Stephanie Sills Lee was well on her way to a stellar career in the field of law when a life-changing event forced her to re-evaluate where she was and where she was going.
Little did she know that her new direction would land her as the executive director of the Mississippi State Board of Contractors (MSBOC), making her the first woman to ever hold that office.
“I’m both thrilled and honored that I was chosen to lead the MSBOC,” said the unassuming Lee with an easy smile during an interview in her spacious office. “I am just so grateful my board has that kind of trust in me.”
If Lee seems already comfortable in her surroundings, it is because they are not new. She had spent four years at the MSBOC serving as legal counsel before unexpectedly landing in the executive director’s chair.
Indeed, it has been an interesting journey for the Pearl native. A person of faith, Lee said she felt a calling to enter the legal field. She would go on to earn her B.S. degree in history from Mississippi College before completing her juris doctorate from MC School of Law in 2000.
By that time, Lee was already attracting attention, and promptly landed a clerkship with Judge James Graves in the 7th Circuit District in Hinds County. In 2001 when Graves was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, Lee stayed in Hinds County and clerked for Judge Winston L. Kidd.
In 2002, Lee relocated to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and began practicing at the law firm of Barton & Williams in Pascagoula, concentrating on mass tort litigation.
Lee’s life took another positive turn when she moved back to the metro Jackson area in 2005 just a few months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Coast.
“Our former home had six feet of water in it. We would have lost everything,” she said.
The storm’s destruction would offer Lee an opportunity to show she could manage a complex, changing environment.
Lee hired on with the firm of Brent Coon & Associates, which is based in Texas but has offices nationwide, including one in New Orleans in 2005.
“I was asked to manage the attorneys from the News Orleans office until the office could re-open,” Lee remembered. “It was a difficult time, but I definitely learned a lot about management. That experience is invaluable to me today here at the MSBOC.”
Carrying on her mass tort litigation work, Lee became a member of one of Brent Coon & Associates’ trial teams, taskforces that traveled the country to offer services when and where needed.
Lee seemed to have it all. She and her husband, Ricky, an instructor at the Mississippi State Fire Academy, and their three children — son, Ryan, and daughters — were back at home in Rankin County. She was with a noted law firm, and though it meant frequent travel she was content.
Then came the life-changing event. In 2007, Lee was diagnosed with cancer. Treatment included surgery and chemotherapy.
Fortunately, the treatment was successful.
“The cancer I had usually doesn’t come back after five years,” Lee said. “I’m now six years out and healthy and blessed. But it reshaped my priorities”
Those new priorities included staying nearer to home and family. So, she decided to leave Brent Coon & Associates, and was named a special assistant attorney general by the Attorney General’s Office to serve as legal counsel at the MSBOC. Lee had been serving in that role for four years when approached about filing the executive director’s position.
Lee admitted she wasn’t sure about the move.
“The board approached me once, and I said I wasn’t interested. They asked again, and well…” Lee said with a grin.
It is a big job. The MSBOC is the licensing authority for the state, and is charged with protecting the health, safety and general welfare of all the 12,000-plus contractors in Mississippi. The Board consists of two road contractors, two building contractors, two residential builders, one electrical contractor, one plumbing or heat and air conditioner contractor, one water and sewer contractor and one roofing contractor. There is also a five member residential standing committee.
Lee oversees an in-house, 10-person staff plus seven investigators scattered across the state.
Lee said she had no plans for any radical changes at the MSBOC, which recently moved into a new headquarters facility just off Lakeland Drive. The agency has seen an uptick in contractor complaints, mainly due to nonpayment allegations as the economy soured, and said she just wants to continue to “move the agency forward.”
While Lee seems easy in her new role, she admits that being the first woman to serve as executive director of the MSBOC means others are going to be watching.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” she said, “maybe just a self-imposed extra responsibility. There are terrific opportunities for women in the construction industry.”