News Releases
March 26, 2024

A North Star to His Community: Paul Lee, 2024 BBA Public Service Award Honoree


Paul Lee has left an indelible legacy in the city of Boston and well beyond it. He’s an accomplished attorney, a founder and past president of several local and national foundations and organizations, and a fiercely dedicated public servant.  

Yet despite his many achievements, and a legacy of lifting those around him, Lee’s humility is always apparent. 

“It’s strange to hear a term like ‘legacy’ as it applies to myself,” he said during a recent sit-down. “Receiving [the Public Service Award at the 2024 Adams Benefit] has meant hearing a lot of kind words lately, and I never know how to react, because it’s not about me. It’s about what we can all do together to improve the world that we live in.” 

“He’s the type of guy who doesn’t do this for recognition,” remarked Peggy Ho, Co-Chair of the 2024 Adams Benefit, and a close friend of Lee’s. “He does it because he wants to do good, and he feels like he has a role to play.” 

Lee learned the value of community work early in life, as a child in the Chinatown region of Boston. Community organizations, he said, played a pivotal role in helping his immigrant parents get settled and find work; they also provided him with a gift he’s never forgotten. 

“Growing up, there were a lot of community organizations that held holiday events,” he recounted. “That was where I got my first Christmas present—at a community event. I always remembered that, and how it made me feel, and ever since, I’ve wanted to preserve that community and to give back in the ways that those people were giving back.” 

Attending Columbia University as an undergrad during the Vietnam War—originally with aspirations of being an engineer—solidified for him that a different path was necessary to make the impact he sought.  

“That was a time of really great polarization in our society, a lot like today,” he said. “And I felt that as an Asian man in the midst of a war that this country was fighting over in Asia, that I had to be more active on social issues. I felt like I couldn’t just be an engineer, I had to do something where I could have an impact on society. So that’s what drew me to the law.” 

In the decades since, Lee has worked tirelessly to make that impact, and then some. For him, though, public service isn’t work at all. 

“When folks ask me what my hobbies are, it’s not golf, it’s not tennis, it’s community work,” he said. “That’s my hobby.” 

Weekend golfers should be so lucky to have mastered their hobby as well as Paul has. He’s worked diligently, putting in countless hours and days and years, and he shows no signs of slowing in his retirement years. If anything, retiring from his full-time work as a Partner at Goodwin Procter, where he worked for years in corporate and securities law, has allowed him to put even more time and effort back into the community.  

“He’s working harder now than he ever has,” said Regina Pisa, Co-Chair of this year’s Adams Benefit and a colleague of Lee’s at Goodwin for many years. “We were having dinner recently and I realized in the middle of it, he was fundraising! We both just laughed because he really can’t help himself.” 

One can’t fault Lee, though, if his hobby has led to the development of some muscle memory along the way. His track record of work within his community—whether that means the city in which he lives and grew up, or the Asian American community at large—spans decades. Forty years ago, with the encouragement of his longtime mentor, the late Richard Soden—one of the city’s first Black partners at a major firm—Lee helped found the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts (AALAM) with colleague Marian Tse. Lee served as AALAM’s inaugural President from 1984-86.  

“[Asian attorneys in Boston at the time] didn’t know anybody else around town,” Lee, who himself was one of Boston’s first Asian partners at a major law firm, said of that time, “so we all thought we were going it alone until we got together and realized that we’re not alone. We’re all feeling the same insecurities, alienation, and challenges, so we should get together and compare notes and be mutually supportive.”  

Lee credits Soden—to whom he says he “owes everything”—with instilling in him that spirit of looking out for one another in a world that often doesn’t look like you and paying it forward however and whenever possible. He noted that he and Soden were the only two attorneys of color at Goodwin when he was hired, and that Soden naturally took him under his wing, checking on him daily and guiding him through those early years as an associate.  

“[Richard] emphasized and really burned into my consciousness the need to pay it forward,” he said. “And so that’s one of the reasons why I try to mentor folks as much as I can; it’s really Richard’s example I’m following.” 

When the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) was formed a few years after Lee helped found AALAM, it looked to Paul as an example, ultimately recruiting him into its ranks as an officer, regional governor, and eventually President. Lee has also been actively involved with the American Bar Association (ABA), serving as a member of both the Board of Governors and House of Delegates, as well as on numerous ABA commissions, including Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Women in the Profession, and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.  

Lee’s work with these various bar associations over the years has been matched only by his work with other community organizations, both in Boston and nationally. His work with AALAM and the NAPABA led to involvement with the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, DC; that group eventually affiliated with others to form Asian Americans Advancing Justice, whose board Lee eventually sat on as Chair.  He also serves or has previously served on the Boards of the Asian Community Development Corporation (which he also helped found and once served as President), WGBH, the Coalition for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education (CARE), the Conservation Law Foundation and The Boston Foundation.  

In Boston, perhaps his most well-known community work centered on the founding of the Asian Community Fund of the Boston Foundation in 2020 to increase the visibility of the Asian American community and expand resources for nonprofits that serve disadvantaged Asian Americans—a group Lee has described as an “invisible minority,” whose diverse issues are too often ignored despite nearly one-in-three Asian residents of Boston living in poverty, the highest rate among any demographic. Lee says pandemic-related attacks on the Asian community only strengthened his resolve to bring its various sub-demographics together and strengthen the Asian community’s cohesion and its voice to “try to achieve some equality in our society.” 

The Fund—which recently received a $50,000 donation from the Boston Bar Foundation and AALAM in Paul’s honor—will create a long-lasting endowment to support community leadership, community advocacy, and small businesses through the creation of the Asian Business Empowerment Council.  

“In my retirement, the Asian Community Fund has become my passion project,” Lee said. “It’s a fund that is trying to bring the whole Asian community together in Massachusetts. All the different ethnicities, all of the different geographic areas, all of the people working on specific things to benefit our community. We want to bring everyone together so that we have a stronger, united voice to advocate for what the community needs. The fact that folks recognized the importance of the Fund, and specifically the importance of the Fund to me, was incredibly gratifying—not to mention affirming.” 

“There’s no better way to honor the legacy of such an important figure to both the legal and Asian communities of Boston than by supporting the important work of the Asian Community Fund,” said BBF President Stephen P. Hall. 

“I think for most Asian American attorneys in Boston, he’s basically been like the godfather for all of us throughout our careers,” Ho said. “He’s ever-present for our community and he’s been such an inspiration to all of us. Though I’ve never worked with him in a legal capacity, from a community perspective he’s been kind of the North Star for so many of us, for all these years.” 

Pisa echoed those sentiments, saying she was nearly moved to tears when asked to Co-Chair an event honoring someone for whom she has so much respect.  

“To recognize him is a privilege for me,” she said, before getting emotional again at the thought. “This man has given his whole life to service—to his clients, his colleagues, his city, and the Asian community in Boston and nationally. I’m just so happy that the wider Boston community will be recognizing him, because he’s made this city a better place to work and a better place to live for so many.” 

So, what does Paul Lee think his ultimate legacy will be—even if he isn’t used to hearing that term applied to his own work? 

“When people think about me, I just hope they think of somebody who really cares about bringing people together and helping my community as much as I can—that’s really it. Those of us fortunate enough to have taken advantage of the opportunities afforded to us have to think about how we can create those same opportunities for other people, particularly the younger generation coming up behind us, so they, too, can look back and feel like they made a difference.” 

He may not want to call it one, but that’s a legacy all of us—whether part of the legal community, the Asian community, or the Boston community—can all strive to live up to.