Ode to Sylvia Mae Lee, A Life Well Lived and a Spirit Generously Shared

February 16, 1945-June 17, 2016

By Barbara Ritchie and Lorraine Wong

It is with a heavy heart, but with gratitude for a very special life, that we write to you about the passing of our dear friend Sylvia Lee on June 17, 2016. Sylvia was one of Honolulu’s most accomplished and respected paralegals and a pioneer in the development of Hawaii’s paralegal profession.

Sylvia grew up on a farm in Massachusetts where her family raised cattle for beef. She had never been to a big city until she was eighteen years old, when she traveled alone through Europe.  Sylvia’s insatiable curiosity to learn about the history, culture, and people of the world would eventually inspire a lifetime of travel.

Sylvia was a role model, not only for paralegals, but for female entrepreneurs.  In Massachusetts, Sylvia became one of only six women at the time in the United States with a registered principal’s license enabling her to run a stock brokerage firm. She started out not knowing what a stock certificate looked like, and ended up running the back office of a brokerage house and trading stock on most of the major exchanges, via telephone since there were no computers.

Sylvia first came to Hawaii on vacation in 1974 and spent a lot of time talking with local residents about what it was like living in paradise. She realized it was warm, laid back, ethnically diverse, and most importantly, had no snakes. After deciding that she had had enough of cold weather on the mainland, she moved to Hawaii in 1975. While working as a secretary for a local engineering firm, she met and started dating Duane L. Lee, a branch manager for Wiss Janney Elstner Associates, Inc., structural engineers. They were married in 1980.

Several months later, Duane and Sylvia moved to Glenville, Illinois because of an employment opportunity for Duane. While there, Sylvia took paralegal classes and earned an associate of arts degree from ABA Accredited Mallinckrodt College in Wilmette, Illinois.

In 1982, when the Lees returned to Hawaii, Sylvia joined HPA (then called HALA) and was elected as a director for the Professional Development Committee. At an annual meeting, Sylvia announced to the membership that she was looking for a job. A HALA member referred her to Case, Kay & Lynch, where she was hired as a litigation paralegal.

For the next 13 years, she honed her considerable skills at this law firm which eventually changed its name to Case & Lynch. During that time, Sylvia developed her legendary Ideal Document Organizing System (IDOS) which she taught other paralegals at HALA seminars. IDOS was a manual system of document organization and handling. It made large complex litigation cases manageable and allowed for countless issue and witness specific document retrievals under one universal system. When Case & Lynch split into two firms, Sylvia went with Lynch & Farmer, the litigation arm, where she stayed for another two and a half years.

In August 1997, Sylvia left Lynch & Farmer and, set up SML Litigation Systems LLC. She also coined the trademark name LDOS (Legal Document Organizational Strategies), which reflected advancements in her system applications and technology. Sylvia hired and trained a team of paralegals and other professionals in her proprietary system. Her company’s main focus was the management and organization of documents in large document and complex litigation cases. She also provided services in locating, interviewing, and recommending expert witnesses to attorneys, and setting up depositions in Japan and other countries.

Sylvia set a standard of professional excellence to which many of us aspire, but which few of us achieve. She served as HPA president in 1986-87 and again in 1998-99. In her second term as president, she spearheaded an extremely successful national paralegal convention in Honolulu. Sylvia was one of only a handful of Honolulu paralegals to have won both the prestigious Career Achievement Recognition Award and the Paralegal of the Year Award bestowed by HPA in recognition of her outstanding and meritorious service to the legal community and the paralegal profession.

Anyone who knew Sylvia, knew that her family was at the center of her world. She was a devoted and loving wife and mother. She often spoke about her husband Duane and children Christopher and Shauna and the great joy and comfort they gave her.

Sylvia met life’s challenges with courage and grace. In her later years, we saw her exhibit the same strength and fortitude in coping with her debilitating illness. We marveled at how she managed to continue to live her life, and take care of her family and friends through the last chapter of her life, exhibiting the same passion and commitment to excellence that we had always seen in her earlier life. Sylvia even managed to write her life story in 2014 with the publishing of “Sylvia, A Memoir from the Farm to Paradise,” a book filled with the touching and inspirational stories of a life well lived.

Those who knew Sylvia may remember her saying, “I live by the slogan of my Nike t-shirt: “Just Do It.” She stood as an icon to all of us who knew her, not only for her phenomenal skills as a paralegal, teacher and leader in our field, but also, and more importantly, as an extraordinary human being. She taught us all how to live with courage and aloha and she taught us how to die with grace, dignity and gratitude for a blessed life.

Sylvia is survived by her husband, Duane, son Christopher, daughter Shauna of Los Angeles, and brother and sister-in law, Roger and Kathy Hultgren of Rutland, Massachusetts. Donations may be made in her memory to the American Cancer Society (Oahu).

We offer our most heartfelt condolences to Sylvia’s family and friends. Aloha oe dear Sylvia, until we meet again.

Remembrances of Sylvia by her friends and colleagues:

Hawaii has lost a fierce and loyal advocate for the paralegal profession in general and HPA in particular.  Sylvia Lee was that rare combination of intelligence, dedication, flexibility, and caring.  For many years, she provided essential service to HPA in a variety of roles, including serving as its President.  In all the years I have worked with Sylvia, I have never seen her fail to be willing to help in whatever capacity was needed.  Her work in the private sector as a paralegal was stellar.  In addition to all her professional accomplishments, her love and commitment to her family were well known.  I know she had a long battle with cancer, and she approached that challenge with the same grace and courage that she exhibited in all other areas of her life.  Certainly all of us who knew Sylvia feel the keen sense of loss of a person who has left our world a better place.  We are fortunate to have had her in our lives.

Robert J. LeClair, Esq.
Founder of Kapiolani Community College’s Paralegal Program
Current Executive Director of the Hawaii Justice Foundation

 

Sylvia Lee—where do I begin?

That tall haole girl has left quite a legacy. She was an extraordinary woman, beautiful inside and out and I am so blessed to have shared a small part of her life. As a friend, she was loyal, caring and supportive. She is loved by all and will live on in the hearts of each of us who knew her. She was a happy, warm and genuine soul, but with a gift of keeping us laughing. While we both worked in different fields of law, Sylvia was a strong supporter of the paralegal profession before I even knew what a paralegal was, which is how I first met her. And one of the things I will remember about her and that will always bring a smile to my face is how frugal she was — I just could not agree to wash dishes in cold water! But to know her was to love her and I will forever miss her and treasure the time we had together.

Sue Alden
Paralegal and Realtor
Hawaii Real Estate Online

 

I was saddened to learn of Sylvia’s passing.  In reflecting back on my relationship with Sylvia over the last twenty-plus years, I found myself wishing I had expressed my gratitude to Sylvia for the example she set as a paralegal and a leader.  Sylvia was a precious jewel.  Not only have we lost a beautiful friend and colleague, but an extraordinary and talented leader in our paralegal community here in Hawaii and an accomplished complex litigation paralegal who earned the trust and respect of even the most demanding litigators of our time.  I’ve worked with a number of attorneys over the years who would often speak of Sylvia’s ability to organize the most complex litigation matters in town. One of the things I loved about Sylvia was her willingness to share her mana’o, her knowledge and skills, with her fellow paralegals. Despite her crazy schedule, her commitments to her family, and the paralegal profession, Sylvia would make time to share her expertise with other litigation paralegals in town, which provided us with the opportunity to rise to Sylvia’s exceptional level of case/document management.  Sylvia was also a great leader who led with grace and confidence.  She fostered cooperation and inclusion among members of the paralegal community (local and national level), KCC students, and attorneys.  Sylvia was among the elite paralegal pioneers in Hawaii that I totally admired, respected and modeled my professional paralegal career and work ethic after.  In fact, Sylvia was one of the Hawaii paralegal “super heroes” of our time, and I will forever be grateful to Sylvia for being a role model to so many of us and for the legacy she leaves behind.

Victoria “Nohea” Nakaahiki, RP
Paralegal with Apple Inc.

 

I met Sylvia in 1986 shortly after joining HALA nka HPA.  She had a style and grace about her.  I always felt that she was “before her time” in organizing large document cases.  She developed so many tools before we had the present day sophisticated electronic programs.  Sylvia was a wonderful role model for all paralegals.  Her dedication to the profession was an inspiration for many paralegals.

Kathey Mehle
Paralegal with the Law Offices of Ian Mattoch

 

Sylvia Lee was a graceful woman.   She was also a bold woman. Elegant and refined, yet always pragmatic, she was as comfortable with the senior partner in a law firm as she was with the temporary hire doing photocopying for a massive document production. She detested dirt, but she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She wasn’t afraid to tell you if you were wrong, but she also wasn’t afraid to tell you if she was wrong. That didn’t happen often, because Sylvia had found that graceful balance between brains and common sense that many in the legal world struggle to achieve.   She also found the balance between career and family that very few people manage to find.   The absolute joy when she spoke of her children would light up her already luminous face, and she was never afraid to show you that softer side of herself.   To be either graceful or bold is an admirable characteristic. That so many of us thought Sylvia to be both is a testament to a rare and extraordinary woman.

Lynn Lai Hipp
Paralegal with Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel

 

Sylvia Lee was one of the early pioneers of the paralegal profession in Hawaii. She and I joined the local paralegal association around the same time and together served the various offices of the organization with her being president one year, me being secretary and vice versa. She was thoughtful and strove for excellence in anything she put her hand to.   She was a gracious and generous colleague and she will be missed.

B.J. Wade
Paralegal with the Law Offices of John Schmidke

 

Sylvia Lee was an elegant and genteel woman whose distinctive chuckle was always just under the surface and ready to engage and delight at any opportunity. My interactions with her were in the context of her efforts in the paralegal community, where her steady, executive presence benefited all of us as she served in positions of leadership in the Hawai’i Paralegal Association. Sylvia was a consummate paralegal. The level of professionalism that she brought to her chosen profession was much in evidence in her Litigation Document Organization System (LDOS)–a detailed process that she carefully developed and articulated, and then made available for others to implement. I’ll always fondly remember Sylvia, as one of our warmest and brightest lights.

Elton Johnson
Paralegal with Starn O’Toole Marcus & Fisher

 

I met Sylvia in 1998 when I joined HPA. She was president at the time, so I saw her at meetings and came to know her as a successful, high profile paralegal and businesswoman. By the time we became friends, I was doing other work and she was beginning to scale back professionally. When she learned she had a serious cancer diagnosis—stage 4 ovarian—she chose to retire. Typically of Sylvia, she seemed to find a new sense of purpose in making the most of whatever time remained for her.

Sylvia spent the last decade of her life as a cancer patient. But she lived as if she were not dying. Instead, she plunged into one project after another. She finished a king-sized Hawaiian quilt that she had started years before and set aside. She planned and managed major house projects, including a kitchen remodel. And she made an inventory of the art objects that she and Duane had collected through their years of traveling the world. She was doing the inventory for her children, Shauna and Chris, who she believed might be unaware of the items’ value. Sylvia’s motivation was largely about making things easier for those she would leave behind. (She would later arrange for the donation of her remains to the UH Medical School. She herself planned her memorial service to spare her family the effort.)

Sylvia was an avid reader and especially enjoyed romance novels set in 19th century England. A life-long learner, she bought, and studied, the Great Courses series on art history. As devoted as she was to both of her children, Sylvia—a true Anglophile—was never more proud than when she visited Chris during his college year abroad at Oxford University.

Between chemo treatments, she and Duane were able to take a few more trips. They traveled to China and Turkey, and last summer they took a Baltic Sea cruise to Scandinavia and Russia. In 2014, she checked off another major project when she wrote and published her memoir, a book filled with humor and heart. She loved writing it. She said she was not trying for wide readership; the book was really meant for her kids. But she was pleased when a mainland book club picked it up as one of its selections.

In June of 2014, Sylvia’s oncologist estimated she had about another year to live. Her reaction was to say, “That sounds pretty good to me.” She went on to live two years. During that time, one of her dearest friends lost her husband to cancer. Sylvia gave of her time and emotional energy, drawing on her own experience with cancer and helping the patient and the family through their pain and grief. She was that kind of friend.

Sylvia looked back on her life with gratitude, and she faced her death with courage. It was a life well lived, a spirit generously shared. I’m thankful to have known her.

Mary Young
Paralegal and Writer

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