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Branding Room Only Interview with Theodora Lee: Verdicts and Vineyards

Branding Room Only Interview with Theodora Lee: Verdicts and Vineyards
Theodora Lee is a Senior Partner, Shareholder, and Trial Lawyer for Littler Mendelson P.C., a labor and employment firm. She handles complex litigation across all state and federal courts in California, specializing in wage and hour class actions, discrimination class actions, general employment litigation, and labor relations law. In addition to her extensive law career, Theodora is the Owner and Vinter at Theopolis Vineyards, a small lot vineyard and winery in California’s Yorkville Highlands.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Theodora Lee’s personal philosophy and how it influences her brand
  • How leadership and volunteerism help build Theodora’s brand
  • The origins of Theopolis Vineyards and the wine they produce
  • Theodora’s experience at Spelman College
  • How Theodora’s sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, has paid long-term dividends
  • Business Development and Personal Branding

In this episode:

When building a personal brand, we often feel restricted by external expectations and internal limitations. The reality is that the possibilities are countless. Letting your authentic self inform your public persona can be a strength rather than a weakness. If you truly want to stand out, you need to follow your intuition. Theodora Lee’s intuition led her to find success and fulfillment as both a lawyer and a vintner. She has skillfully developed a brand that straddles two separate industries. Her approach to brand-building has sharpened through the years, and she lends her insights to future generations. In this episode of Branding Room Only, Paula Edgar interviews Theodora Lee, a Senior Partner, Shareholder, and Trial Lawyer at Littler Mendelson P.C., on building an authentic brand and finding your niche. The two break down Theodora’s career, her personal philosophy, and the influences that guided her. They also discuss why one-size-fits-all doesn’t work for personal brands and how she started her vineyard.
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Resources mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by PGE Consulting Group LLC.

PGE Consulting Group LLC is dedicated to providing a practical hybrid of professional development training and diversity solutions. From speaking to consulting to programming and more, all services and resources are carefully tailored for each partner. Paula Edgar’s distinct expertise helps engage attendees and create lasting change for her clients.

To learn more about Paula and her services, go to www.paulaedgar.com or contact her at [email protected], and follow Paula Edgar and the PGE Consulting Group LLC on LinkedIn.

Paula Edgar: Hello, everyone. It’s Paula Edgar, the host of Branding Room Only, where I bring on industry leaders and influencers to learn how they’re using their skills, talents, and experiences to create and amplify their personal brand. Today, I have a fantastic guest that I’ve been waiting to talk to for a while.

So I’m very excited. It’s Theodora Lee, and she is a senior shareholder and partner and trial lawyer at Littler Mendelson. Theodora Lee, a. k. a. Theo-patra, Queen of the Vineyards, Owner and Vintner of Theopolis Vineyards. Welcome to the Branding Room.

Theodora Lee: Hey, Paula. It is so good to be here. Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to our conversation, because when we see each other, we always have a lot to talk about.

Paula Edgar: We sure do. And we always have a lot of fun, which I was saying to someone the other day that there’s not a lot of people that I meet and immediately know we have a connection. We find it, but as soon as I was like, there’s something about her.

And so, and I was right, which is always nice. Okay, we’re going to jump right in. The podcast is about personal branding and in my mind, the personal brand is like one of the most important things. Tell me for you, what does personal branding mean to you

Theodora Lee: For me a personal brand is what others think of you. I’ve been practicing law for 36 years and I hope that my clients, the people who know me, see me as a trusted advisor. So it’s how others view you. I also can’t help but be my authentic self. And I think that’s important, as part of your personal brand. It’s who you are, the services you provide and how others view you and the services that you provide.

Paula Edgar: Oh, I love that. That’s nice and succinct. I love that. Okay. Fantastic. So that being said, describe yourself in three words or short phrases.

Theodora Lee: I am a compassionate, fierce lawyer who advises clients to do the right thing and if they do get in trouble, they have a bad ass trial lawyer.

Paula Edgar: I love it. I love it. So I don’t know if you know, but when I practiced law, I also practiced in labor and employment, but I was not a trial lawyer.

And there’s just something about, the way the trial lawyers, they have sass. And that’s the word that’s coming to me because I’m thinking about only the women lawyers that, that do this, but it’s everybody. It’s like this charisma because you need to be able to influence the people who are, you’re in front of when you’re, when you’re doing trial.

So, so tell me if you think about when you first started, and where you are now. How have you developed that charisma in order to convince the jury or the judge that your client should be found innocent or… you know what I mean. Should not be held accountable for whatever the thing is. How do you convince folks? That’s a better question.

Theodora Lee: Well, Paula, I think you’re born with who you are, okay? I am a genuine people person. I became an employment lawyer because it’s all about people and people’s problems. And so by talking to a jury or to anyone that you’re trying to influence, you want to be relatable.

You want to be able to get the audience to understand your client’s position. And so in trials, I always take a movie character. I was representing a hospital once and the plaintiff, I characterized her as Nurse Ratched. And so that was something that they understood and then they could relate to all of the things that she did that led to the termination.

It wasn’t like she was a great nurse. You know I just finished doing a mock trial, which we do oftentimes for cases before they go to trial to see the theories, how audiences, and I just did this past Friday and one of the things, the themes was mo’ money, mo’ money, okay? You know, so what you have to do is find a way to be relatable.

And I will tell you from the time I was born, I’ve been talking and, trying to persuade people as my 97 year old Alzheimer’s mother who can’t remember what she just ate, but can tell you, going back to when I was five years old, I had a paper route convincing people to buy the paper. So I want to say that lawyers can be made, but trial lawyers are born.

Paula Edgar: Ooh, I love that. And I think you just hit, you hit the point that I was trying to get that I couldn’t articulate, which is that there’s something special there, right? That the folks who I’ve seen who do it well, they just, they just do it well. Okay. So let me get back to my questions.

The spirit took me over there and it was for a reason because I’m glad that we just did that. So tell me this, what is your favorite quote? If you have one.

Theodora Lee: You know, my father’s was the greatest influence of my life and he told me, and I think that I’m not sure it’s a quote, but it’s something that I live by.

It’s whatever you do, be the best at it. Excellence has no limitation. If you are a truck driver, be the best truck driver. If you’re a grave digger, be the best grave digger and that is the philosophy. It’s not really a quote. I was an English major, so I was forced to read all kinds of books. As a lawyer, you know, 36 years, I’ve read many, many cases.

But I would just say excellence is the only quote I need.

Paula Edgar: I love that. And it’s a motto. It hits exactly what I’m looking for. What’s something that drives you? So I love that. Okay. What about this? So when you, what is your hype song? And let me just tell you what that means for me.

So hype song is either when you’re about to go into a room and you want them to know who they’re going to get, you got this song playing in your head, or if you’re not feeling great that day, you need to be picked up. What song are you playing? And it could be two different songs or the same song.

Theodora Lee: You know, this tells you a lot about me, The Greatest Love of All. Yes. I mean, that song to me is all about how great you are. Okay. And if you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t perform at top form. And to me, when I hear that song, it just makes me feel proud and gives me the strength that I can do anything.

Paula Edgar: Love that. I love that. And of course it’s playing in my head, but I will not, I’ll spare everybody from me singing anything. Okay. So tell me what are some of the ways that you have built your own personal brand?

Theodora Lee: Well, you know, I’ve been practicing law for 36 years. I’ve been a wine maker or in the wine business for 20 years.

I’ve only been bottling wine for the last nine, but I guess my philosophy is try everything. As a young associate, I asked for as much responsibility as I could actually handle. I argued my first summary judgment the day after I passed the bar. I tried my first case, not as a second chair, but as a second year associate.

I argued the Court of Appeals as a third year associate. And so, to me, it was getting in and learning your craft, being excellent lawyer, and then writing. I wrote lots of articles. Speaking. Every chance I get to sit on a panel, I do. Next week after next, I’ll be at the NBA Labor and Employment meeting. I’m just not speaking once. I’m speaking twice. You know, I was asked to speak at the ABA Annual Meeting, but I will be in France that week. So it’s all about the follow up. When you meet somebody, you develop a common relationship. You follow up. You know, I teach young folks, building a brand and building a book of business takes years.

You know, it’s not a marathon. You just give and you give back and you try to help the folks out when they need something. You try to stay top of mind. You try to put something in front of them that they need. And so for me, it’s not one thing, it’s everything. And you don’t always know where that client came from, but I have been fortunate enough to work with some clients throughout my entire legal career.

I started out doing the work as an associate, and now I am the relationship partner for that client. Likewise, I have other clients that I went out and developed the relationship with, and now I have long term relationship with those clients, and I’m bringing on new lawyers to develop those relationships so that that type of client will continue well beyond my tenure at Littler.

Paula Edgar: So, I mean, you said so much that I want to unpack because, there’s so many gems in there. The first being, when I think about, lawyers, law firms, and I do a lot of speaking at law firms, and talking about personal brand, talking about strategic self promotion and networking and relationship building.

And then when I think about what some of the things that you said about the fact that it’s a marathon and not a sprint, right? People, I think, think that one time you meet somebody, you shake their hand and then you’re like, now, can I have your business? And that’s not how it works. And that’s not how it works.

Theodora Lee: That is true. It’s so funny. There was this one client that I took to lunch for over 10 years. That guy left, but because I continue to give them updates about, you know, employment law is something everybody needs to know. Okay. Especially if you’re an employer in California. And so the new lady who took his job, got it, and actually called me after 10 years.

I didn’t get the business from him, but I got the business from her. And then turn around and they were bought by a mega firm. And, you know, our firm was already doing that work. And, you know, we merged it into one client. But, it is not something that happens overnight. And the other thing is, I still go to like the California Minority Counsel programs.

I still go to the Texas Minority Counsel program. I still go to the ABA Business Development programs because the one thing about the practice of law and building a network and building your own brand is you have to be present. Nobody’s going to think about you if you are in your office resting on your laurels.

I mean, people say to me, my God, you’ve been practicing 36 years and you’re still out here hustling. I’m like, yeah, because the hustle never ends. And quite frankly, I enjoy public speaking. I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy socializing. And so it’s part of my life. And then I take wine along with me and that adds to the brand.

Paula Edgar: It certainly, it certainly does and I love what you’re saying about, being out there. I am a bar association lover. I love going to conferences. I say it’s like the replacement of me being, going back to school ever is me going to places and learning and then talking to folks again. It really… it feeds my extrovert and I’m a big extrovert.

Theodora Lee: We share that in common.

Paula Edgar: So let’s talk a little bit about wine and everybody, if you’re watching on YouTube, I’m holding up a bottle of Theopolis Vineyards wine. So, Theo-patra, AKA the what was it? The Queen of the Vineyards, tell me how you got into the wine business.

Theodora Lee: Well, it starts with Littler Mendelson. When I joined Littler in the 80s, we did not have faxes. We did not have, you know, computers. There was no sharing on the Google Drive. If you had a brief due to court on Monday morning, and that shareholder or partner was at their weekend home in Napa or Sonoma, you got in your car and you drove the brief to wherever that partner happened to be.

One of my law firm mentors, Barbara de Oddone and her husband, Pier, had a beautiful vineyard in Healdsburg, California, and they would invite me to partake in wine, have dinner. I’m like, no, give me some Wild Turkey, some Jack Daniels, because I don’t drink wine. Okay. And I didn’t drink wine and so one day she asked me why I didn’t drink wine.

I said, well, my dad, I’m from Texas. My dad used to take wild muscadine grapes – if anybody knows about muscadine grapes, they’re like sweet cough syrup. And as a precocious little kid, you would see the adults drinking on Saturday night and you sneak in the cupboard the next day and I tasted that stuff and I’m like, no, if this is wine I want nothing to do with it.

So Barbara basically told me that, you know, that’s not real wine we grow premium grapes to make fine wine. So she kept, you know, encouraging me to drink and, you know, it just not something I like, I mean, they grew Zinfandel and Cabernet and I thought that was just way too bitter, okay? But, what got me is her husband, Pier, let me drive the tractor in the vineyard. And I grew up in Texas. I didn’t learn to drive in a car. I learned to drive on a tractor on a farm. And so when I got to drive that tractor in the vineyard, I was like, I’m sold, I want to be a grape farmer. I didn’t even know it was called a vineyard. I just said I want to be a grape farmer out here driving my tractor, through the vineyards, on a beautiful warm day.

And so that was the dream that I developed back in the 80s. I bought 20 acres of land in Mendocino. I couldn’t afford Napa or Sonoma because I’m an employment lawyer, unless it’s the company case or class action, our clients consider most of the work pretty commodity basis, but, so I am not in labor and employment law to make a lot of money.

I am because I have a love and a passion for the work. But I bought 20 Acres in 2001. I planted my vineyard in 2003. Had my first harvest in 2006. I sold my grapes to Mike Officer at Carlisle and the wine critic, Robert Parker gave the wine made from my grapes a 96 my first harvest. So I said earlier, it’s all about excellence.

No matter what you do, create the best product, the best service you can do, because you can make more wine by not having premium grapes, but we believe that great wine starts in the vineyard, and I am a country girl from Texas who I take care of that vineyard as if it was my own child.

Wow.

Paula Edgar: I mean, you can hear your passion for it and how you’re speaking about it. Has it been challenging to do this as a Black woman?

Theodora Lee: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s challenging being a Black woman when you’re trying to do anything that’s non traditional. You know, I came out of law school, like I said, in 1987. Littler recruited me straight from UT. I’m one of the few people who has spent all except for a year and a half of her career at one law firm.

You know, I was the first Black woman to be a managing partner of our Oakland office, for 15 years going back to 1994, through about 2000. Yeah, yeah, 2000. And so it’s like, you know, I approach the wine business very much like I do law. I have the best product, the best service, and you want to do business with me.

It’s just a matter of how do I get you to yes, because once you experience my service and once you experience my product, you’re going to keep coming back, because it’s just that good. And so while people in the business will tell me no, no to me is just another way of saying not now. And so I follow up and I’m trying to teach my wine daughter, it’s not the first call. It’s not your first taste. It’s the follow up, and you keep giving them something to think about, giving them something that’s useful, a taste. And once they get that taste or that service, then I believe, you win. And so exceptional client service, excellent legal work, and quality wine, I think is how we’ve survived.

Paula Edgar: I love that. I love all of that. And it’s an interesting thing to have your own personal brand and the work that you do, the things that you do, and also to have a brand that you navigate. And for you, obviously, because it’s your own, it’s not like you work for somebody else and you have to manage that.

But, it’s yes, you have the umbrella of who you work for, but within that you have your own business and then you also have your own business and that’s a lot of things. But consistently through that, what I’m hearing is the hustle. I’m hearing the authenticity, right? And my business tagline is engage your hustle.

It’s about what you’re saying, it’s about finding that next level in order to provide that service, that excellence, within yourself and then for others. So, very much aligned. Very much aligned.

Theodora Lee: I knew you were my soul sister when we met years ago at CCWC.

Paula Edgar: I’m really, I think that, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because of that connection, but also people need to hear our stories, these stories to be inspired that they can do it themselves, especially at a time such as this, that we are all living in. It’s hard to feel like you have hope in a lot of places when you don’t have inspiration. So I want folks to hear because I just think, you know, it’s hard enough to do what we do as lawyers and then to do what we do, you know, but, it’s the seeing that, it’s not just the law is who you are, it’s who you are and you bring that to the law.

Theodora Lee: Correct. We bring our authentic selves and I think that what I am told is that I am a lawyer and the law is the universe in which I function. But for me, it is more important to look at real world solutions. I mean, some lawyers want to talk to you about the law.

Most of my clients don’t want to talk about the law. They want to know what they can do within the law. And if they run afoul of the law, how best to get out of that problem. And so I like to see myself as a business partner, helping resolve complex legal issues with a practical stance, because the law really is just the playing ground for us to deal with.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, I used to, I went to a church when I was younger, and the pastor used to say that straight talk for straight understanding, and it sounds like that. Like, I don’t want to give you legalese, I want to tell you what you need to hear and be able to hear it. Yes. All right. Okay. So let’s keep going. How has leadership and volunteerism helped with building your brand?

Theodora Lee: Well, when I first moved to California, I went to law school at UT. So I moved to a city where I knew no one. Okay. So the first thing that I did is I got involved with the Spelman Alumni Association, ultimately became the president of the San Francisco Bay Area Alumni Association. And then I got involved with Bay Area United Fund.

And that Black United Fund is like the Black Folks United Way. And I sat on their board. I met lots of people that are business people, professional people through board service. I then became the president of the Alameda County Food Bank Board, where I got to meet other industry leaders from all walks of life.

I got involved in the United Negro College Fund, Spelman being a UNCF school on the California Advisory Board. Again, meeting other professionals. And that actually gave me a platform to develop relationships, and those relationships, while some of them were lawyers, some of them were business people who then would refer me to their business clients.

You know, I feel that board leadership on nonprofit boards is a way of giving back. As my father, who you’ll hear me talk about a lot because he was the most influential person in my life, because my grandfather was a sharecropper. So my father left home at the age of 14 because he didn’t want that life.

He ultimately got his GED and ultimately a doctorate of education where he taught people to get their doctorate. And the farming came into our life when I was five because he bought 10 acres of land because he watched his father work just enough to give the money to the man for them to live in a shack that had no windows and no screen door, and so that principle of how he was raised instilled in me, you have to work hard and land, they can’t take it away from you. Now, I probably have made a lot of mistakes because I bought properties all through these United States. Lost my shirt back in 2008 with the great recession like many people did. I pulled myself out and you know, but nothing ventured nothing gained. So my father taught me about land ownership and how the importance of that they can’t take that away from you.

And so it is with that drive, and I guess my father before he died in 2016, he said, Why does she work so hard and why, you know, I had to work this hard because I came from nothing. Well, you taught me I came from nothing. So I have to work just as hard. Everyone said, you must be Jamaican or Haitian, ’cause you got four or five jobs.

And I’m like, yeah, that, that’d be about right.

Paula Edgar: As someone who’s half Jamaican, I get that a hundred, a hundred percent. And I’m glad that you shared that story of your family’s history, because, there is a drive in knowing from whence you’ve come. There’s something that says that no matter how hard you have it now, it is probably not as hard as it was then.

And that drive to never have to be in a space where you have to work so hard, but still knowing that it’s important to work so hard. So that being said, because you brought Spelman up twice, all of you who are listening know that my daughter is now at Spelman and I’m very excited about that, so I love talking to Spelman alum so I can send her the clip and say, look, this is who you can be like. So my question for you is, what did the experience of Spelman do for you? How did that help shape who you are?

Theodora Lee: Spelman was a significant life shaper for me. I was blessed to be in leadership at Spelman as a freshman class president, sophomore class president.

We’re getting ready to go back to our 40th reunion and one of my classmates, they were going through stuff and they found a article that I wrote for the newsletter, oh my God, must have been 44 years ago. And, you know, to me, Spelman let me be me. It was the first place where I could be me. I didn’t have to compete with anyone to be me.

I had the supportive environment of teachers who genuinely cared about your success and your personal life. They wanted you to be both personally happy and professionally happy, and I think that’s very important. Spelman gave me the first opportunity to work for Sam Nunn. I competed with other students in the state of Georgia to be a U. S. Senator intern. You know, Spelman made me who I am today. I mean, I had the raw materials when I went to Spelman, but I came out a Spelman woman. And as we like to say, we build women who choose to change the world. And we, women from Spelman, have influenced this world in so many ways. I think of my classmate, Rosalind Gates Brewer, who just stepped down as the CEO of Walgreens. You know, she is first generation, but Spelman made all of us women who can do and will do. And again, my father says to whom much is given, much is expected. And we are taught at Spelman to go out and make a difference in this world. Leave it better off than when you came into it.

Paula Edgar: Absolutely. And it’s why I feel okay with my baby being in all those states away because number one, there’s a lot of Spelman women who are like, we’ve got her. And, I’ve seen already in the short time she’s been there, the shift in what it means to be surrounded by other Black women who care and want your collective support and your collective success. So, thank you for that little diversion cause it made me feel good that my baby is

Theodora Lee: there too.

It is the best place to be and the new college president is an amazing woman from Chicago and you know, this is how amazing. I did a wine tasting – whenever I travel like after CCWC I had a wine tasting in Virginia.

I was in Atlanta for a legal business I had a wine tasting and she is a wine club member and she went out of her way to come to Stone Mountain, Georgia to be there, and that’s the kind of president that’s going to be – your daughter can go into her office and have a conversation with her. What university can you go to and just walk into the president of the college’s home and talk to them?

Paula Edgar: Yeah, exactly. So, and, yes, she is, she’s great. We had a chance to meet her… did that whole, you know, the ceremony to give your kid to the school. Yes, I went there and I was like, I will not cry because I’m from Brooklyn and I was like, Oh my God.

Theodora Lee: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s part of the indoctrination and when you, when she leaves, she will be even better than when she came.

Paula Edgar: Well, I thank you for that little moment of therapy. I needed it. Okay. So, all right. So what mistakes have you seen people making when networking or building their brands?

Theodora Lee: Oh, well, you know, I’ve made mistakes along the way. So I can personally say, you know, one of the mistakes is one size doesn’t fit all.

And, you know, I try to explain that corporate counsel have a lot on their plate. They don’t want your generic marketing materials. They don’t want your email about something that has nothing to do with their business. That is a mistake I think that a lot of young lawyers make, and I know that in the early days, because unlike now, we didn’t have training programs.

We have training programs for our associates, to teach them how to do depositions, teach them how to, you know, take, write an appeal, write in court. I mean, we were thrown in. Back in the 80s, you were thrown in, and you either sank, or you swam and it was entirely up to you, okay? You had to invest in yourself, you know, learn something, that you couldn’t bill the client because you needed to learn to get that specialty.

Now we have all these courses, so that’s one big one. Tailor your marketing materials to that target person. Find out what they worry about, what keeps them up at night. What is on their mind? I mean, there there are definitely things in the labor and employment world that a lot of people need to know, but the general counsel doesn’t necessarily need to know the latest cases, the latest statutes, maybe their labor and employment counsel does. So tailor your marketing materials to the audience. That’s number one. And another one that I see a lot of young folks do is they stay in their office, they don’t go to conferences, they don’t network, they don’t write articles, they don’t do anything other than work. They don’t even socialize within the firm.

And I always tell people, as an associate, you have one client. That is the partnership. As a shareholder or a partner, you have multiple clients because there are partners who may have such big book of business that they need service partners. You need to be out there pushing your brand, building your brand, and you need to be present. You can’t build a brand or build a book of business sitting in your office.

Paula Edgar: Love it. You just said all the things that I try to remind people because unfortunately there’s a real thought that hard work will be enough. And it is just the beginning because to your point, people don’t know who you are or how you can add value, even though, you know, internally, then they can’t cross sell. They can’t like, there’s so many other things that you are essentially blocking your blessings, because you can be making a lot more and doing a lot more, if you were able or better at that interaction internally and externally. So I’m glad that you said all of that.

Theodora Lee: And another thing I want to say, it’s not just about getting the client. Exceptional client service keeps the clients from coming back. And one thing that Wes Fastiff, one of the founding members of Littler taught me, when you get a call, you return the call that same day. If you get a text or email, you respond that day. You don’t go to bed with calls or emails or text unanswered, because if you don’t respond, they’re going to go down the street and somebody else is going to respond. And so my whole thing is, I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I’m going to give you exceptional client service by returning the call.

And young people don’t understand that. I go to bed with my iPhone. I wake up with my iPhone and I make sure I do not miss an email or call because that responsiveness is what keeps the client calling.

Paula Edgar: And you know, the thing is I think sometimes that responsiveness or that commitment is perceived as sort of lack of, like wellness or thinking about the whole person. But I always say it doesn’t have to be that you are responding with the answer. You can just say I received this, I’m going to respond.

Theodora Lee: Correct. I mean, you know, my biggest email that I go out is, I am acknowledging receipt and I will revert back with an answer or with the subject matter expert. But, I let them know that I hear them, that they need this and then I also say what is your timeline, because in employment law, some things are not for tomorrow, they’re for today. Okay. And so you need to know what the client’s timeline is so that you can respond accordingly.

Paula Edgar: I love, I think that that’s a great, addition on there because, yeah, I mean, that’s the best practice, right? Like not just I got it, but when do you need it, to decide what the responses are. I think that that is fantastic. And just gave me something to think about. I have 10 emails to respond to. I’m just kidding. Okay.

Theodora Lee: Let me just follow up on something you said. So responsiveness doesn’t mean that you don’t… I think I have a pretty well balanced life. I don’t have children, but I do have a 97 year mother with Alzheimer’s that I have to care for as if she were a child. I manage her whole life, her household, I have a staff of six.

So it is a full time job, but that is my number one job. Law is next. Wine is probably third and real estate is probably fourth. So I got four major jobs, but I also sometimes respond to those emails while I’m taking a mental health walk or while I’m on the treadmill or while I’m on an elliptical.

You need to do something for your own mental and physical health to keep you balanced. And just being responsive does not mean you don’t take care of you, too.

Paula Edgar: Thank you for that because I do think it’s a misconception that the expectation takes away from the ability to do so. So, good, good.

Now they’re getting all of it. They’re getting all the good stuff. Okay, so I think … well, I’ll ask you the question, but I feel like you just did a really good detailed job. So maybe there’s something you want to add to this, but what specific advice do you have for people who are trying to build their brand?

Is there anything else that you didn’t cover just now that you want to add in?

Theodora Lee: Well, let me just start by becoming a subject matter expert in something, because I tell young people at Littler, we are a law firm of labor and employment lawyers. Within the umbrella of labor and employment, there are so many practice areas, privacy being one of them, is a burgeoning area. Another is artificial intelligence. So one of the things that I want young people to do is develop a subject matter expertise. And that means you may have to take time, and you can’t bill it to nobody to learn this subject. Then write about the subject. Speak about the subject. Become a known subject matter expert, and then market those services.

That’s the simplest way. You know, that was not the way that I did it because, you know, we were at the time generalists, labor and employment. So I did traditional labor law, I said and did collective bargaining. I did unfair labor practice hearings before the National Labor Relations Board. I tried cases. I argued summary judgment motions.

I did trainings. I gave advice and counsel, and I still do all of that. But we now have subject matter experts who do it in a more in depth way. So when a client calls me and asks me about some kind of OSHA regulation, I’m not pulling the book out to try to read about what OSHA regulation, I’m calling the OSHA subject matter expert.

We all need subject matter experts. And if you develop that, I think you can develop a book of business a lot better.

Paula Edgar: You absolutely can. And the thing is, you know, I get asked this question a lot in the classes that I, or sessions that I do on personal branding, is what if I’m doing X and then how do I want to, you know, what should I do to pivot?

I’m like, you got to learn about whatever it is first. You can’t pivot until you know more because it may be that that pivot is not the right thing for you to do because of XYZ reason, but it’s just not the wanting to do it that’s a pivot. It’s an understanding, knowing it, and then developing and continuing that building of your knowledge base.

Theodora Lee: I think that’s the simplest way to do it. And the other thing is, you know, partner with a more experienced lawyer, and ask to go to pitches, ask to read proposals, ask to speak at conferences, ask to write articles. I mean, you know, serve on a community board, give of your time and your service, and I think you will be able to develop a book of business.

Paula Edgar: And a fantastic brand too at the same time. Okay. So that’s good. So tell me, and you sort of started getting into this a little bit, but what about the fun stuff? What do you do for fun?

Theodora Lee: Well, travel is my number one thing for fun. I love exploring the world.

I have been to probably 30 different countries, so far, and my goal is to go to all of the countries I can possibly get to before I leave this life. I’m very excited. Next month, I will be going, I’ll be the first Black female vintner to host a French river wine cruise through AmaWaterways, that’s going to be November 9th through the 16th, and we will be cruising along the Saône and the Rhône rivers. They will be featuring my Petite Sirah, my Pinot Noir Rhône blend, my Chardonnay.

I look forward to traveling and spending time eating fine cuisine, drinking quality wine, and hanging with friends. So, there are 40 people from my wine club or associates, joining us, next month. I’ve been invited back, to do something similar, on the Danube River in July, and then, I talked with another cruise line who wants me to do something in 2025.

So being able to combine my love of travel with wine and great food and good friends, that’s something that I really enjoy. My other passion is spaing. Okay. I love going to the spa. I had my first weekend in town last weekend, I spent a day at the Claremont Spa, literally all day. I went at 10 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t leave until 10 o’clock that night.

I went to the gym. I went to the pool. I went to two different jacuzzis. I got in the steam. I got in the sauna. I had a massage about five. Then I went and did all that stuff again. Okay. And you know, that’s what I do for me. My line sisters, I had total knee replacement earlier this year, and they sent that to me as a get well gift.

And I finally got a chance to take advantage of that. I love massage. I try to get massage once a month, if not more. I love sitting in my hot tub. As I mentioned, I was up in Mendocino at my place, and I think I spent three hours last night in my hot tub and I thought about, you know, I just love being in my hot tub.

That is my happy place, looking at the stars and the moon and just thanking God for the many blessings that he has given me. And so I guess travel, spaing, eatin’ and drinkin’, those are my high end fun things.

Paula Edgar: Where have you been all my life, Theo? Where have you been? Because we are clearly lost sisters. Because you said everything. Although, I am a, I would say brown girl, brown liquor, I love cognac, I love whiskey, right? But, I’m gonna learn to, I’m gonna do whatever it needs to do so we can hang out more.

Theodora Lee: Oh, no, wait. I do, I drink cognac too. Yeah. Are you familiar with the beautiful? I mean, we’re getting ready to get on to… a beautiful is Cognac and Grand Marnier mixed together.

Oh, no. Oh, try darling. I promise you, you’ll love it. Okay.

Paula Edgar: Done and done. I will make that a priority that I’m going to try that and I will report back. So you said something, you said that your line sisters. So, what sorority are you a member of?

Theodora Lee: Delta Sigma Theta, Eta Kappa Made, that’s the Spelman chapter. And we are very proud to not only be Deltas, but to be Eta Kappa Made.

Paula Edgar: Okay. All

Theodora Lee: right.

Paula Edgar: Okay. Somehow I knew, but I didn’t want to assume, so I, but I did know that you are a Delta. You know, before, and I want to divert a little bit more, just really quickly, tell me what the experience of being a Delta means for you in terms of that community, and how it supports you and you support it.

Theodora Lee: Well, I mentioned my line sisters gave me a spa day as a gift. The one thing that, you know, when you pledge with a group of women, you become sisters, like, not birth sisters, but you had the shared experiences. They have your back, you have their back. We have a prayer circle that when anybody needs prayer, whether it’s us, their family, their cousin, their neighbor, we get together and we pray for ’em.

You know, when, you know, we celebrated our line 40th reunion in Mexico, in 2022. Of my 31 line sisters, there were 26 of us who were there. I mean, so we’re still very close. We’re getting ready to do a trip next year called a city tour. And you know, we put in, you know, the cities that we had to choose between was New Orleans, which I’m not a big fan of, New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas. And my number one was Las Vegas because there’s so much to do. I don’t like to gamble and I don’t like all that smoking, but you can see a lot of great shows, you can see , you know, great restaurants.

I wanted to see Adele, but I think this is her last weekend because I was trying to get there and I just couldn’t get there, with my schedule, but it is a support base. It’s almost like when you try, it’s kind of like when you meet, when you travel the world and you meet another Spelman sister, they got your back.

When I travel the world and I meet another Delta sister, they got my back and I got their back. Like one of my line sister’s son moved to the Bay Area, you know, he, they, the apartment he was going to be moving into had all these rules that, you know, he needed to be there in person. So she called me, we made an arrangement.

I wasn’t going to be in town, but my wine daughter went and got the keys and made arrangements to meet him. And, you know, it’s the kind of thing that you can go anywhere in the world, and you know one of your Spelman or Delta sisters is going to be there to support you and you’re going to be there to support them.

Paula Edgar: I wanted to ask the question because I do think that not enough people realize just how much a part of your brand is who you are affiliated with too.

Theodora Lee: Oh, absolutely. And I will tell you, you know, we have some famous Deltas, but there are some famous AKA, and the beautiful thing about Spelman is we are sisters, Spelman sisters first, then sorority sisters second.

So it is just the best of both worlds. And my Morehouse brothers, my Clark sisters and brothers, I mean, it’s an HBCU world, and we are supportive of each other.

Paula Edgar: Yep. Shout out to the AUC. Okay. So I’m going to go into our, my last questions that I ask everyone, which is, Stand By Your Brand moment. What is the authentic aspect of your personal or professional brand that you will never compromise on?

Theodora Lee: Excellent legal work and exceptional client service, and fine wine. I have to add that too.

Paula Edgar: Indeed. Okay. So the Branding Room Only title for the podcast is, a call out to, you know, standing room only when you go to someplace and, it’s so packed because then, you know, it’s only standing room.

So what is your magic? What’s the unique, special skill gift or brand proposition that a crowd would gather to experience about you?

Theodora Lee: Well, I will just tell you when people ask me what it is that I do, I tell them I do sex, drugs and rock and roll. And then they look at me like, what? And then I tell them I’m a management side, labor and employment lawyer, and people bring all of that to the workplace.

And I come up with real world solutions. I come up with practical ways of dealing with these problems balance with business realities and the necessities of the business. And so I always feel that you gotta get ’em in with something catchy, and then you get their attention and then you break it down.

Paula Edgar: I love that, especially having done labor and employment, I 100 percent get exactly what you mean. Theo, thank you so much for joining me on Branding Room Only today. It was a pleasure to have you as my guest. Before we go, where can people find more about you, your work, and your wine?

Theodora Lee: Well, you can go to littler.com, my bio is there under Theodora Rochelle Lee. You can find all about me. You can go to my LinkedIn profile, which is Theodora Lee, under LinkedIn. You can go to my Facebook page. But on the Facebook I have a Theodora Lee and a Theopatra Lee. I use the Theopatra Lee more because I, you know, track my life and, you know, I think it’s important to show people that you can have a well lived life, practice law, have multiple businesses and only thing I’m missing… I am recently single. I’ve ended a 16 year relationship doing COVID, either COVID brought you together or took you apart. And so I will advertise I am recently single. So anybody out there, I’m available. I’ll have to pitch that too. And for the business of wine, you go to theopolisvineyards.com and I think I may have given you the links, to both the Littler bio as well as the theopolisvineyards.com. And then we still have a few cabins left on the AmaWaterways cruise next month. That’s May 8th. If you go to the website, I think I also sent you a link to that as well. Okay. I think this is gonna air in a couple of weeks so they still have some time to get on that.

Yep. I also do a lot of public speaking. You know, I do a lot of DEI work and trainings. So, you know, hook me up, look me up. We have our big Employer Conference coming up in May. I am usually one of the keynote speakers for the lunch program, which is the employment law update, but it’s edutainment at its best.

And so I invite people to join us there and you can never have a bad time at the Executive Employer. We wine you, dine you, and educate you all at the same time. So those are kind of how you can find me and what’s going on. And if anybody’s going to be in Miami, at the National Bar Association meeting, I’ll be speaking there as well.

Paula Edgar: Fantastic. Everybody, make sure you tell a friend because, this I’m sure you will agree was filled with gems. Thank you for joining me in the Branding Room, and we’ll see you in the next episode.