Attorney is proven winner in life, as well as in courtroom

‘Picture perfect’ lawyer experienced in Church, government, education

On July 5, the Wall Street Journal printed the win-loss records of lawyers outside the government who appeared five or more times before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1978 and 1989.

Rex Lee, the new president of BYU and an LDS bishop, ranked second on the list with a 9-5 record. Of course, that doesn't count the cases he debated as U.S. solicitor general for four years. He recently became one of a handful of attorneys to argue 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. As president of BYU, he will continue to handle Supreme Court appeals for the Washington, D.C., law firm of Sidley & Austin.On July 1, Pres. Lee succeeded Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who was called to the First Quorum of the Seventy at April general conference. Pres. Lee didn't seek the position as BYU president, but then, he didn't want to go to BYU either, as a student in 1953. His parents persuaded him to try it for a year. He fell in love with the school after the first quarter, and now he's relishing the awesome task of presiding over the nation's largest private university.

Part of Pres. Lee's enthusiasm for the position may be influenced by the fact that two years ago he was battling for his life. In June 1987, doctors discovered he had cancer, specifically a non-Hodgkins lymphoma in its advanced stage. He received radical chemotherapy at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

"The chemotherapy treatments were designed to bring you as close to death as possible with the hope you come back," he said. His life was tied to an intravenous bottle strapped to a pole. He longed for the freedom to walk, drive a car, leave a building, and run again.

"Hardly an hour goes by that I don't make a comparison to life now and life during those four months in the hospital," he said.

More than a year and a half has passed since his last chemotherapy treatment, and his health is such that he's picked up his old passion of running again.

The new president has the slight build of a runner to go along with his dark brown hair and eyes. His unpretentious demeanor makes it easy for one to forget he's a high-powered attorney. One of his trademarks is his booming voice, which has caused colleagues to joke that he needs no telephone for calls within a mile, his long-time friend and colleague, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Council of the Twelve, wrote in 1981 in the Law School Record, a University of Chicago Law School publication.

Pres. Lee grew up in the small Mormon community of St. Johns in northeastern Arizona. His father died before he was born, and his mother, Mabel, married Wilford Shumway when Rex was 2. Shumway built and operated saw mills, and Rex spent his early years working around timber.

"Once you have a job in a saw mill, you are not easy to replace," Pres. Lee said. "Nevertheless, when opportunities, such as Scout camp, Boys State and Boys Nation came up, I always knew they his parentsT would find some way to fill in for me. The very poignant message they sent to me was that I was important to them."

Lee served a mission in Mexico, cementing his testimony of the gospel. He wanted to confirm the truths of what he was teaching, so he put Moroni's challenge to the test.

"I felt that I received a confirmation," he said. "It was not dramatic, but neither was it routine. It was one of a half dozen instances in my life that I was certain I had received an answer. . ., andT obtained knowledge through extrarational sources."

His mission only marked the beginning of his Church service. He is serving his second time as bishop. He presided over the BYU 7th Stake from 1978-1981 and served on the YMMIA general board.

After his mission, he attended BYU and was elected student body president. On July 7, 1959, he married Janet Griffin in the Arizona Temple, and they now have seven children. A year after they were married, the Lees went East, where he attended the University of Chicago Law School.

"He came to graduate school with extraordinary leadership ability and stature," recalled Elder Oaks, who was one of his professors. "He was gifted. He had superior intelligence and also had that intangible charisma that made him a leader. These qualities made him a rare and valuable commodity."

However, his law career almost ended prematurely. At the end of his first year, he received word that two of his uncles had died in a plane crash. The uncles supervised marketing and finances for the family business, areas others knew little about.

"I remember my parents saying I would have to come home to St. Johns, Ariz.T and help with the business," Pres. Lee said. "My family loyalty is such that I would have left law school, and that would have been a disaster for me."

But the family weathered the crisis, and the future solicitor general stayed in law school, graduating first in his class in 1963. He headed to Washington, D.C., to become a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. "Whizzer" White.

After a year as White's clerk from 1963-1964, he landed a job with Jennings, Strouss and Salmon, a prominent Phoenix, Ariz., law firm. During his eight years with the firm, he argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Even after 50 cases, he is still scared by the experience.

In 1972, he was named the founding dean of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School.

"He knew by instinct as well as by intellect what he had to do to have a top law school in an LDS setting," Elder Oaks said.

Pres. Lee used his connections in the legal profession to attract professors and students to BYU. Three years later, he faced his toughest professional decision when he took a 1 1/2-year leave from the law school to serve as assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Service Division of the Justice Department. Elder Oaks, then president of BYU, supported the decision because Pres. Lee's second-in-command could capably handle the job in his absence.

Resuming his position as dean of the law school in 1976, Pres. Lee directed a program that grew in prominence. In 1981 the government called again, and Pres. Lee was selected as U.S. solicitor general – a job he feels came as a result of his service in the Justice Department.

As solicitor general, he deftly handled criticism and praise. U.S. Attorney for Utah Dee Benson, who then worked in Washington, recalled how Pres. Lee spoke to the Federalist Society that included attorneys opposed to the policies of his office.

"Rex handled them superbly," Benson said. "He won them over with his personality and attitude.

"If you put together a package of the picture-perfect lawyer, it would be Rex Lee," Benson continued. "He's not arrogant, but something about him commands respect. He's interesting to listen to no matter what the subject. He has a gift that way."

In 1985, Pres. Lee returned to BYU to teach constitutional law while arguing cases before the Supreme Court for the law firm of Sidley & Austin. Even while he was being treated for cancer, he testified before the Supreme Court. His 51st case is scheduled to be heard by the high court this fall.

But the No. 1 priority for Pres. Lee is to apply all his experience and talents to leading BYU into the 1990s and into the 21st Century.

"I want to do this job and do it just right," Pres. Lee said. "If we ever stop doing well the things that other universities do well, nothing else is going to matter much. At the same time, it would be a mistake of equal magnitude to regard ourselves as just another university. It's most appropriate, as part of the restored kingdom, that we should have a place that stands among the great universities and combines the spiritual and intellectual development of the whole person."