Shedding Light

The cases that stick with Patricia Lee tend to start in a dark place

Published in 2018 Mountain States Super Lawyers — July 2018

I grew up poor. My mom was a single mom, raising three kids, and she barely spoke English. We bounced around a lot, and if it wasn’t for programs like Upward Bound, and mentors who had been put into my life fortuitously, there’s no way I would have ever gone to college or law school. I never even thought people like me could go to college. 

Since so many people helped me along the way, I think it would be very arrogant not to turn around and help others. Pro bono work is my way of doing that. 

After getting my undergrad, I took a year off and worked at the California Science Center. I helped set up the Rosa Parks Community Computer and Learning Center in 1997, and I actually got to meet Ms. Parks. She really inspired me. So I applied to law school, thinking I could do some children’s advocacy work. 

I graduated from law school in 2002. Sadly, I waited a couple years before taking a pro bono case. I was so nervous about committing malpractice and trying not to get fired, that I didn’t think I had time. I would just delete the emails as they came in, but it felt wrong, and they kept getting louder. 

The first case I took was with the Children’s Attorneys Project at the Legal Aid Center. There were two sisters who had different dads but the same mom. They all had AIDS. The mom was a wonderful person who couldn’t quite manage her health complications with her daughters’ health issues, so they took the girls away, and tried to place them permanently somewhere else. It was rewarding to be able to reunite her with the kids. The girls are all grown up, in New York, and I still hear from them. They have amazing spirits, and that case has stuck with me. 

Emotionally, the domestic violence cases, as well as the cases involving kids, are the hardest for me. Whatever is causing my client to be sad and hurt, that’s making me sad and hurt, because I’m taking it home with me. I deal with it by winning. I work diligently to get them to a place where they are better off than where I found them. 

Usually, at the conclusion of a pro bono case, I’ll pick up another. Since my second year out of law school, I can’t remember a time where I did not have at least one active pro bono case.

The case I’m working on right now involves four children who were found by the Department of Family Services. They were eating trash in an alley with their parents, who were both addicted to meth. The kids got taken away, the parents got put in jail, and they have not tried to make any contact with the children. The other three kids have adjusted remarkably; my client, he’s dealing with mental health issues. We’re trying to find a place to take them all.

This is another one of those cases that changed me: I represented a woman whose 19-year-old son died in Iraq; he got blown up by an IED. She and her ex-husband had divorced when their son was young, and though she moved to Las Vegas with him, he continued to go to his dad’s in California for summers.

When my client went to get the paperwork to have the body transported to Las Vegas, she discovered that it had already been transported to California. It was this quirky law that says that if you are a non-married service member who dies in combat, and you did not designate where you wanted your body to be sent, and your parents are split up, it will be sent to the oldest of the two.

Unfortunately, the body didn’t get back to Las Vegas. But because of the mom’s activism, she was able to get that law changed. Now, when service members go into the military, if they’re not married, it’s mandatory that they designate where they want their body to go. I went to go see the mom in a hospice before she died, and she said, “We did it! We made a difference.” 

You live with those cases until they’re resolved. [With the children], it’s nice when they’re happy, and they contact you when they’re all grown up. It’s like, ‘Just yesterday, you were in a really dark place, and now, look at you.’

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