Verizon GC Steven Zipperstein Discusses Success in the Evolving Communications Industry

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Steven Zipperstein has never given less than 110 percent to any job. Originally bound for a Ph.D. 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 at age 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 led 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, D.C., until an old boss called with a new challenge: an in-house position with communications company GTE.

Q: What was your path after law school?

A: 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. 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.

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

A: 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. Then I was promoted to be the chief of the appeals section in the office. Then we had the riots, after the Rodney King situation, and I was working closely with people at the Justice Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., at that time. They asked me to come back to Washington and work directly with them. Later, I returned to Los Angeles.

Q: What motivated you to go in-house?

A: I absolutely loved my work with the Justice Department. I had been there nine years, but I had a wife and three young daughters. 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, 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. It was the right decision at the time, and I've never regretted it. It was a great move for me.

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

A: There was a merger between GTE and Bell Atlantic 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 counsel. Then, after three years of doing that, the general counsel of Verizon Wireless retired, and I was promoted into his position. I've been here for about seven years.

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

A: 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 have changed dramatically. Seven years ago, text messaging and flip phones were the state of the art. Now, we have the most incredible smartphones. It's been revolutionary, and I've had a front row seat, as the general counsel.

Q: What is a typical day like in the legal department at Verizon Wireless?

A: A typical day for me will involve participation in very high-level business meetings with the CEO and his leadership team. 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 and acquisition activity.

Q: Can you talk about your involvement in pro bono work?

A: We have a robust pro bono program within Verizon. We have a program called Hope Line where we donate refurbished cell phones and free minutes to domestic violence shelters around the United States. I personally am active in the Princeton, N.J., community. I think it's very important for people who are in a position like mine to do everything they can to give back to the community.

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

A: Attorney General [Janet] Reno called me and asked me to represent the Justice Department in the Congressional investigation [into the 51-day standoff in 1993 in Waco, Texas, between the FBI and the Branch Davidian sect, which ended in the deaths of 75 sect members].

After the last day of the hearing, I was sitting in my office and the Attorney General called me into her office. When I walked into her office, she said, "The president just called 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."

I was stunned and honored and the first thing I thought was to ask if the other lawyers who had worked with me could come hear her say that. She immediately said yes, and we had a little impromptu moment with her when she thanked them and shook each of their hands.

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

A: 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.

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