Top Lawyers: Randy Zelin of Cornell University Law School On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law

An Interview With Chere Estrin

Be empathetic. Put yourself in the client’s shoes. Have you ever been a client? Wouldn’t you want your call returned; your matter attended to? Wouldn’t you want to understand what’s happening in advance of it happening? Wouldn’t you want to feel cared for and secure?

Randy Zelin

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Randy Zelin.

Randy Zelin, a 33 year veteran criminal defense attorney and adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School, heads the white collar criminal defense practice group at Wilk Auslander LLP. A sought-after television and radio legal analyst and recognized “Super Lawyer,” Zelin is the first to admit that he has “never worked a day in his life.” – Chere Estrin

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

Except for a brief moment when my mother bought me Grey’s Anatomy and the pictures made me want to throw up, I have always wanted to be a trial lawyer. From a small child, I could never keep my mouth shut and I always knew the answer. Even if I didn’t!

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

I spend most of my waking hours defending white collar criminal cases and civil cases that arise out of or are connected to criminal cases. My focus is on making sure the government is kept honest — that the our Constitutional rights are safeguarded; that the innocent go free; that the guilty are treated fairly and proportionately. And that ours is viewed as a noble profession. When Shakespeare said “first kill all the lawyers,” it was meant as a compliment.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Resiliency — “no is not an acceptable answer,” a thick skin — it’s a nasty and unforgiving profession; and a thin skin — I take what I do very personally.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

As the Hon. Arnold I. Burns once said — “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” I’ve been prepared to be lucky.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

I met two of my closest friends in law school. We were prosecutors together. We were partners and to this day — almost 34 years later — we remain the best of friends. Going to a top-tier law school certainly opens doors and creates a degree of separation. But that’s only a start — a great one, admittedly. I may not have had those doors opened for me but I made sure to keep pushing until a door opened. And I am extraordinarily lucky to teach at Cornell Law School now. So yes — it does matter.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

I’d have paid a little less attention to my then girlfriend (and now my wife) and a bit more attention to my schoolwork so I could have gone to Cornell Law School!

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

I can’t exactly explain it. It’s love. I love what I do. Love conquers all.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Every case is interesting; gut wrenching and exciting. Someone’s life is in my hands. I love being in Court; I love arguing; I love persuading; I love it when the “light bulb goes off.” A great closing argument — a great cross-examination — they are indescribable.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

To keep getting better. There’s always something more to learn. There’s always a way.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

I’ve won cases I should have lost; I’ve lost cases I should have won. I’ve gotten the hug after the acquittal; I’ve shed the tears after a conviction; I’ve had my heart beating out of my chest when the verdict comes in. All I can say is that every day is a war. Funny? I can’t remember anything ever funny in the Courtroom. There was the time a crowd of reporters came running over to me to interview me until they realized it was not my case that they were after.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I’m in the office every day. But the Courts reacted to the pandemic by going remote — I think it will stick. What was a necessity in reaction to a pandemic now has real utility. Necessity is the mother of all inventions. It’s a cost savings for lawyers and for clients; it keeps things moving. Remote technology is here to stay.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

We have had to evolve. Remote technology is the present and the future. While I would not want to try a case or sentence a client remotely, there is plenty I can now do without leaving my conference room. Or my dining room. The walls have been knocked down. We can be anywhere and get our work done. We can argue from anywhere; we can meet from anywhere. The efficiencies (if such a word exists) are limitless now.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

We work with people we like; we respect; who like and respect us. Networking delivers you. Networking will always have a huge seat at the table — though perhaps equally now from a computer screen with a glass of wine on the table. All of my clients come from referrals.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

By letting the social media do the talking for them.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

Love what you do.

Be empathetic. Put yourself in the client’s shoes. Have you ever been a client? Wouldn’t you want your call returned; your matter attended to? Wouldn’t you want to understand what’s happening in advance of it happening? Wouldn’t you want to feel cared for and secure?

Be present. Don’t look at your phone. Don’t take other calls. Whatever you are doing for a client — it’s the most important thing in the world to them. So as it should be for you.

Love yourself. You define your success. Don’t let it define you. Love what you do and the success will come.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Lin Manuel Miranda. How the hell did you come up with Hamilton?

How can our readers futher follow your work?

Randy Zelin

Wilk Auslander LLP

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!