CHICAGO — A criminal record is like a ball and chain — even after the sentence is served, it can weigh a person down for years. An old conviction can keep a person from getting jobs, loans, and even public housing, and those being crushed beneath this burden rarely have the legal resources to free themselves. Sue Lee finds injustices like these intolerable, and that indignation moved her to pursue a career in public interest law.
“There’s obviously a huge gap between those who can afford legal services and those who cannot, and the wider the gap, the greater the social injustice that exists in the world,” said Lee.
This May, Lee will graduate from the DePaul University College of Law with a Juris Doctor. “I felt like I wanted to be a part of bridging that gap by providing those legal services,” she said.
Public interest law as a second career
Lee’s first career was in the ministry, both working in a local church and most recently, at a Christian college where she oversaw the service opportunities of its students. However, she was ready to be more involved. “I was compelled to be more personally engaged in those social issues my students encountered,” said Lee. “As a person of faith, I started praying and asking people who mentored me about how I could do this, and I really felt God calling me to go to law school.”
Lee enrolled at DePaul and was immediately drawn to the Center for Public Interest Law. Before she even began her classes, Lee reached out to the center’s executive director, Shaye Loughlin, asking how to get involved with the center’s work.
“In that first year, Sue was present for every event, every networking reception and every opportunity to learn,” said Loughlin.
At these events, Lee began to navigate the wide field of public interest law. The center and Loughlin became a touchstone for Lee and helped her pursue scholarships and internships. “I don’t know how I would have accessed all of these resources without the center,” said Lee.
She took a position as the center’s student assistant, and Lee brought a “tremendous skillset” from her previous work experience, said Loughlin. Lee helped with every aspect of the center’s programming and improved center communications and outreach to the community. In all that she does, Lee is adamant about advocating for support and resources for underprivileged and marginalized populations.
“I feel that as lawyers, it is our professional responsibility to be involved in some form of pro bono legal services,” said Lee. She assisted with DePaul’s Public Interest Law Association’s annual auction to ensure that her classmates had financial support to pursue unpaid summer positions in public interest law. Faculty and alumni took notice, and for two summers in a row she was awarded DePaul’s Honorable Lawrence X. Pusateri Endowed Fellowship for her summer public interest internship.
“What I say to students is that you will get out of law school what you put into it, and Sue is a prime example. She put all of herself into being an engaged law student and pursuing public interest law opportunities. Now, as a result of that dedication and hard work, she has been awarded a prestigious fellowship that will allow her to follow her dreams and work for social justice,” said Loughlin.
In her time at DePaul, Lee volunteered for a number of public interest legal organizations, including LAF (formerly the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago), where she worked on juvenile expungement. She also contributed time to the Chicago Legal Clinic and the Center for Disability and Elder Law founded by the Chicago Bar Association.
A commitment to justice
Recently, the Skadden Foundation awarded Lee with a prestigious Skadden Fellowship. She will work with Cabrini Green Legal Aid and primarily focus on juvenile and adult expungement and the issues young people face surrounding criminal records, which Lee believes is one of the most difficult legal issues facing the underprivileged today.
“So many people, even after they’ve served their time in prison or completed their community service, and after their case is closed, are still suffering the consequences of having a criminal record for many years. Somehow, an employer lawfully or unlawfully gets ahold of one’s record, and that person may face barriers to employment, housing, or public benefits. It’s all affected, and certain people are unable to move on in their lives, and I feel that that is an injustice,” said Lee.
Lee will begin the two-year fellowship in September as a full-time staff lawyer for Cabrini Green Legal Aid. She is determined and excited to bring justice to those in need.
“I basically get to do my dream job,” she said.
Spirit of service
Reflecting on her education and career thus far, Lee noted that DePaul’s Vincentian mission and values aligned with her own.
“From what I know of St. Vincent de Paul, he modeled his life after the two greatest commandments in the Bible, which are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself,” she said. “And that’s my mission in life as well.”
Kristin Claes Mathews