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.”
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