For many legal professionals, law runs in the family. For alumna Zoe Salzman, BA 03, however, that was decidedly not the case.
“I was the first lawyer in my family, ever,” says the Toronto native, who moved to Montreal as a child. “My parents are film and television producers. When I told them I wanted to be a lawyer, I think they sort of thought, ‘What have we done wrong?’ I think they came around, but I was definitely the odd one out.”
At Concordia’s Liberal Arts College, Salzman says she developed some of the skills she would later need to successfully represent her clients.
As a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, a firm based in Manhattan, she has won settlements for victims of law enforcement and correctional institution violence, and successfully litigated prominent #MeToo civil cases. In one such recent case, a jury ordered Canadian filmmaker Paul Haggis to pay her client $10 million USD in damages.
In 2016, Salzman obtained a $6-million settlement from the City of Cleveland for the family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was shot to death by a police officer. A Washington Post op-ed she later co-authored about the case — “Tamir Rice deserves justice. The Biden administration could finally deliver it.” — was widely disseminated.
The Concordia graduate recently sat down to talk about her remarkable career.
What led you to New York University School of Law after Concordia?
Zoe Salzman: I’m married to a lovely American man [Zachary Stertz, BA 02]. We met in high school and went to Concordia together.
He’s a photographer, so for his career he wanted to move back to New York. He encouraged me to consider some schools in the United States. I came to visit NYU and it blew me away. I jokingly said to him, ‘If I get in, I’ll move to New York.’ And it was the first law school that accepted me.
What I loved about NYU was its commitment to public interest lawyering. I knew that I wanted to use my law degree to work towards civil rights and social justice, and I felt like NYU — and New York, in general — would give me an incredible platform to do that. It’s the kind of place where you get to hear amazing people speak and teach and challenge you on a daily basis. It was a great experience.
Law school may not necessarily prepare you for the kind of media attention that many of your cases have garnered. How do you handle that?
ZS: It’s true, law school doesn’t prepare you for that. You sort of learn by doing. I’m lucky to be practicing at a firm that does really interesting and important work, and media attention flows from that.
We’re not out there pounding the pavement asking journalists to write about our cases. They’re writing about them because we’re trying to litigate issues of social importance. I’m still learning how to deal with it, but it’s not that different from the skill set you need to stand up and argue a case in front of a judge or a jury.
You helped win a settlement for the family of Tamir Rice, but the Department of Justice ultimately declined to reopen the investigation a year ago. How did you react?
ZS: I felt incredibly disappointed. I’m the mother of two boys, 11 and 9. They’re so young, they’re still such children at that age. So to see a 12-year-old like Tamir gunned down in less than two seconds by the police, it’s heartbreaking.
In many of these cases the officers say things like the situation was moving fast, it was dark, it was confusing, they were in danger or others were in danger. But in Tamir’s case none of those complicating factors existed. There was no danger. They had time to assess the situation and respond to it. And they chose not to. They chose not to because, I think very clearly, they saw a young Black boy. And his life wasn’t worth it to them.
Nothing could ever make that right. But I do think it’s a case, on the facts, on the law, that the Justice Department should have prosecuted. We strongly felt that Tamir’s case met the legal standard. And as we know, the Tamir Rice case doesn’t stand alone, unfortunately. It’s part of a deep social problem that has so far been unaddressed in any systematic way.
You have also represented clients in prominent sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. What have these cases demonstrated to you about how power is wielded by men and institutions in positions of authority?
ZS: There’s no question that power dynamics are at the root of all sexual harassment and sexual assault cases. It’s a constant thread. It’s undeniable and something that I think a lot about.
More and more of my work involves representing survivors of sexual violence. I think the #MeToo movement was a real reckoning against that institutional power, pushing back against it in a way that was long overdue. I care very deeply about that work, especially as a woman practicing in a field that has been dominated by men for eternity.
To this day, I am very frequently the only female attorney in the courtroom, in the mediation, in the conference room, on the conference call. And that’s a shocking thing. I mean, it’s 2023 in New York City. So many women are going into law school, but it remains, like so many professions, very male dominated.
When you obtain a settlement for a client, it is a victory on the one hand. But money is not necessarily justice, and settlements often come with confidentiality clauses and no admission of wrongdoing. How do you and your clients process that?
ZS: Although I view my work as being in the service of achieving, hopefully, in some small measure, greater degrees of social justice, I also am very clear that I serve clients, not a cause.
I have my own political views and causes that I believe in, but my job is to represent the individual client who has called me to help them through perhaps the most awful thing that has happened in their lives. They’re often things that are so awful that we can’t even imagine the impact. The loss of a child, experiencing a sexual assault — those are unimaginable horrors.
I need to fight for them, advocate for them and achieve the best resolution for them that satisfies their goals. And those aren’t necessarily the same from one client to the next. Some clients are very politically minded, some clients feel that they don’t want money at all, some want a court decision and a jury verdict, some want press attention on a publicly filed case. Other clients, that’s the last thing they want.
I do think a lot about the broader issues of settlements and confidentiality and how we can achieve systemic change. I certainly have my own views about it. But in my work as a lawyer, I think those questions are easily answered by, ‘What does the client I’m working for right now want to do?’
What advice do you have for Concordia students who want to follow in your footsteps?
ZS: I would give the same advice that I give to law students that I meet here, which is that there is no one path to getting to where I’m sitting today. It drove me crazy when I was a law student when people would say things like that, but the reality is that a career in law — especially if you want to focus on civil rights, human rights and social justice — is really personal and idiosyncratic.
You really do have to beat your own path and take risks. After graduating and clerking for a federal judge, I went back to NYU to help run the human-rights clinic there. It was a six-month contract during the 2008 financial crisis, which was not a great time for the job market. That was risky. But while I was there, the job at my current firm opened up and I was able to move from NYU quite seamlessly. But at the time, I think a lot of people thought I was crazy not to take a job at a big corporate law firm.
I made a very deliberate choice to follow a less conventional path. I’m a big believer in taking those risks. Take the plunge, try things out and trust that one thing will lead to another. That may sound sort of cliché but it’s really true. In a way it’s frustrating because there isn’t a set path, but it’s also really empowering, too, because you don’t have to recreate what someone did before.