Anna Lee on the Value of Strategic Counsel

As general counsel at EFI, Anna Lee works to support the business and help them grow for the future

Anna Lee did not set out to be a lawyer. A lifelong, self-proclaimed “science nerd,” Lee studied molecular, cell, and developmental biology as an undergrad at UCLA. She believed that she was headed towards a PhD track, but after hearing about some of the experiences of older graduate students, she realized that the world of research and academia was not for her.

Anna Lee EFI
Photo by Iris Cheung

Lee set her sights on a new passion: she put her analytic brain and public policy minor to use at the UC Berkeley School of Law. She spent her first summer during law school working at the Pentagon and her second summer at WilmerHale in Washington, DC. While Lee intended to return to the nation’s capital after graduation, she ended up joining WilmerHale’s Palo Alto office instead. “I thought I would be working in Washington, DC, but then, as life would have it, it led to me staying in Silicon Valley,” she notes.

During her time in Big Law, Lee mainly focused on patent litigation and complex commercial disputes, representing Apple, Intel, and other major tech companies that make up the base clientele in Silicon Valley. Lee was promoted to counsel and realized that she could either continue on a path towards partnership or look for a change. “I got to the point where I thought, ‘I‘m not sure this is for me.’ I started exploring in-house opportunities,” Lee explains. “The most logical transition would have been to go in-house and manage litigation for a tech company, but I wanted to expand my skill set.”

The then-general counsel at Electronics For Imaging (EFI), a digital imaging printing company that develops a wide range of printing technologies, knew Lee to be a smart and diligent young lawyer. Lee was given an opportunity to join EFI’s in-house legal team, and in 2013, she came on board as corporate counsel.

EFI’s legal department, Lee says, is actually called Strategic Relations. “We’re business lawyers,” she points out. “Of course we ensure that the company operates in compliance with the laws and regulations, but we’re also here to help them strategize and find solutions. If we can’t do something, we help look for alternatives.”

Lee describes the team as “lean and scrappy.” Though they have fewer lawyers than other companies of a similar size, EFI’s counsel are trained to work as generalists and handle a wide range of legal functions.

After a few years, Lee was offered the opportunity to move to Spain to better support EFI’s international operations. “The legal team was US-based, and we had gotten to the point where we needed boots on the ground for the legal team in Europe,” Lee says. “The notion was that I would go out there for a year, scope out the need, and then hire a European lawyer to take over.”

Taking that jump was somewhat daunting for Lee. The move involved uprooting her young family and facing all the logistics of moving out of the country—and of course, adjusting to a different culture. “It was a mental hurdle to decide to move abroad for work,” Lee reflects. “But it was an invaluable professional growth experience, and an irreplaceable personal growth experience as well.” One year turned into two years, and by the end Lee and her family were wishing they had made the move sooner.

“What I learned during that time was invaluable. I learned to adjust my communication style based on the different cultures I was working with.”

“I learned to adjust my communication style based on the different cultures I was working with,” Lee explains. “It was something subtle that I never would have understood if I wasn’t physically working alongside my European colleagues. I wouldn’t have picked up on these dynamics if I was just sitting in California sending an email or making a phone call.”

After her two years in Spain, Lee and her family moved back to California, where she broadened her experience at another technology company called Carbon, which specializes in 3-D printing. Just over a year later, however, she was offered her former boss’s position as general counsel back at EFI.

It was a big leap forward, but Lee’s familiarity with the company—both domestically and internationally—made her the right woman for the job. “After leaving EFI, I could not have imagined that I would return, but the GC role is what I had been working towards,” Lee says of the opportunity. “I seized the chance.”

Since taking on the role in December 2020, Lee has worked closely with her team to navigate the legal and business challenges that have come their way. “I don’t just sit here and pontificate,” the GC emphasizes. “I roll up my sleeves and get stuff done right alongside the team.”

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Sawyer & Labar:

“Anna Lee is a smart, dedicated professional. She quickly grasps the issues, and considers solutions carefully and collegially.”

—Ivo Labar, Partner