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In 1976, William F. Lee ’72 owned two suits—a blue Brooks Brothers and a white, bell-bottomed suit that might as well have been pulled from John Travolta’s wardrobe in Saturday Night Fever.
A soon-to-be graduate of Cornell Law, Lee hoped to break into Boston’s white-shoe legal firms where spots were traditionally reserved for white male graduates of Harvard Law School—not modest Asian kids from Philadelphia.
Thinking he had no chance of being hired at the “stodgy” Boston firm Hale and Dorr, now WilmerHale, Lee went with the white suit.
“I think it was the white suit,” John D. Hamilton, Jr.—a retired partner who hired Lee and saw him take on his job as one of the firm’s managing partners—recalls with a laugh.
One of America’s top intellectual property lawyers, a former Iran-Contra investigator, and as the newest member of the Harvard Corporation—the University’s highest governing body—Lee now travels in the innermost circles of influence, while he maintains an enviable balance between work and family life.
Lee’s client list reads like a roster of America’s top multinational companies: Apple, Intel, Cisco, Proctor & Gamble. He wins national recognition for his litigation and manages to make all his kids’ weekend soccer games.
When he steps into Loeb House this summer as the newest Fellow of Harvard College, he will join the ranks of an exclusive club—the oldest corporation in the Western hemisphere whose size has not changed since its inception in the mid-seventeenth century.
And Lee, who resides in Wellesley, Mass., aims to go beyond a Corporation member’s monthly meeting responsibilities by engaging with the Harvard community on a more frequent basis.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
In one way, Lee hopes to emulate an older style of Corporation members who spend more time on campus.
When in Cambridge, Robert G. Stone, Jr. ’45, who served on the Corporation from 1975 until 2002, could often be seen at the Faculty Club huddled in conversation with a group of undergraduates—his way of feeling the University’s pulse.
But in recent years, Corporation members—who fly into Cambridge or sometimes conference call in for monthly meetings—have become increasingly removed from the University.
That distance, current and former members of the Corporation say, has not been all bad, as their outside perspective can lend a sense of objectivity in their oversight.
Lee, however, says he plans to have monthly dinners with students in Eliot House—his friend and stem cell guru Douglas Melton was recently appointed House Master—and possibly at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as well.
“I think there’s some advantage in my being local,” Lee says. “If you live and work in the greater Boston community, it’s very hard to go anywhere—a business, social, or legal function, or Fenway Park even—without people talking about Harvard, and it’s helpful to hear what the people across the street at City Hall are saying about Harvard.”
Since the announcement of his appointment in April, Lee has gone on a listening tour across the University, and by the time he formally joins the Corporation, he says he will have spoken to at least 40 deans, administrators, and faculty.
To hear him tell it, Lee will bring an openness to the Corporation which in recent years has been caricatured as a shadowy, secretive body.
Corporation meetings have always been closed to the public, and the minutes of their meetings are not released.
But in recent years under the leadership of James R. Houghton ’58, who will step down as Senior Fellow this June, the Corporation has shifted towards greater transparency and worked more regularly with the Board of Overseers, the relatively powerless second-tier governing body elected by alumni.
“For the first time in a long time, we have somebody who really lives in Boston,” Houghton says. “Having someone close who can come in on fairly short notice is a very good idea.”
A HARVARD MAN
This year, the Law School launched a course on problem solving, taught in part by Lee, who stepped in to offer a dose of practical perspective.
Displaying a photo of the Star Wars character Yoda, he told his students that one of the most important roles for an attorney is that of “wise counsel.”
On the last day of class, one of his students came to class in a Yoda costume, answering questions in a pitch-perfect impersonation of the diminutive green Jedi Master.
A photo of a beaming Lee with his arm around Yoda now hangs on his office wall.
But behind the affable, charismatic teacher is a man of immense discipline.
Lee says he rises early every morning to run four or five miles. Saturdays are for longer runs during which he can think about “the three biggest mistakes I’ve made during the course of the week,” Lee says.
“It started—I think—when I lost a case and I was feeling sorry for myself and I went out and took a run and thought I ought to think about something different,” he recalls.
In his intensity and work ethic—and perhaps most importantly his devotion to his family—Lee seems almost puritan, though Lee by no means wears the black hat and austere look of America’s earliest settlers.
Walking into a surprisingly modest office for the head of a multinational firm, Lee removes a robotic vacuum cleaner—the disc-like type that buzzes around on the floor and bumps into things—to make room for his visitors.
“Do you know the Army uses these to disarm bombs?” he asks, with no small measure of excitement.
Lee speaks with an animated directness that makes it easy to understand why he is known as such an effective courtroom operator. He answers questions with an analytic bent. (“Let me separate my answer into two parts.”)
But he is far from the figure of a dry corporate lawyer.
Lee once took his team of lawyers to Disneyland, spending the day riding Splash Mountain as they waited for two days in Southern California on a jury’s verdict.
When he travels, Lee departs slightly from his self-discipline—though only in the most modest of ways—treating himself to hotels whose locations support his running habit.
“I stay at hotels selected on the basis of whether there’s a great run,” Lee says. “I stay at the Pierre in New York because you can go right into the park, I stay at the Willard in D.C. because you can go to the mall, and I had this hotel in Amsterdam called the Amstel because I can go out and hit the canals.”
—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at email@example.com.
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