Mae Lee Browning finds purpose in becoming a criminal defense attorney

by University Communications,

As commencement approaches, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the third of our four-part series.

When Mae Lee Browning JD’14 tried meth for the first time at age 16, she thought, “Finally, everything is OK in the world.”

But nine years later, surrounded by prostitutes and criminals in a rehab facility, Browning knew her habit was consuming her. Something had to change.

“I started to need it. I couldn’t live without it,” she says. “And, then, when I tried to quit meth, I couldn’t. It always pulled me back.”

Only after getting arrested for drug possession in 2004 did Browning seek help. She invested nearly three years in completing rehab and recovery, and she began envisioning a future helping to protect people’s legal rights.

That’s when she tackled her law school application and was accepted at Willamette University College of Law. Now, at the age of 32, she’s graduating and hoping to serve her community by becoming a public criminal defense attorney.

“I know what it’s like to be a criminal defendant. I know what it’s like to be in drug court, to be on probation, to keep failing before finally being able to succeed,” Browning says. “Giving people a voice and defending the Constitution is what I’m passionate about.”

Beneath the Surface

Browning was born in Malaysia to a Caucasian father and a Chinese mother. She lived in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan before moving to the United States when she was 8. Two years later, when problems began emerging at home, she was sent to boarding school in Southern California.

Looking for distractions from her personal problems, Browning began experimenting with drugs as a teenager. She started by taking a friend’s prescription medication, but later advanced to meth.

“While I was in boarding school and college, drugs were still working for me,” Browning says. “I never missed classes because of drugs. I had great grades. I would not say that I was happy, though. I did drugs because there was a dark force driving me to destruction.”

In 2003, after graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts, Browning’s life took a dramatic turn. She had intended to use her degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures to teach English in China. But that fell through with the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Estranged from her mother and still reeling from the recent death of her father, Browning flew to Los Angeles in search of a new beginning. That’s when her recreational meth use grew into a full-fledged addiction.

“I was alone. There was no school, no job. I could smoke meth full time,” Browning says. “That was when I spiraled out of control.”

Her drug use led to her arrest in 2004. The following year, Browning enrolled in a drug court program and was given a choice — either stop using drugs for good or go to prison for 18 months.

She chose to stay clean.

“I am grateful that I got arrested because it made me confront my drug addiction,” says Browning, who has remained drug free since 2006. “It was clear that I was not doing a good job managing my own life, so I began to take direction. I took things one step at a time and rebuilt my life from the ground up.”

New Beginnings

Ready for a new beginning in 2010, Browning closed her eyes and envisioned the perfect place. She imagined friendly people, less traffic and beautiful scenery. She imagined Oregon.

Determined to go to law school, Browning began investigating her options. She ended her search after stepping foot on Willamette’s campus.

“Willamette was so warm and welcoming,” she says. “It had an affordable price tag, it was next to an undergraduate campus, and it was close to the state capitol. Going to Willamette seemed like the rational choice.”

Her passion and honesty resonated with Carolyn Dennis, the school’s assistant dean of admission.

“Mae Lee is a smart, caring, determined person who has done everything in her power to overcome her addiction and who recognized the environment she needed to succeed,” she says. “We saw her potential as a future lawyer from Willamette.”

Forging Connections

Before classes began, Browning began networking by meeting attorneys, judges and other Oregon law students with Opportunities for Law in Oregon (OLIO), a program offered by the Oregon State Bar.

She learned study skills and legal writing through a free, two-week course Willamette offered, and she became a student representative for the Oregon Asian Pacific American Bar Association and the Multnomah Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section.

Browning also forged strong relationships with people through the school’s mentor and externship programs. This is how she met Liani Reeves ’98, JD’01, general counsel for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber.

“Willamette assigned Liani as my attorney mentor, and she’s been absolutely amazing,” Browning says. “She connected me with her other mentees and helped shape me into the person I am today. She helped me create my Oregon legal family.”

Proud of how far Browning has come, Reeves describes Browning as a dynamic person with a quirky personality. She’s focused on her goals, and she’s determined to succeed.

“With her background with drug addiction and drug court, she understands that good people can make bad choices,” Reeves says. “It’s made her empathetic. She has a perspective on human resilience that most people don’t have, and that will make her a better lawyer.”

The Honorable Paul DeMuniz JD ’75 agrees. The former chief justice for the Oregon Supreme Court taught Browning in his Oregon Criminal Procedure class and says he was impressed by her intelligence, dedication and analytical skills.

This is why DeMuniz helped Browning get a lobbying externship with the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (OCDLA), under the tutelage of lobbyist Gail Meyer. It’s also why he believes she’ll be an outstanding criminal defense attorney.

“She has an empathy for clients that comes from her own life experiences. That’s an added dimension that will help her greatly earn their trust,” he says. “She has a tremendous amount to give to her clients and to the justice system as a whole.”

Through Browning’s externship during the 2014 legislative session, she helped pass the Speedy Trial Bill. Under the new law, the state must bring a defendant to trial within two years for a misdemeanor and within three years for a felony, with certain exemptions — ensuring that cases move quickly through the criminal justice system.

“It was a unique experience for which I am extremely grateful,” Browning says. “I had the opportunity to do things that not many third-year law students get to do, such as lobbying senators and testifying on the record before the Senate Committee on General Government.”

Giving Back

Looking back over life, Browning attributes much of her recent success to programs offered by Willamette and the Oregon State Bar. In the future, she hopes to return this kindness by mentoring other, young lawyers embarking on their own careers.

For now, though, Browning is focused on graduating in May, taking the bar exam and volunteering at a public defender’s office in Portland. She hasn’t found a job yet, but she’s optimistic about her prospects.

“I have this huge network of people who want to see me succeed, and that is a huge accomplishment,” she says. “It’s been a really, truly amazing journey.”