By Kathy Fleming
When eight-year-old Stephen Zack (JD 71) was walking on the beach with his grandmother, she asked what he was going to be when he grew up.
“A lawyer,” he said, without hesitation and despite the fact he had never met a lawyer and didn’t know what one did.
He did grow up to be a lawyer, a board-certified trial attorney who would represent presidential candidate Al Gore on the way to the Supreme Court, forge the way for Hispanic American lawyers, and work with powerful Florida governors. Today he holds the number two spot in the American Bar Association and is a partner in one of the top firms in the country.
Make no mistake, Zack loves lawyers and lawyering. It is his profession, hobby, passion.
His high regard for justice probably began in Cuba, where his way of life changed dramatically when Fidel Castro came to power. He remembers his parents fleeing the dictatorship, leaving behind a successful leather manufacturing business. He also remembers authorities pulling him and his family from the plane waiting to take them to a new home in the United States and placing them under house arrest for two weeks until the Swiss Embassy secured their release. At 14, he was paying attention.
Most of all, he has committed to memory the pain of his grandfather, who left Russia as a young man in search of American liberty. Even though he got on the wrong boat and ended up in Cuba, his grandfather built a good life for himself in his adopted country and brought over 10 brothers and sisters from Russia. To leave behind all he had attained hurt.
“When we arrived in the United States, I clearly remember my grandfather saying to me he was sad to be a refugee for the second time in his life,” said Zack. “He said, ‘If the United States falls, there will be no place else to go.’ Those words will forever be at the center of my personal beliefs and philosophy that the U.S. was and always will be the last bastion of freedom. We must protect liberty and justice.”
When it was time to go to college, his father plainly told him he would attend the University of Florida because that was what they could afford and it was the best public school in Florida. After earning a bachelor’s, he attended law school with other idealistic young people of the ’60s, making the most of it by presiding over Florida Blue Key and the Interfraternity Council and finding best friends for life.
“Everything I’ve achieved so far has been possible because of my education from the University of Florida,” said Zack, who continues to be an ardent supporter and is an UF Law Center Association Board of Trustees Member Emeritus. “It was a wonderful experience and prepared me very well.”
It was fellow alumnus and legal giant Chesterfield Smith (JD 48) who served as Zack’s “perfect example” for how to practice his chosen profession. A founding partner at the firm that became Holland & Knight, Smith was president of the ABA when he challenged President Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigations — telling him “no man is above the law.”
“Chesterfield personified public service and practiced law until the day he died. We spoke regularly and I still miss him every day,” he said. Smith was heavy on Zack’s mind when he found himself in the middle of one of the most historic and most watched legal contests in American history, the 2000 presidential election.
Zack, an early volunteer in the Gore election, was in bed watching the election night returns when the Gore campaign called from Tennessee. “I think we might need some lawyers in Florida,” a Gore aide told him.
As general counsel for the Gore campaign in Florida, Zack spent the next 37 days, 24/7, with David Boies, the legendary lawyer who argued the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and other attorneys, preparing briefs and motions that often were due the same day.
It was Zack who had the “Perry Mason moment” in the Leon County Circuit Court before Judge N. Sanders Sauls, according to The New York Times. A witness for the opposing legal team, John Ahmann, was an expert on punch card voting devices and had methodically knocked down theories advanced by the Gore team. He testified he doubted very much that a chad buildup would prevent a voter from casting a vote.
In the middle of cross-examination, Zack, received a fax from another lawyer in his firm that contained a freshly unearthed patent application Ahmann had submitted two decades ago. The document listed an array of problems with the voting machines, many of them similar to the flaws put forth by Zack and colleagues.
Before long, Ahmann was agreeing that in close elections, a manual recount was not a bad idea.
“What is telling about Steve’s talent was his ability to digest that information, know its significance and use it against the other side,” said Danny Ponce (JD 73), a partner in Legon, Ponce & Fodiman and one of Zack’s best friends. “Years of litigation were compressed into those 37 days and the stakes were about as high as it gets. Steve had the skills to do it, volunteered to do it, showed up and did it.”
It was the type of case every trial lawyer goes to law school for, Zack said.
“We never knew what the next day would bring and it was a constant 24 hours of adrenaline,” he said. “Later a friend told me my cross examination in Tallahassee had been seen around the world by 52 million viewers. I was glad I didn’t know that at the time.”
After working so closely with David Boies and becoming mutual admirers of each other’s abilities and attributes, Zack merged his 27-lawyer firm in Fort Lauderdale with Boies, Schiller & Flexner in 2002. Boies is widely known as a litigation powerhouse for going up against Microsoft, Major League Baseball, and AT&T. A key part of Zack’s daily life, however, continues to be his service to the legal profession.
“I’ve known Steve since we were UF sophomores and active in student government and Florida Blue Key. Our lives have been intertwined ever since,” said Ponce. “One thing we learned early on from Stephen O’Connell (UF president 1967-73) was to get, you have to give and one shouldn’t come before the other. Steve has always had a desire to serve lawyers and has given years of his life and thousands of dollars in doing so.”
If Zack has received from his profession, he surely has given. Late last year he was elected chairman of the American Bar Association House of Delegates, the ABA’s second-highest office. He was the first Hispanic American to assume this role, where he leads 537 delegates responsible for policymaking. He has chaired the ABA’s Select Committee of the House and has held numerous ABA posts including member of the Board of Governors, board liaison to the Sections of Litigation and Alternative Dispute Resolution, chairman of the Latin American Council, and member of the Commission on the Judiciary in the 21st Century.
As president of The Florida Bar 1988-89, he was both the youngest president in that organization’s history and the first Hispanic American to lead a state bar association. He went on to be president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents.
Zack is chosen for leadership posts because he is a loyal consensus builder who makes meaningful contributions, according to Howard Coker (JD 71), a UF law school classmate who has worked closely with Zack in numerous organizations through the years. A managing senior partner at Coker, Myers,
Schickel, Sorenson & Green in Jacksonville,Coker also has presided over several groups including The Florida Bar Association and the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.
Coker said his good friend reminds him of Willie Nelson song lyrics: “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction.”
“To some people he can be seen as being powerful and intimidating when you first meet him, and that is not who he really is. If anyone takes an hour to get to know him, they will really like him,” said Coker. “He is a funloving individual who likes to eat well and have a good laugh.”
Recently named by the Miami Herald as one of the most influential Hispanic Americans in the country, Zack is well aware he represents a minority that faces discrimination and it is the reason he helped found the Cuban-American Bar Association, now 1,600 members strong.
He considers himself lucky that he speaks without an accent, primarily because his American father sent him to Cuban- American schools and both languages were spoken at home.
“Many of my friends were not so fortunate,” he said. “I remember when it was not unusual to hear people in Miami say ‘Come back into this store when you can speak English.’ As a young lawyer, I heard that comment uttered by a judge in a Miami courtroom.”
His uncommon dedication was noticed at the other end of the state in Tallahassee, when Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the 30-member citizen board responsible for rewriting Florida’s Constitution. He went on to chair the State of Florida Ethics Commission for three years as well as serve as special counsel to Gov. Bob Graham with responsibility for making recommendations on state judicial selections.
What he works toward, he said, is the day when he is no longer asked “what is it like to be the first” and when all segments of society hold leadership positions to strengthen the rule of law and human rights.
“Loss of liberty is not a theoretical threat to me,” he said. “It’s a fact I’ve had first-hand experience with. The events that helped shape my life also shaped my strong belief that all prejudices need to be strongly opposed and every opportunity given equally to all members of our society.”