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A top trusts and estates lawyer, William Zabel has a client list that reads like something out of the tabloids-Howard Stern, Michael Crichton, Greg Norman, George Soros, various Rockefellers. But the 68-year-old founding partner of Schulte Roth & Zabel gets far more excited about his work for those in a less storied demographic. Over his 40-year legal career, Zabel has been a crusader for human and civil rights in the United States and abroad. “These are not abstract issues to him,” says Michael Posner, the president of Human Rights First. “He views these fights in terms of people.” Zabel’s interest in the rights of others began early. The son of a scrap metal dealer in South Dakota, Zabel remembers his grandfather, who was not a lawyer, suing a neighbor for poisoning his dog. The principled stand cultivated young Zabel’s fascination with the law. “I’ve always felt that the underdog, or anyone, can have their rights infringed upon, and you should always try to enforce them,” he says. After attending Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Zabel spent the summer of 1965 as a volunteer in Mississippi with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee. He also was the primary author of the amicus brief for the American Civil Liberties Union in Lovingv. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that declared state laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional. Of course, there was some paying work too. “If I had been born a member of the lucky sperm club and had all the wealth I needed at an early age, maybe I would have been a full-time civil liberties lawyer, but I didn’t,” he says. Instead, Zabel joined Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, where he says he became involved in trusts and estates work “by accident.” As a young lawyer, he was assigned to Leo Gottlieb, a counselor to such prominent families as the Guggenheims and the Lehmans. In 1969 Zabel cofounded Schulte Roth with six other lawyers and transformed his T&E practice into a powerhouse. Inspired by Soros’s human rights work, Zabel joined the board of Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) in the mid-eighties. In 2000 he became the group’s chairman. He has traveled to the Philippines, the former Soviet Union, Chile, Romania, Hong Kong, and China to spotlight and help resolve abuses. Zabel is a tireless fund-raiser, soliciting the support of his clients and friends for his causes. “He’s in a unique position to have influence, and he’s not shy about using it, all for the good,” says former Human Rights First president Tom Bernstein. “Many people, particularly lawyers, would shy away from asking. Bill’s view is, ‘Let me at ‘em.’ “ Zabel shows no sign of easing up. His practice continues to grow, and he serves on the boards of amfAR and Doctors of the World-USA, among others. He also is the legal adviser to Soros’s Open Society Institute and the Soros worldwide network of foundations. “My secretary of 28 years says I’m working harder now than when she started with me. I don’t know if that’s true or if we’re both just older,” he says, laughing. Human rights advocates and clients hope Zabel and his secretary can keep up the pace for another 28 years. Back to Main Story

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