It seems like with so many people, Lee Harris’ eventual career interest was sparked by television.
“All I knew was what I saw on TV, and lawyers seemed very, very powerful and able to get things done,” he said.
Of course there was more to it than an infatuation with prime time drama, but Harris has known since middle school that he wanted to be a lawyer and the reality of the profession, he said, has lived up to his expectations.
The Whitehaven native and graduate of Overton High School traveled far from home for his degrees – B.A. in international studies with a minor in economics from Morehouse College, and a Juris Doctorate from Yale Law School in 2003 – and then returned home.
“There was no question for me,” he says of his choosing to live and work in his hometown. “Never at any time did even a specter of doubt enter my mind, I always knew that I’d return to Memphis. … I knew this is where I wanted to be to practice law, to raise a family and to try to make a change.”
He practiced commercial litigation for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC for two years before entering the academic side teaching law for the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis. In the years since first donning the hat of professor, Harris has done stints as a visiting professor with Yale, at Ecole de Management in Grenoble, France, and George Washington University School of Law.
Despite his love of teaching the law, his advice to anyone considering a career in the legal profession would be to do something else, “anything else,” before entering law school, he said.
“I think once you’re a lawyer, I think you’re a lawyer for the rest of your career, your friends are lawyers, you’re likely to marry a lawyer,” said Harris who is, in fact, married to an attorney. “You’re in the law, and of the law, for the rest of your life and certainly the rest of your career. It’s a good idea to have other experiences before you make this lifelong commitment.”
Having said that, Harris couldn’t imagine having taken any other track, though he has, in fact, taken another track into politics as the city councilman for District 7. After nearly a year in office, he’s found his stride and says he’s “having a good time” and has managed to put criticism – a necessary evil that comes with the position – out of mind, and “to push forward and try to change as much as humanly possible. Whatever I’m interested in, whatever somebody brings to me, wherever there’s an opportunity for change and reform, I’m just going to plow ahead.”
This idea of change and reform isn’t one that came with elected office, but one he took into his training as a lawyer, one that he knew would be enhanced with the power he saw in the television lawyers long ago.
“That’s what I was most concerned about was making sure that I was in a position to actually do something civically or community-wide, so the law was a path to effect my community,” he said. “I already had that kind of bent, that kind of spirit, before I entered into law school and it was just a way to make sure that I had the skills and the gravitas to actually make the kind of changes I wanted to make in the community.”
To this end, Harris started a legal clinic at the law school to give free legal advice and support to small-business entrepreneurs in Memphis, he volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters, is a member of the Frayser Exchange Club, has served as co-chair of a bar association committee on public service, and has co-directed the city’s High School Mock Trial Competition.
Harris and wife, Alena Allen, also a professor for the law school, have two children.
To make his city better for them, the avid jogger and cyclist has advocated for the city’s ever-increasing profile as a more livable city for pedestrians and strives for equality for minorities, gays and lesbians, and the disabled in the city.
“I’m a big proponent of trying to make sure that vulnerable groups have a voice,” he said.
As an elected official, he says, his training as an attorney has been invaluable.
“It is amazing to me how important it is to have some skills and experiences before you’re elected,” he said. “I think it can make all the difference. I wish more professionals in Memphis would get involved in politics because they can make a world of difference.”