May 28, 2020
Gwangju is a small South Korean city 18 miles southwest of Seoul and is home to Chonnan National University Law School, where Atlanta partner June Lee was a student before she came to America. On a trip back to visit the school some six years ago, June recognized that the law school students were not being exposed to large law firms and how they operate. Korean law firms were drawing their interns and associates from the larger schools in Seoul.
She suggested to the school’s administration that she would be willing to fund summer interns at her law firm if they paid their own airline fee. She would pay for their lodging and provide them exposure to court proceedings, client and team meetings, and some legal tasks. The program has grown so popular that it has now turned into a self-funded program for six to eight interns a year.
“I wanted to help these young people who don’t have exposure to business because their school is in a rural area,” the Korea native said. “Many of them now write to me saying it was a life-changing experience for them.”
One intern, Taehwa Jeong, recently passed the bar in Korea. She interned with June almost two years ago.
“Personally, it was motivating to work with such a passionate and hard-working team. Especially working with June, who might have gone through such a difficult journey to be a partner in the States as a foreign woman, was highly inspiring. Meeting a role model in real made me work and study harder.
“Professionally, it was my first time to learn immigration law. Dealing with the issues regarding immigration law was a whole new level. It was complicated, but at the same time quite interesting in that it is directly related to the everyday life of foreigners,” she said.
Faculty select the participants based on whether they can speak some English. After their U.S. visit, June selects a contact back in South Korea to become their mentor.
She has also formed a scholarship with her high school classmates to pay for a few deserving students’ high school tuitions each year so that the young girls can attend school without worrying about the tuitions.
Developing mentorship is important to June, as she had no mentors when she arrived in America.
June came to the U.S. in 1981 as a foreign student. In 1980, a political turmoil sparked a rampage that left South Koreans in shock. The assassination of long-time president Park Chung-Hee and an internal coup led to martial law. As students peacefully demonstrated to demand an end to martial law, soldiers and paratroopers waged a bloody war (nicknamed “Gwangju Massacre”) with students and citizens at Chonnam, where June was a student.
Hundreds of students — many of them her classmates — citizens, and bystanders were killed, imprisoned or went missing. June was part of a student group at Chonnam dedicated to teaching young factory workers in the evenings, and even such peaceful meetings were banned. Devastated and unable to face the mournful silence on the campus, she left Korea with an admission letter from the first U.S. college that accepted her. She preferred to face the unknown, vaguely believing that anything was possible in America.
Continuing her study in education, June obtained her bachelor's in special education from Troy State and became an elementary school teacher in Troy, Alabama, where, for many years, she was the only Asian in town except for the Chinese restaurant owners.
After nine years of teaching in public schools, during which she also obtained a master’s degree in school psychology, June was hungry for more intellectual challenge. So, with two young children in tow, she enrolled in the University of Georgia School of Law in 1993. She recalls it was the busiest time of her life, ever, studying for law classes, working as a research assistant and as executive editor of articles for the law journal, in addition to taking her children to karate lessons, piano lessons, gymnastics lessons, and birthday parties. Upon graduation, June worked for two large law firms before Nelson Mullins recruited her.
Today, she leads the firm’s International and Immigration Team that is more than 70% Korea Practice. She has assisted many dozens of Korean manufacturers located in Alabama and Georgia, helping them with site selection, incentive negotiations, and other management issues including immigration matters and other employment matters.
She laments that she had no Asian mentors along the way and vowed to change that for younger lawyers coming along now. So in 2012, she joined forces with three other Asian attorneys to found the Korean American Bar Association of Georgia (KABA-GA) with the goal of giving younger lawyers a place to network and meet mentors. KABA-GA is now a professional home for all young lawyers and law students of the Korean descent in the Greater Atlanta area, where members mentor and support each other.
June said about 45 lawyers and law students came to KABA Georgia's first meeting. About half the lawyers who attended were small practitioners serving Korean individuals, she said, and the other half worked for corporate firms.
"The response was incredible," she said, noting that a lot of law students attended, including some who had driven to Atlanta from the University of Georgia in Athens. “Today, we have quite a diverse group with a focus on mentorship of Asian-American law students, providing them exam prep, resume reviews, mock interviews, among other support activities,” she said.
Within the firm, she most recently has mentored Alex Shin and Kevin Han. Both met June while they were in law school. Both call her a “godmother.”
“She supports me in every way to expand my capabilities, shares her knowledge and skills, and provides guidance and feedback for my work,” Kevin says. “She also gives me the opportunity to explore new ways of contributing to the team and helps me shape my future as an attorney. I have witnessed that she really goes out of her way to help others, and sometimes it is astonishing to see how much she cares while never expecting anything in return.”
Alex adds, “To this day, she constantly checks with me as well as with other partners with whom I work on how I am doing and is the consummate career mentor for me. Generally speaking, having her as a mentor means a huge sense of comfort and security, and such sense allows me to perform confidently. Over the years, I have seen her similarly take a number of young law students and lawyers under her wings to guide them and, at times, downright get them employed. Furthermore, she has generally displayed her magnanimity to a wide range of people, including her clients, who often need much hand-holding and consider June something of a godmother figure.”
June vows never to turn away a young person seeking mentorship and help. “Having a mentor, someone you can go to to ask questions or to just talk, makes a huge difference. You just need that one friend to talk to relieve stress who is interested in you. I just want to be that person for some.”
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