weeks later and interviewed directly with Dean Kagan and the HLS professor who then chaired the admissions committee, Elizabeth Warren (now Senator Warren from Massachusetts). We hit it off and I was hired as an assistant director of admissions focusing on diversity recruitment. My goal was to spend the rest of my career in admissions in an attempt to further diversify the legal profession; however, after a few years, I realized that I could make more of an impact as a scholar and teacher.
In pursuit of this new career goal, I applied to the doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and was admitted with a Harvard Presidential Scholarship. I focused my research on race-conscious admissions and higher education history and law. Upon graduation, I started as a law professor at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law, which is a historically Black institution with a social justice mission. This has been a great fit for me.
Having worked in admissions, could you give an example of some applications that you remember to this day? What did you search for in an applicant?
Out of the thousands of applications I have read over the years, a few stand out. One of my favorites was from a Native American applicant who wanted to go to law school to help increase sovereignty for her tribe. She had been active in her community for her entire life and she was looking for ways to help her people better their lives through her work.
In her personal statement, this student wrote about a traditional game that she played with her grandfather in the woods. The statement was beautifully written and contained such vivid descriptions of the things she experienced while playing this game. She connected this game with her life story and her motivation to go to law school. It was incredibly powerful.
Aside from the standard grading system, what does it mean to succeed and thrive as a law student?
Apart from mastering the materials, to be successful in law school means getting a sense of how you want to use your law degree in the service of others.
You have worked both as a trial attorney and as a professor, alongside many other accomplishments. Did you know where you wanted law to take you when you first graduated? What advice do you have to students on the employment front?
I thought I knew what I wanted to do when I graduated from law school. But I was open to new opportunities as they arose. This led me to my current career path. And I feel incredibly blessed to do the work that I do.
I would advise students to try to figure out what you want to do after graduation and come up with a plan to help you achieve your goals, but be open to unexpected opportunities that may take you further than you ever thought possible.
What would you recommend prelaw students engage in that would help them be adequately prepared for the first year of law school? For instance, do you have any book or film recommendations?
Let me give some general advice on how students should spend their time during the summer before starting law school. Unless you have assigned summer reading or are attending a summer law program, do not start reading your casebooks. I would recommend that you relax during this time. Read for pleasure. Watch movies for entertainment. Travel for fun if you can. Spend time with loved ones. When law school begins, these things will not be so easy to do.
How do you integrate work-life balance in your own endeavors and personal narrative?
I am happily married with three wonderful children, ages 6, 4, and 3. I am also on the tenure track at my law school and have to manage a full teaching load, scholarly writing projects, and service to my institution and the legal profession. My life goals are simply to be a good father, husband, teacher, scholar, and advocate for social justice. These goals are too important for me to let any of them go. So the best I can do is try to balance it all every day. This is no easy task and I feel like I am struggling with it most of the time. But, nevertheless, I try. Every day.