I recently had the privilege of sitting down with Steven Taylor from the publication Of Counsel to discuss my experience and the path that brought me to Colella Zefutie LLC. Below is the Q+A article that was published this month. Steve, thanks for the great conversation. JZ
Of Counsel Interview . . . .
Newly Opened Boutique Co-Founder Parlays BigLaw & Theater Experience to Win Cases
When John Zefutie was nine years old his father took him into municipal court one day. It seems the elder Zefutie was embroiled in a minor traffic dispute involving his carpool, or more accurately, vanpool. He and three co-workers commuted some 100 miles daily in a van, which they all chipped in on to purchase for the long trek to work and back. The four co-workers were being hauled into court for failure to pay a toll or some such minor infraction that was easily resolved.
But the experience left an indelible impression on young John. “I was sitting there watching the judge, being affected by what I was seeing, and thinking, This would be a pretty decent profession to go into,” he says with a chuckle.
Now, years later, practicing law from his Princeton, New Jersey office, Zefutie enjoys a highly regarded reputation up and down the East Coast as a commercial litigator and trial lawyer who’s recognized by prominent ranking agencies for his legal prowess in the courtroom and around the negotiation table.
He’s practiced at four of the most well-known BigLaw firms in the country, winning a lot of lawsuits along the way; co-founded in March the firm Colella Zefutie, with his partner and friend Ugo Colella; written numerous articles published in several well-respected media outlets; and, among other things, is the co-creator (with Colella) and contributing author of a very engaging and well-written blog, The Raven Blog.
In short, he’s done well in this “pretty decent profession.”
Recently Of Counsel talked with Zefutie about the path he took into the field of law, his practice, educational background, including his training as an actor and how that plays a role in his legal career (covered in his answer to the last question), the challenges and advantages of practicing law in, and running, a small partnership, and other topics. What follows is that edited interview.
Of Counsel: I know you have both a theater and a political science background. What drew you to the legal profession—in addition to the influential impression the municipal court experience had on you as a child that you told me about?
John Zefutie: Being a lawyer was something I always had in mind, even as a little kid. I remember reading one of those kids’ biographies about historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. That’s what first put the seed of law in my head. Little kids often say they want to be firefighters or astronauts. As a kid, I also wanted to be a rock star or movie star or cowboy or whatever. But lawyer was always in the mix.
When I was in high school I was an athlete, but I was a mediocre athlete. I just wasn’t that great. So, someone convinced me to audition for the local show. It seemed like a lot of fun and they had a very good program there, so I did audition. And that’s when I got bit by the acting/theater bug, and it led to a theater scholarship for me at Saint Joseph’s University. They had a small, unique program there. It was close to home, and they had a great liberal arts college that I wanted to focus on. So I went to college on a theater scholarship, a pretty decent one, and I got more serious about it and did a lot of musical theater and drama work in college.
I was really thinking about the discipline of theater and then decided to take a break. I graduated from college in 2000 with a political science and history degree, with a minor in philosophy, so I really wasn’t trained in any particular [field] other than your typical liberal arts education.
It’s funny, because what pushed me over the edge was Bush vs Gore. I was home and working for a dot-com company, doing marketing [and considering his career options].
And then Bush vs Gore happened. I was really struck by how the lawyers took control of that. It was the profession that was highlighted throughout the whole bitter controversy that lasted six weeks or so. It was all that was on the news all day. At the end of the day, this profession of trained individuals and judges were going to resolve how the next president was going to be selected. That is very powerful.
OC: That took you back to your childhood. The roots of your ambitions were in the law, so it’s kind of a full circle.
JZ: Correct. I would watch the coverage and I was just glued to it, fascinated by it. To me, no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, it showed me that lawyers are the problem-solvers—and also fighters and warriors. So that kind of sealed the deal for me and I told myself to go ahead and become a lawyer.
Formative BigLaw Experience
OC: After law school, which you’ve told me you thoroughly enjoyed, you went on to work for some of the nation’s premier law firms: Duane Morris; Thompson Hine; Patton Boggs; and Reed Smith. That’s quite a lineup.
JZ: Yes, I had been a summer associate at Reed Smith and I went back there after a stint as a law clerk in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division. They hired me off of my summer associate time. I was there for two years in both their Newark and Princeton offices.
That was really a very formative time for me as a lawyer. Even though it was a big firm I had a lot of case responsibility, on smaller cases, doing day-to-day litigation stuff. I wasn’t on a team reviewing documents, for example. I handled cases from beginning to end when I was a young associate.
The guy I worked for there, who is now a client of mine, was a partner and he made a lateral move from Reed Smith to Patton Boggs in 2007. After he joined, we stayed in communication, and then I joined him at Patton Boggs, which had opened its New Jersey/New York offices that was led by a guy named Jim Terrell. His big matter at the time was the World Trade Center respiratory claims by the rescue and recovery workers and its contractors. Those were some 10,000 separate cases that were essentially venued and managed out of the Southern District of New York.
Patton Boggs got that work and they needed litigators and I was able to get involved in that work. There was a lot to do in those cases and I worked on them and then I was able to develop my own commercial practice at the same time. That’s where I made partner, at Patton Boggs, which eventually had some financial troubles.
OC: I’m sure that doing that WTC-related litigation work got you a lot of great experience. Besides that series of cases, what’s another that was also very important, challenging, and rewarding?
JZ: Putting aside the World Trade Center work, because that was its own behemoth, I did my first jury trial on a case that I think you could teach an entire first-year law school curriculum on. I’ll leave out the names of the parties, but we represented a small, mid-sized manufacturing company that imported various wares from China, like safety vests, baseball caps, all that kind of stuff that’s manufactured in China.
This company had an agreement with the United Parcel Service to manufacture sorting bags, like mesh sacks. We claimed that UPS had breached its contract with our client by not purchasing the volume that they contracted to purchase from them. They went with a cheaper vendor even though our client was supposed to be the exclusive vendor. So we alleged fraud and breach of contract.
What was educating was that we got assigned to Judge Jed Saul Rakoff of the Southern District of New York. He’s a brilliant but tough judge. We worked the case up from pleadings to a full-blown trial in about four or five months. It was a complex case with thousands of documents. So that was our first jury trial. For me professionally, doing that jury trial was very rewarding. I had attended trial college at the University of Virginia not too long before we did that jury trial, and I was able to use all of those skills in front of a live jury in the SDNY. And we were successful. That’s one reason why it always comes to mind.
We were up against pretty good odds, and the case was a tough one but we prevailed. It’s one of those things where as the case unfolds before the jury and you’re laying the case out to the jury, it just comes out in a way that you didn’t expect, and it was favorable to us. I tried it with my current partner Ugo Colella. We bonded on that and worked really well together. There were a couple of other guys on our team who helped us, but we were the ones on the forefront. So we were the warriors in that case.
And I think what is also rewarding is that we’re still on very good terms with our adversaries. It was a hard-fought case, but I reached out to the adversary law firm with questions or for need of a conference room and it was a cordial relationship. We’ve always stayed in touch and refer matters to each other when appropriate. It’s kind of a nice story where you don’t hate your adversary at the end.
Setting Up Own Shop
OC: What prompted you and Ugo to start your own firm?
JZ: It was a mix of things. First, it’s something that he always wanted to do and something that I always had in mind. It was just a matter of taking the plunge and holding your breath and doing it. Lawyers find a lot of security in being part of a larger firm. But we had talked about it often, and it was just a matter of timing.
What made us finally do it was the combination of our desire and the market. I think all of the firms that I worked for are great firms. I had wonderful colleagues and they all treated me well, but I think that BigLaw in general has had a rocky relationship with client demands after 2008.
On the one hand, you have costly law firm administration, and to survive, your rates have to be higher and you have to bill more hours. You essentially have to increase your rates every year. And if you don’t meet your targets, well then you’ve got to do better the next year.
But then on the other side, the clients—at least in my league, the lane I swam in—were saying, “You can’t bill that much time; you’ve got to give me a break. You have to give me a discount.”
There’s really no reconciling those two positions. There’s so much overhead that needs to be paid for, including salaries, rent, furniture, and all the other expenses, but you also have to meet the needs of your clients in a way that makes sense for their businesses.
The large law firm structure doesn’t allow those firms to be as nimble as they need to be in light of the changing market from 2008 when legal services all of a sudden became expendable. The reliable clients that firms had had for generations were no longer reliable, and they started putting things out on RFPs to try to save on their legal spend.
Consequently, we thought that if we form our own firm and we keep it nimble, then we can deliver the exact same service that we deliver to our clients within the large firm setting. Ugo and I, with the help of an associate here and there, have always done our own work. And then if a problem arises with a client that requires specialized expertise, we have a network of lawyers who we can bring in to help us. That’s a lot more cost-efficient for a client than going to a large law firm where you’re going to be billing at rates double what we currently charge.
OC: What’s been one of the challenges that you’ve run into since opening the firm at the start of the year?
JZ: COVID-19 has obviously been a challenge. It’s a unique challenge that we’re all facing. We had decided to start this venture right before COVID-19 [broke out] and everything shut down. But while it’s been a challenge, at the same time, I think we’re really well positioned to help our clients through it for the very reason that we have very low overhead here and all of our systems are set up to be remote. So we can go work at the [client’s office] if we need to or work at home, like we’re doing now because of the pandemic.
The other challenge is the same one you encounter at any law firm—[issues about] rate structures, marketing, administrative matters, and making sure your clients are okay. But actually it hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be. We have good relationships with our clients and with our vendors, who we partner with strategically so we can offer a lot of the same big-firm service but at a much lower price and much more efficiently. It’s been a good decision overall for us.
Looking toward the Horizon
OC: As you look to the future, John, where do you see the firm going? I know that’s difficult to answer given what we’re going through with the virus, but when you look to the future do you expect to grow your firm, and if so how much, or do you plan stay steady? What’s your thinking, in tandem with Ugo?
JZ: I think we’re always going to be in a growth mode. It’s very early to tell how that’s going to happen, but we’re not going to grow for growth’s sake. I know a lot of firms say that, but if there are lawyers who are partners who have a book of business and they want to deliver service in a more direct way and in a more flexible way than they can at their current firms, we would certainly be open to speaking with them. Right now we have a strong Northeast regional presence, and we do some litigation in Chicago. We’re primarily in New York, New Jersey, DC and Virginia, and that’s a very good fit for us right now.
One of our main goals, and this is something I learned when I was a young lawyer—a managing partner told me that lawyers are increasingly becoming data processors or vendors like any other vendor, and not real counselors to their clients. We’re hoping to serve as counselors, to advise them through any problem, even if we don’t have the specialized expertise initially, we can at least advise them as to what the right decisions are early on. That’s going to be our long-term goal, to build the client base that way.
OC: Now I want to ask you one more question. I saved it for last and I’m very interested in what you have to say because, like you, I’ve done some acting on the stage in my life. To what extent does your stage work, your theater experience help you in what you’re doing now as a lawyer, as a litigator?
JZ: As a litigator, it helps in so many ways that it’s hard to articulate. [pause] It’s not like I’m going out in front of a jury or a judge and not being myself. I don’t go in and act like I’m someone I’m not or act like I’m a big lawyer.
But the stage work helps in intangible things, like how you stand, how you move, your vocal inflections, how you dress, what colors you would wear, and how someone would unconsciously respond to that. How you use your voice, how you move about the courtroom. These are things that are very hard to teach, and I think they allow you to be a lot more comfortable once you’re in the arena, meaning in the courtroom, whether it’s before a jury or before a judge.
You don’t want to be too dramatic, right? You don’t want to be ridiculous and wave your hands around and do all kinds of things. But it gave me the tools … look, I wasn’t the greatest actor in the world by far, but my theater experience at least gave me the tools and the discipline to be a good storyteller. And ultimately, that’s what a trial lawyer is. You’re a storyteller to a jury to gain their confidence and lead them to the right decision, that’s how I always viewed my job. And in all my cases, I frequently rely on those skills that I learned, like how you say things and where to emphasize things, the dramatic pause, and to feel comfortable on your feet. So, my stage work has and continues to enhance my ability to serve my clients.
—Steven T. Taylor