Long before she had a teenager of her own, attorney Annie Lee defended the rights of young people. As executive director of TeamChild, an organization that provides free legal aid to youth in King, Pierce, Spokane and Yakima counties, Lee helps defend educational access and basic rights
for hundreds of teens every year.
She describes her work as primarily preventive. “Juvenile court involvement is a red flag of something else going on — problems at school or at home,” she says. “We want to help overcome those root causes of court involvement to help prevent youth from being involved in the juvenile justice system at all.”
Lee helped pilot TeamChild’s program in 1995 and moved to Seattle to join the organization as a staff attorney in 1997; she’s been executive director since 2001. TeamChild has fielded more than 1,300 referrals and served approximately 10,000 Washington low-income youth, mostly between the ages of 12 and 18.
Access to education is a vital step toward lifelong success, and TeamChild helps protect that right, says Lee, who’s the mom of a 17-year-old and a 6-year-old. Often when a student gets expelled from school, a family needs help navigating the legal and educational systems to get their kid back into class.
Perhaps the student has an underlying learning disability, the family is in the midst of a housing crisis, or there’s another reason behind the student underperforming or acting out. Making matters worse, Lee says, parents may not always be aware of the student’s rights or the programs available to help.
That’s where TeamChild can make a difference. Lee’s team facilitates interventions, such as educational support services and individualized legal advice, which can help drastically reduce the number of youth who wind up involved in the court system, she says. “We’re poised to scale our services to reach more kids each year,” Lee adds. “With increased capacity, we can intervene earlier in the cycle to help prevent a downward spiral.”
TeamChild’s staff attorneys are problem solvers, says Lee. “Families lead us in the direction they want to go,” she says. “Teenagers are great clients; they’re developing. They have a lot to contribute and they’re open to advice. We help them be their own advocates.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Growing up in Nebraska, I’d never seen the ocean but wanted to be a marine biologist. I didn’t go in that direction, but as a lawyer, I get to dive into something completely unknown and explore new areas to solve problems.
What’s the most misunderstood part of your job?
People associate lawyers with conflict, but often we can help to avoid or resolve it. At TeamChild, we embrace the concept of diving in and solving problems for families.
If you could have one superhero power, what would it be and why?
I’ve always admired Wonder Woman. I’d love her omnilingualism, the ability to speak any language.
On a rainy Pacific Northwest morning, what gets you motivated and out of bed?
I don’t mind the rain. I love gardening and cooking, and I’ve been known to make my own kimchee.
If you could dine with anyone, living or dead, whom would that be and why?
My parents were both big influences on me, and I’d want to dine with my dad, Ming Lee. He passed away when I was in college, and I’d love to fill him in on my career.