Extended Interview: Steven Zipperstein, GC of Verizon

Steven Zipperstein has never given less than 110 percent to any job he's done. Originally bound for a PhD in political science, he changed course when a professor and mentor at UCLA suggested that he consider a professional degree instead. Having worked at law firms during the summer to pay for school, Zipperstein found his natural niche in the law.

After graduating from college young and early at 19, Zipperstein took a year off before law school to backpack across Europe and get more firsthand experience working in a law firm setting. By the time he started law school at UC Davis, he was rested and ready to work hard - a plan that paid off when he landed a coveted summer associate position with Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley that eventually lead to his first job.

When an opportunity to interview for a position as a federal prosecutor with the Justice Department arose, Zipperstein followed his passion and took a pay cut to tackle the challenge. He quickly moved through the ranks at the Justice Department, bouncing from coast-to-coast in positions in Los Angeles and Washington, DC until an old boss called with a new challenge: an in-house position with communications company GTE.

Where did you go to college? When and why did you decide to go into law?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I went to UCLA for undergrad and I worked my way through college in a law firm in Los Angeles, three days a week as their sort of gopher. But when I was still an undergraduate working there, they basically had me doing substantive legal work. I wasn't practicing law without a license, mind you, but I was working on some really interesting things, as well as just doing the usual things a gopher does - taking documents to be filed in the various court houses around LA and when I would do that, I would sometimes pop into the courtrooms and see hearings. So I became very interested in going to law school. What I really wanted to do was get a PhD in political science, but a professor of mine at the time, who I'm still very much in contact with and is a real mentor to me, said something very interesting to me. He said, "You can keep up your interest in world affairs your whole life without having to get a PhD, but what you should really do is learn a profession - law, medicine - as a way to support your family in the future. So I took his advice and decided to go to law school.

When did you become interested in political science?

I had family in Israel. My dad's sister has lived there since 1950. And I was just exposed, growing up in LA, to a lot of issues that made me very interested in current events and history and world affairs and political science so it was kind of a natural fit for me as a major in college.

When you graduated did you go straight to law school?

I took a year off and I backpacked through Europe for six months and then when I came back from that trip, I worked in a law firm in Los Angeles for six months to save up money. So after I took that year off, I then went straight to law school.

For me, it was a fantastic idea. I was 19 years old when graduated from college. I graduated in three years and even taking a year off, I was still the youngest person in my law school class. The experience of traveling around Europe for six months with nothing more than what I could carry on my back was absolutely tremendous. It helped me become more resourceful, more able to deal with adversity, more able to appreciate life as it was served up to me every day. I met some amazing people on the trip. It was just a fantastic experience. I've traveled a lot in my life and that was the longest trip I've ever taken and still, in many ways, my most memorable trip.

What was it like being the youngest person in your law school class?

Law school is very competitive anyway and everyone wants to do well, particularly the first year is very important. I came off this year of traveling and working, tanned, rested and ready, if you will, for law school and not burned out like some of my classmates were who came straight from their undergraduate careers and I was able to hit the ground running. I did very, very well my first year and got a great job my first-year and second-year summer. So I really give a lot of the credit to the fact that I had taken that year off, that I was really sure that I wanted to go to law school when in fact I did show up for law school and the age issue wasn't really much of a factor at all.

Why did you decide to go to UC Davis for law school?

Really, I would say the reasons were geographic and financial. Thirty years ago, when I started there, it was incredibly cheap, unlike today, unfortunately. I was the oldest of three children. My father was a Los Angeles County probation officer. We didn't have much money and although I was accepted to some private law schools, I didn't want to graduate with a lot of debt. In fact, since I worked my way through college and worked my way through law school, when I graduated I had no debt and that was wonderful. UC Davis was a relatively new law school at the time - it had only been around for about 13 years. But it had a great faculty, a real commitment to public service and pro bono work and one of the highest bar-passing rates in the country. For California, they were second only to Stanford Law School. And also, I would say, Davis, as a place to live is very, very pleasant, very nice. Everyone rides their bikes around town, the weather's great. In those days, it was a very quiet, small town feel, which really leant itself to the ability to really, seriously devote oneself to studying and that's what I did - especially my first year. I really hit the books my first year and studied very, very hard.

What was your path after law school?

I went to the Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley firm in Los Angeles. I worked there my second summer, between my second and third years of law school. They came up, at that time they recruited at Harvard, Yale and Stanford and they decided to come to UC Davis and recruit, which is the first time they had ever come. I had very good first year grades and I had spent my first summer at a big New York firm, Donovan Leisure, at their LA office and my interview went well and they offered me a summer associate job. That was 1982, which was the first big recession before the one that we're just coming out of now. So there were 12 summer associates and I was the only one that received an offer. So the kids from Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Michigan didn't get offers, but I did. I loved the people there. The firm was kind of a boutique litigation firm, very diverse, very powerful in the courtroom, devoted to pro bono work and public service. It was a perfect fit for me and I stayed for four years and loved every second of it.

You also worked with the Justice Department. Can you tell me about the work you did there?

Even though I loved my law firm job, I had an opportunity to interview for a position as a federal prosecutor at the US Attorneys Office in Los Angeles and I was offered a position. I took an enormous pay cut to do it, but my thinking was that I would get a chance to do jury trials and get a lot of experience very quickly, which, in a law firm environment, you get a lot of really great experience and great training, but you don't get to do trials, especially as a younger lawyer. So, I went to the US Attorneys office, intending to stay for the minimum commitment, which is three years, and then go back to my law firm. But instead I wound up staying nine years and it was by far absolutely the best experience of my career.

Federal prosecutors are like the fighter pilots of the legal profession and right from the first day on the job, I felt that way. I was conducting grand jury investigations, I was doing jury trials by myself, I was arguing cases in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. After my first year in the office, I was assigned the first savings and loan fraud case that was going to trial, this was back in the late 1980s when savings and loans were the big white collar issue of the day. And I tried, by myself, the first case involving a savings and loan that had collapsed due to criminal fraud. It was a 12-week jury trial, both defendants were convicted on both counts of the indictment. Then I was promoted to be the chief of the appeals section in the office, did that for a couple of years. Then we had the riots in the office, after the Rodney King situation and I was working closely with people at the Justice Department headquarters in Washington, DC at that time and they asked me to come back to Washington and work directly with them.

Then later, I received a call from the newly appointed US Attorney in Los Angeles back in my old office in LA, asking me to come back and serve as her chief assistant, which is the number two person in the entire office, overseeing the civil, criminal and tax divisions. So, I went back to LA and did that for three years and then William Barr, the former Attorney General, called me up one day out of the blue in late 1996. At that time, he was the general counsel of GTE Corporation and he asked me to come work for him. And I decided to do it. GTE later became Verizon.

What motivated you to go in-house?

I absolutely loved my work with the Justice Department. I had been there nine years and my wife, who I met at law school at UC Davis was working full time, even as we had had three children. So I had a wife and three young daughters and as wonderful as it is to be a federal prosecutor, the pay is low and I wanted to be able to give my wife the opportunity to, if she wanted, either choose a different job that maybe didn't pay as much if I found a job that paid more than I was making in the government. So it was very much a lifestyle decision. Most significantly, the GTE office in California, at that time, was about ten minutes away from our house, against traffic. And if you know anything about LA, to have a ten minute commute is really wonderful. It was the right decision at the time and I've never regretted it. It was a great move for me.

You've also done some teaching at Loyola law. What did you teach and what did you enjoy about teaching?

I taught federal criminal law and international criminal law at Loyola Law School at night for about five years between 1995 and 2000. I absolutely loved it. I loved interacting with the students and having more of an academic kind of a job to go along with my day-to-day job as a prosecutor and then my day-to-day job working in the corporation. It was fantastic. Someday, I hope that I have the opportunity to teach again. It was absolutely fulfilling and wonderful.

How did the GTE job lead to where you are now at Verizon?

There was a merger between GTE and Bell Atlantic and that happened in June 2000. When that merger was completed, William Barr was named the general counsel of the combined company, which was called Verizon and he asked me to come back to the east coast and be one of his six deputy general counsels. For the first three years, I worked in the Verizon office in New York City, handling kind of a broad portfolio of domestic litigation and then international M&A work, which I found very interesting. I was also the chief compliance lawyer for the corporation. Then, after three years of doing that, in about 2003, the general counsel of Verizon Wireless retired and I was promoted into his position and I've been here for about seven years.

How have the job you do and the industry you work in changed since you've been general counsel?

Verizon Wireless, in the seven years I've been general counsel, has more than tripled in size. It's been an amazing success story in the history of American business. And also during that time, the technology and the products and services that the entire wireless industry has been delivering to customers has changed dramatically. Seven years ago, text messaging and flip phones were the state of the art. Now, we have the most incredible smartphones operating on the Android operating system and tablets and air cards and 4G super fast wireless technology. All of that has happened in such a short period of time. It's been revolutionary and I've had a front row seat, as the general counsel, to these amazing changes and this amazing growth in our company and keeping up with the legal and regulatory and public policy challenges that have occurred as we've grown so much and as the technology has changed so much, has been an incredibly interesting and intellectually rewarding experience for me.

How have the changes to wireless industry affected the legal side of business at Verizon Wireless?

Privacy issues have become very, very important in the wireless industry as the technology has become more robust, enabling location-based services, enabling Internet access from cell phones and that sort of thing. So we've had an explosion of cutting-edge, incredibly interesting legal issues that are a direct result of the rapidly changing technology in the industry.

What is a typical day in the legal dept at Verizon Wireless is like?

A typical day for me will involve participation in very high-level business meetings with the CEO and his leadership team. I'm a member of the senior leadership team and I get very involved in business issues, as well as legal issues, so I attend business meetings. I deal with an enormous array of legal issues in any given day that involve either ongoing matters or new matters spanning the range from regulatory to litigation to merger & acquisition activity.

Can you talk about your involvement in pro bono work?

We have a robust pro bono program within Verizon and we have a relationship with the DLA Piper law firm where we team with them to do pro bono projects throughout the country. In addition, I'm very proud of the public service that our company does. We have a program called Hope Line where we recycle used cell phones and we donate the refurbished cell phones and free minutes to domestic violence shelters around the United States. And that's proven to be an extremely important program to help victims of domestic violence have a way to communicate without the knowledge of and without being traceable by their attacker or abuser. We've also provide financial support to a number of organizations that promote minority advancement in the legal profession. The Mexican American Bar Foundation in Southern California, the Asian American Legal Foundation, we've supported a number of programs to enable legal services to be provided to disadvantaged individuals, such as the inner-city law center in Los Angeles. I personally am on the, I'm active in the Princeton community. I think it's very, very important for people who are in a position like me to do everything they can to give back to the community.

What do you like most about your job?

There are a number of things I love about this job. Certainly, the opportunity to use the resources of the corporation to help those less fortunate is very special to me and something that I'm very grateful to the leadership for allowing me to do. I've also really enjoyed working with some wonderful business people over the years. A lot of times, people in law firms tend to think that lawyers are the smartest people because they only work with other lawyers, but there's a whole big world out there of engineers and financial people, marketing people, public relations people who are brilliant, wonderful, good people and I've really, really enjoyed being able to spread my wings and work with non-lawyers on a day-to-day basis. I've also enjoyed being part of a tremendous success story like Verizon Wireless. It's been absolutely exhilarating to be part of this wonderful company.

What's the most challenging part of your job?

This may strike you as a bit cynical, but what frustrates me the most is that all of the good things that we do that don't get attention. We, for example, use our technology to help the police find missing people and catch bad guys because cell phones have GPS chips in them and with the appropriate warrant or the appropriate legal process, we can provide information to the police. I have a binder full of commendation letters in my office form police around the country thanking us for helping them saving people's lives, but despite all this good work that we do in the community, we never get any credit for it. The news media is much more interested in pointing out the occasional mistake we make than giving us credit for the daily work that we do to help those less fortunate and that's a source of frustration for me.

I understand that when a company makes a mistake, it's more newsworthy than when a company does something good, but if we could get more attention for these good things we do, it might inspire other companies to also use their resources to do good things in the community and I think it would have a really positive impact on the company.

Do you have a proudest moment that you'd like to share from your career?

My proudest moment occurred in the summer of 1995. After the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress decided to hold hearings on the Waco events. Attorney General Reno called me, I was back in LA, and said, "I need you back here to represent me and to represent the Justice Department in this Congressional investigation." I spent six weeks in DC and worked literally around the clock, basically sleeping three or four hours a night.

At the end of the last day of the hearing, we went back to the Justice Department, exhausted. I was sitting in my office and the phone rang and the Attorney General said, "I want you to come into my office right now." The hearing had gone well, but I still didn't know what she was going to say to me. And when I walked into her office, Ms. Reno said, "The president just called me and congratulated me and asked me to congratulate the Justice Department people who represented us in these hearings and he wants all of you to know how proud he is of the work that was done."

And I was stunned, I was honored and then the first thing I thought of saying was, "Well, Ms. Reno, there were about forty lawyers from the Department who helped me with this effort. Would it be okay if they came upstairs also to hear you say to them what you said to me?" And she immediately said, "Yes, bring them all up here." And we had a little impromptu moment with her when she thanked and went around and shook the hands of each of the career lawyers in the Justice Department who had helped prepare her and the department for the Waco hearings.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to become the GC of a large company?

Work hard. Never compromise your integrity. Write and speak clearly. Always be prepared, but most importantly just be yourself. Don't try to put on an act, just be yourself.

If you weren't in law, what would your dream job be?

I think Charlie Rose has a really cool job. He meets and gets to ask questions of all kinds of interesting people. I'm a very curious person, I have very wide-ranging interests, I speak several foreign languages, I love to read 18th and 19th century French and Russian literature. Charlie Rose's job is one that I'd love to have if I weren't in the law.

Kayleigh Roberts

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