Stephen Zack - The Crusader
Stephen Zack’s Career as a Trial Attorney Founded on a Passion for Justice
Stephen N. Zack keeps a copy of Cuba’s 1940 constitution in his desk as a constant reminder of the importance of the rule of law. “I experienced what happened in Cuba when the rights of individuals were suddenly stripped away,” he says. “To me, the loss of liberty is not a theoretical exercise. We must always be vigilant and defend the freedoms we enjoy in America.”
A partner at Boies, Schiller and Flexner LLP’s Miami office, Zack is an veteran trial lawyer who has represented many notable clients through the years. In addition, Zack is a longtime leader in the legal profession and the first Hispanic to be chosen as president of the American Bar Association (ABA).
Throughout his career, Zack has been a crusader for justice, supporting the legal rights of minorities, women, immigrants and impoverished families. “I tell law students that there are easier ways to make money than becoming an attorney,” he says. “You should get into the law because you want to right a wrong. That passion will drive your success.”
Reflecting on his colleague’s career, Alan Dimond, partner, Greenberg Traurig in Miami and a former president of The Florida Bar, says, “Steve Zack has made substantial contributions to promote the importance of the rule of law both in America and throughout the world. Speaking as the president of the American Bar Association, and using his superb communication skills horned as a very successful trial lawyer, Steve has also become one of the legal profession’s best spokesman for diversity.”
A Key Decision
Born to an American father and Cuban-American mother, Zack remembers the pre-Castro era in Cuba and the day that changed his life. In 1961, he was about to fly to the United States with his mother, sister and brother, when the Cuban intelligence service took them off the plane, held them incommunicado at Jose Marti Airport, and later placed them under house arrest.
“I didn’t know if I would live or die,” says Zack. “I only knew that I had no rights of any kind under a dictatorship. That was a turning point in my life. From that point on, I wanted to become a lawyer so I could help other people protect their rights.”
Zack and his family members were eventually released and allowed to fly to Miami, where they soon put down new roots with his father, who was a U.S. citizen. An advocate of diversity at an early age, Zack recalls giving a speech in Spanish and English at Miami Beach High School when he ran successfully for student government. “That was really unheard of in 1964,” he says.
A Long Trial Career
After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science and his law degree from the University of Florida, Zack returned to Miami, joined The Florida Bar in 1971, and then went to work for U.S. Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL) in Washington, DC, as his legislative aide.
From that position, Zack moved into private practice, honing his trial skills with several firms, including Zack Kovnitsky, Floyd Frates and Boies Schiller Flexner, a national firm that Zack joined 14 years ago. “On a scale of 10, I would give the matter 100 points,” he says with a smile. “I’ve had wonderful partners through the years, and we’ve handled very significant matters.”
Zack’s main practice area is complex commercial litigation, emphasizing class actions, products liability cases and federal multi-district litigation. He is a specialist in civil trial law, as well as eminent domain, corporate and international law and arbitration.
Zack has represented former Governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham as general counsel; the Florida Senate; the Florida Department of Professional Regulation; the Cities of Hollywood, Hialeah, Miami Beach, Miami and numerous national clients such as Philip Morris and National Geographic Society. In 2000, he represented former Vice President Al Gore in the trial of Bush v. Gore.
“I love being in court,” he says. “Trials involve the search for truth, and in my practice, I get to learn new things every day.”
Outside of the courtroom Zack enjoys spending time with his wife Marguerite, their two children, Jason and Tracey, and two grandchildren. “My wife grew up in a family of lawyers, so she has been very supportive and helpful throughout my career,” he says. “Now, we enjoy spending time on our ranch in Napa Valley, where we grow grapes and olives.”
Zack has also been a leader in the legal profession, serving in key state and national positions. He was chair of the Florida Ethics Committee and was appointed by Governor Lawton Chiles to the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.
In 1989, Zack was elected president of The Florida Bar — the youngest ever — and succeeded with several major changes. “At that time, proceedings against Bar members were secret, but we opened them up to the public for greater transparency,” he says. “We also established a commission for equal opportunity in the profession.”
However, Zack also took the lead in defeating a proposal to authorize multidisciplinary firm practices with the alternative business structure (ABS) model. “I opposed that model because the legal and accounting professions have different ethical standards,” he says.
Today, Zack says The Florida Bar is recognized as one of the best in the U.S., and its decisions often set the tone for other bar associations. “We’ve also done a good job of policing ourselves, and maintaining our discipline,” he adds.
On a national level, Zack was elected as president of the ABA in 2010, where his accomplishments included forming the first commission on Hispanic legal rights and responsibilities, and a pro bono report examining voting rights and immigration issues. A third accomplishment was improving the legal system’s ability to respond to disasters.
“After Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the courts and jails in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana closed down,” he says. “When volunteer lawyers offered to come in and help victims of the storm, the Louisiana Supreme Court said that would be the unauthorized practice of law in the state. During my tenure, the ABA passed a model Katrina resolution to remove that obstacle so that the legal system can respond more quickly and efficiently in the future.”
After his term as ABA president, Zack was named chair of the National Center for Access to Justice. “We have a justice gap across the country that is obvious to anyone who cares to look,” he says. “More than 80 percent of Americans lack the money necessary to access the courts, and even those who do have the money don’t understand how our legal system works.”
Zack also criticizes the lack of civic education in the nation’s high schools. “When you ask people about the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — the most common response is ‘Democrat, Republican and independent,’” he says.
Reflecting his efforts to promote diversity and support legal education, Zack established a foundation at the University of Florida, which has honored him as a “Distinguished Alumni,” its highest recognition. In addition, the law school named one of its principal buildings Steven N. Zack Hall.
Looking to the future, Zack believes the practice of law will change dramatically in the next 10 years, due to continuing advances in technology. “We already have the virtual law firm and cloud computing infrastructures,” he says. “I expect that we will see situations where lawyers band together for a case and dissolve afterwards.” However, the decline of traditional law firms also means that new lawyers may start their careers without the benefit of traditional training and support.
“I love the law and have devoted my career to the pursuit of justice,” Zack says. “I hope this next generation of attorneys shares that same passion.