Therese Leone

March 31, 2022

Therese M. Leone stood out even as a kid. Born in the early 1970s, she was a black infant adopted by a white Philadelphia police officer in a city reeling from racial tension and social strife. She would go on to break many barriers before becoming Chief Laboratory Counsel in July 2021, the first woman, and the first person of color, to hold the Lab’s top legal post in its 90-year history.

In a wide-ranging interview with Elements, Leone spoke about her early life, and the “transformative power of education”; about being “the first” in many rooms during her long legal career. In celebration of Women’s History Month, Elements highlights a few questions we posed to Leone, who before joining the Lab was Deputy Campus Counsel for UC Berkeley, and UC Merced’s first Chief Campus Counsel, as well as Vice President and General Counsel for Mills College.

You were born in Philadelphia but grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., in a family with nine children. Could you tell us more about your family and how your early life experiences shaped you?

My father was first-generation Italian, growing up speaking Italian at home. But he wanted nothing to do with the immigrant experience. He wanted to assimilate, like many immigrants, who feel a pressure to cast off the things that make them different, make them stand out.

So, here he was on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer “White cop adopts black baby,” in Philadelphia during very racially turbulent times. This was in the late 60s and early 70s, very fraught times, with many demonstrations and protests. They lost friends over it.

That really set off my experience about race and racial issues – it was front and center for me from the very beginning. And despite my dad’s challenges fitting in culturally, my parents have always been very clear about the impact of issues like race and culture and the importance of being proud of who I am.

You emphasize the transformative power of education. Would you describe that in more detail and how does that manifest in your life?

A few folks guided me in directions that helped me get a really good education. Growing up, I first went to public schools where I was fortunate to have many black teachers, who served as incredible role models. Then for high school, I attended an independent, college preparatory private school in Ann Arbor. And the rest is history, right? Because once you're on the road, you're on the road.

So, off I went to Northwestern University and majored in African-American studies and sociology with a minor in women's studies. I was always questioning and thinking about social constructs. My college advisor suggested that I consider law school, but I thought I wanted to go to graduate school for business, so I came out and worked in a management training program for an insurance company. The people were lovely, but it was deadly dull.

While working in the insurance industry in Chicago I met an African-American woman, a law firm partner who had insurance clients and was part of a local affinity group. I was so impressed by her. Around the same time, I also met another woman attorney who worked at a big law firm when she came to present a training on the recently passed Americans with Disabilities Act. She presented to hundreds of people and just had such command of the room. I thought, “I’d like to be like her.” And that’s how I chose to go to law school – two strong women role models. I came to UC Berkeley for law school and landed in Oakland where I’ve lived ever since.

After law school I worked as a litigator at a San Francisco firm with a strong labor and employment practice, and I found the union issues really interesting. But I was a mother of a young child at the time and the long hours for litigation were really challenging. I left that firm to work at the Oakland office of a large international labor and employment firm. It was a chance to work in a small, diverse office that offered a better work-life balance and was managed by an African-American woman partner.

One of the partners at my firm was taking a job at the University of California Office of General Counsel, which happened to be directly across the street. Soon after he left, there was another opening at UC, so I literally walked across the street to a new in-house job. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The transformative power of education in my life really aligned well with the values of the University of California. I was there for about six years, towards the end doing more educational affairs legal work, and serving as the first chief campus counsel for UC Merced.

About then, I got a call from a colleague about a job at Mills College. It was a wonderful opportunity to go to a women's college and work with a very diverse, fantastic group of people. My four-and-a-half years there was a wonderful experience. I later had the opportunity to come back to the University of California with several former colleagues, and I spent nine years at the Berkeley campus where I dealt with all kinds of cutting-edge, front-page legal issues before this opportunity at the Lab opened up.

What inspires you about your work?

I think I'm a naturally curious person. I’m inspired by the Lab’s research, by the fact that people here are trying to make the world a better place, and to make science accessible to people. So, whether I'm hearing discussions about alternative fuels, or energy storage, or the origins of the universe, it's all pretty incredible. Folks are not here for the money, they're here because they really believe in the work and in the science. They believe in education, in innovation, and in discovery. And they're experts in what they do, and they're passionate about it. It's easy to catch that passion, right?

I really am interested in what makes people tick. I'm interested in how they work together, how we collaborate together; how I can bring whatever uniqueness I have to the situation to help it go better, and that really gives me energy.

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