Being a lawyer: a role that Debra Zumwalt was born to inhabit


Debra Zumwalt

OK, so she professes to have an obsession with Diet Coke—she drinks at least six per day—but couldn't pick it out of a blind taste-test in front of 50 people. Nevertheless, you probably don't want to find yourself facing Debra Zumwalt, vice president and general counsel, in a courtroom.

Winning matters to Zumwalt, and she confessed to becoming something of a workaholic in her pursuit of courtroom victories and righting the wrongs that have come her way, both personally and professionally. In doing so, Zumwalt has watched her career skyrocket past gender biases and professional obstacles to a position where she said she has found the perfect balance of a career that allows her to be passionate about her work and enjoy it.

Zumwalt highlighted other subjects during her "What Matters to Me and Why" talk last week, but the majority of her speech focused on that dominant drive she has had since she was a little girl to be a lawyer and what she has done since getting that law degree from Stanford in the late 1970s. Along the way, she's also learned the lesson that it is more important to do the right thing than to be right or win.

Her colleagues might refer to her as a "workaholic" and "obsessive," but Zumwalt likes to think of herself as being "intense" and "really focused" with a keen eye on what matters to her most: her 15-year-old daughter and her career.

"It's important to step back and enjoy what you're doing," Zumwalt said. "I really enjoy what I'm doing. That's part of the balance I bring to my life."

Zumwalt was born in Phoenix, and as a young girl she recalled feeling a strong sense of unfairness at not being able to check out more than three books per week from the local library. Her lawyerly instincts were born then and fed off a need to always be right, she said. She also learned the value of hard work from her father, a police officer who studied for a college degree during the day while working a night shift. He eventually earned his degree and accepted a job with the State Department, prompting the family to move to Washington, D.C.

Her father's career led to several years of bouncing around Brazil and other South American countries, where she learned Portuguese and some Spanish. She returned to the states to go to college at Arizona State University, where she remained intently focused on earning the grades that would get her into a good law school. She was accepted to Stanford Law School and felt right at home.

"I liked college but I loved law school," Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt was hired at a large law firm in San Francisco after graduation and was immediately greeted with a sexist comment from the head of the firm and her litigation team, who told her, "You know, dear, I don't think ladies have what it takes to be litigators."

"I just decided right then and there that he was wrong," Zumwalt said. "Within 20 years, he was retired and I was head of a litigation group, a managing partner of the firm's Silicon Valley office and a member of the executive committee of the firm."

Along the way, Zumwalt did pro bono work in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, where she learned much about the criminal justice system and the array of societal ills that few corporate lawyers deal with. She later became one of the founding trustees and officers of the Silicon Valley Campaign for Legal Services, an organization that raises money for legal services for the disadvantaged in Silicon Valley. She is also a director of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

Zumwalt accepted a job at Stanford as senior university counsel in 1987 and handled several high-profile cases involving indirect cost disputes with the federal government and student athlete drug testing requirements by the NCAA. She left the university in 1993 to become a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop LLP and lead the firm's Silicon Valley office, which handled many Stanford legal matters. She returned to the university in February 2000 as acting general counsel and was permanently named to the post in January 2001.

"It seemed like the perfect job because I loved Stanford and I loved law," Zumwalt said. "This is the easiest job I've had as a lawyer because I don't have to go out and look for clients."

Although she loves her job, Zumwalt said she sometimes gets frustrated with cases like the indirect cost disputes and land use matters because she feels the university is unfairly targeted.

"The hardest thing about being a lawyer here is that I don't think Stanford is treated fairly," Zumwalt said. "We're too easy to pick on as a target. [Critics] think we're elitist."

Even with an office of 10 attorneys and nine staff, there is no shortage of legal needs from the university and the two hospitals that Zumwalt must oversee, all of which competes against the desire to spend time with her daughter (Zumwalt has been a single mother since her daughter was 3 years old). Through it all, Zumwalt credits an optimistic attitude with helping her accomplish what she needs to.

"In the end, for me to be effective and try to make a difference, I need to keep that optimism," Zumwalt said. "It's part of who I am. You're pretty much as happy as you want to be or try to be."