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Theodora Lee may have been born on the cusp of Cancer and Leo, but in action the Texas native is pure lion. Raised by two schoolteacher parents in a middle-class black neighborhood of Dallas, Lee grew up going to Dallas Cowboys games and remains a true Texan. “I’m big, I’m brassy, I’m loud, sometimes obnoxious. All the things people say about Texas,” she laughs, leaning back in a leather chair and pulling a floor-length black coat around her tall frame. As the managing partner who helped open Littler Mendelson’s Oakland, Calif., office in 1995, Lee is a barrel of energy devoted to mentoring her four associates, maintaining her book of national and local clients and building the firm’s presence in the burgeoning East San Francisco Bay business market. She is proud of her work. The Oakland office was the third most profitable last year out of the firm’s 23 locations. It has grown three-fold, from two lawyers to six and plans to hire a seventh will fill the group’s Broadway office suite, which offers sweeping views of Lake Merritt and the Oakland hills. A young partner at 37, Lee brought in $1 million in receipts for the firm over the past five years. Her energy and drive are not lost on her labor employment colleagues. “The person you spend time with outside the courtroom — dynamic, energized — is the same powerful force you see inside the courtroom,” says Howard Janssen, a senior litigator at Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May. “Theo Lee is a powerful woman.” Lee’s direct, confident manner led her to consider going into politics. As an undergraduate at Spelman College in Atlanta, she worked as a clerk for former Democratic Georgia State Senator Julian Bond and later as an intern for former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, who was then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee (and later chair). “Until I worked in D.C., my goal was to be the first black woman U.S. senator. Seeing the way the system works, the compromises, the wheeling and dealing — I decided that was not for me,” she says. But she found her niche after taking an employment course at the University of Texas, Austin School of Law. “It was about people. People create the problems, people solve the problems.” In 1987, she joined Littler Mendelson and in that first year, she argued before California’s 1st District Court of Appeal. “Theodora’s intelligence, confidence and personal charm were readily apparent when she walked through the door,” says Karen Ford, one of Lee’s early Littler mentors, who now works as managing partner of Littler’s Denver office. “It was easy to give her important assignments right away.” In 1992, Lee left Littler for another Oakland firm, Fitzgerald, Abbott & Beardsley, to help develop its labor employment practice. “That was the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. I looked around at some of the women shareholders and they didn’t have business,” she says. At Fitzgerald she was forced to go out and develop a client list. She brought that book of work with her when she returned to Littler in 1994. In early 1995, she opened the firm’s East Bay office. Lee’s strategy includes courting high-tech companies, which rarely have in-house counsel. She also hopes to develop a start-up kit that includes employee handbooks, information about doing background checks and other essential information, such as working through immigration issues for employees from overseas. In true Leo style, she is determined to balance cultivating new business with serving her existing client base. “When I decide I want to do something,” Lee says, “I will stop at nothing to accomplish it.”

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