In 1979, on her first day as a law firm litigator, Debra Zumwalt got some unexpected feedback from the head of her litigation group. “He told me that he didn’t think ladies—he said ‘ladies’—had what it took to be litigators,” she remembers.

But Zumwalt, who had aspired to a career in law since watching “Perry Mason” as a child, wasn’t so easily deterred. She eventually became a litigation partner at the firm and a member of its governing board.

After achieving success in law firm practice, Zumwalt couldn’t resist the chance to pursue in-house work when her law school alma mater, Stanford University, came calling. She spent the next six years representing the university in various litigation matters as a senior university counsel. In 1993, she left to become a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop but continued to handle legal work for Stanford before being named general counsel of the university in 2001.

In her current role, Zumwalt oversees a diverse array of legal matters for the university, which she describes as “a small city,” and also does work for Stanford’s hospital facilities. It’s a heavy workload, but she still finds time for a variety of pro bono causes, notably as a board member of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley and a trustee of the American University of Afghanistan.

And, after more than three decades in law, Zumwalt is still singing its praises. “I know this is a difficult time in terms of hiring and job prospects for lawyers,” she says. “I really do believe it is still a great career. As a lawyer, you can have satisfying work, and you can make a difference in the world.”

Q: Was the transition between law firm and in-house work difficult?

A: I actually really enjoyed both. I didn’t leave private practice because I didn’t like it. I liked the variety that you have working for different clients and different issues. Especially in a big firm, you have experts in virtually every field, so it’s great to have all those people there to consult with and work with.

But when I got the opportunity to work at Stanford, I couldn’t turn it down. The thing I like best about being in-house is that you’re really part of management. You’re involved earlier on, not only in dealing with legal issues, but also in helping develop policies, so that hopefully you have fewer legal problems.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job? What is the most rewarding?

A: The biggest challenge of my job at Stanford is the huge variety of legal issues that come up at the university. You need to know at least a little bit about so many different things. The best part of my job is the huge variety of legal issues that come up at Stanford, because you can’t get bored working here.

Q: What is it like working at a university, as opposed to a corporation?

A: There are some similarities. We’re the largest private employer in Santa Clara County [Calif.], so those kinds of employment issues are similar to big corporations, although we also have tenured faculty members.

It’s a big business in many ways, and yet we’re really driven by different things than companies. Even though we create a lot of technology like many Silicon Valley companies, our goal in creating the technology is not to make the most money. Our main goal is to get [inventions] out there in the world so they can be developed and used.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: My typical day is one in which I don’t do what I was planning on doing because something else comes up.
I do spend a lot of time in board meetings. But then it can be almost anything—you could have a faculty member who calls and needs to meet with you because there’s some crisis in importing some rare gas that he needs for his research. Or it could be some student issue that needs to be dealt with right away, or some big issue with the hospital.

You are a trustee of the American University of Afghanistan and recently attended its second graduation ceremony. What was that like?

A: I met with students and talked to them. They all have amazing stories as to how they got to this place in their life in a country that’s been through so much. They are so grateful for the opportunity, and they want to give back to their own country and work to make it better.

The rule of law is going to be so important for that country, and it’s so important for people to know their legal rights. In Afghanistan, women actually have a lot of rights under the law, but they’re not well-known and not well-enforced. I’m a big proponent of rule of law and the protection and stability that it gives to a country, and Afghanistan certainly needs that.

Q: The Transformative Leadership Awards’ Pioneer Award is named for you. What were your early days as a lawyer like, and how have you helped other lawyers advance their careers?

A: At the time I started, there were two women partners, but [none] in litigation. Just having been practicing for a few years, there were other young women who were looking to me for advice because there weren’t a lot of senior women litigators out there.

I’ve always enjoyed mentoring other lawyers, and I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to give advice and to help people in their careers.

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer aspiring to a GC spot?

A: Get the best training you can, and also have some diversity in your practice. For most general counsel, you deal with such a wide variety of issues, you at least need to have some acquaintance with lots of different areas of the law.
The things you learn in different areas, in the long run, will be incredibly useful to you. You need to know enough to know the right questions to ask and when you need to get more advice.

Q: What was your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: My proudest moment was on a small matter when I was a young lawyer. My grandmother was in her early 70s, and she worked part-time in a job where she’d been for 30-plus years. She had fallen and broken her arm, and when she wanted to come back to work, they wouldn’t rehire her. So I wrote a letter to the president of the company, and a week later, the manager called and offered her her job back.

Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would your dream job be?

A: There are many that I would be completely and totally not qualified for. But of those I could potentially do, I’d like a career in business. And also, [I’d like to work in] just the non-profit world generally, to run a foundation doing good work and apply good business principles to that.