MSBA: When did you decide to pursue a career in the law, and why?
DZ: While in high school in Prince George’s County, I had an opportunity to observe lawyers in court, and I was captivated. Immediately, my attention shifted to legal studies and law-related subjects. In my senior year of high school, I began to take paralegal and political science courses at the local community college, furthering my interest in the law. Although my undergraduate degree was in Business, at the University of Maryland I took more paralegal and political science/government courses on subjects such as legal research and writing and constitutional law, knowing I intended to go to law school upon graduation.
MSBA: What do you consider the highlights of your legal career?
DZ: I have been fortunate to have a fulfilling, varied, and challenging legal career. Upon graduation from law school, I clerked for a trial judge in the D.C. Superior Court. I then was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice through the honors program, where I served as a trial attorney in the Environment & Natural Resources Division, where I handled high-profile cases involving public lands and natural resources across the country. I then became an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia, handling civil and criminal cases. I was named a Special Master with the Court of Federal Claims, where I heard and decided cases involving claims from injuries as a result of vaccines. I have used the skills I developed as a litigator to handle cases on a broad range of areas of the law, ranging from environmental cases, such as a challenge to the expansion of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Prince George’s County to Virginia (the second span that exists today) to criminal cases involving retaliatory gang shootings.
Years later, I left government service to pursue work where I could use my legal skills to give back to the community. I represented indigent individuals in appeals of criminal convictions as part of the criminal justice appellate panel. I also began working for Whitman Walker Health, a federally-qualified healthcare facility, where I represented and provided legal services to patients ensuring they could focus on getting well rather than worrying about legal issues. I also began teaching as an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore, where today I continue to teach writing to first-year law students.
MSBA: Has your career as a lawyer been what you’d expected when you first decided to attend law school?
DZ: Yes and no. It has been what I expected in that one of the things that attracted me to the law was analyzing a rule of law, applying it to a set of facts, and reaching a legally supportable argument as an advocate, or a just result as a decision-maker. On the other hand, there are many aspects of the business of practicing law, such as attracting, maintaining, and meeting the expectations of clients, establishing and maintaining sound office procedures and practices, and keeping current on the latest technological and other innovations, which are not taught in law school, and that I did not anticipate being so vital to a successful practice.
MSBA: What have been some of your greatest challenges as a lawyer?
DZ: I don’t really think I have experienced challenges different than other lawyers have. Lawyers are often challenged by things beyond their control. For instance, deadlines to meet a client’s business needs, and court deadlines impact your schedule. Faced with these situations, one of the greatest challenges is to be able to organize work effectively, remain flexible and, at the same time, maintain a work-life balance.
MSBA: Why do you consider it important to volunteer your lawyering skills?
DZ: It is important to volunteer because not only is it a professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal services (see Md. Rule 19-306.1, Maryland Attorneys’ Rules of Professional Conduct), but it is important to ensure generally that individuals as well as charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, or educational organizations with limited means have effective legal representation. I currently volunteer through the Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC), with its District Court Consumer Protection Project in Baltimore and Upper Marlboro. I have previously assisted in the name-change clinics conducted at Whitman Walker. It is important to volunteer, whether it is be through representing clients pro bono, teaching or providing advice because it helps to further what is the fundamental purpose of the legal profession—that justice is done. And, it is rewarding to help others.
MSBA: You’ve taught at both of Maryland’s law schools. Why is teaching important for you?
DZ: Giving back what you have learned to better the profession as a whole is important. I have been teaching as an adjunct, first-year law students writing courses for some years and have taught other practical courses, including Evidence, (Pretrial) Litigation Process, Remedies, and Federal Lawyering Skills. Though these courses are more focused on practice versus on substantive legal subjects, they are important as they prepare law students, who are soon to become lawyers to be effective advocates, whether in drafting legal documents, using discovery tools or strategizing as to what remedies are available to a client. Through teaching, students improve and perfect their legal skills, which translates to better prepared and more competent legal practitioners.
MSBA: What words of advice would you offer those considering a career in the law?
DZ: Early on, I was given certain invaluable advice to keep in mind when approaching any legal issue, essentially, that there are four important factors when handling any legal matter that a lawyer needs: Knowledge, Experience, Wisdom, and Integrity. You need to ensure you have the requisite knowledge of the particular legal subject; you need to prepare and not “fly by the seat of your pants”. You need to either have experience or consult with those who have experience so you can anticipate issues that will arise and handle them effectively. You need to have wisdom, essentially common sense, to come up with practical solutions to a legal problem. Finally, and perhaps most important, you need to have integrity, to be truthful and honest, even when it is not in your client’s best interest. The legal community is small and close-knit, and you cannot afford to compromise your reputation.