Paul Hastings chair emeritus Seth Zachary LLM ’80 reflects on lessons learned during 21 years as head of the firm

When Seth Zachary LLM ’80 joined the New York office of Los Angeles-based Paul Hastings as partner in 1987, he was one of just two tax lawyers in the office—and shortly after he joined, the other tax attorney left for a government position. Zachary says he was energized by the opportunity to build a tax team from scratch. “It was a wonderful time,” he says. Within three years, he was leading the tax practice, then later managing the New York office. In 1997, he was made managing partner of the firm and in 2000 became chair.

Seth Zachary
Seth Zachary

During Zachary’s 21 years at the helm, the firm tripled its gross revenue, doubled its revenue per lawyer, grew from nine offices to 21, and nearly doubled in size from 654 attorneys when Zachary became chair, to just shy of 1,000 in 2022, according to the firm. Paul Hastings has been included in the American Lawyer’s A-List of the 20 most successful large firms—based on revenue per lawyer, associate satisfaction, diversity, and pro bono work—every year since 2011. In October, Zachary became chair emeritus and returned to the tax practice, where he plans to serve as partner until his retirement in 2025.

In this Q&A, Zachary discusses what appeals to him about tax law, why good leadership includes showing vulnerability, and what he’s looking forward to in the future of the practice.

How did you first become interested in the law?

I grew up in New York City and I had a brother, who was eight years older, who became a lawyer and was very happy and very successful. It piqued my interest in that route, though I have to say, it wasn’t to be a lawyer, per se—it was more the idea of a longer educational cycle and a rigorous, flexible way of thinking. I remain, so many years later, a proponent of law school for the thought training and the analysis that it gives you.

In undergrad [at Case Western Reserve University], I had a professor who, oddly enough, was a tax professor. He took issues in the Watergate era and illuminated them from a tax lawyer’s perspective. I was mesmerized by him. I had no math background, no accounting background, no numbers interest whatsoever, but he took this statute, the Internal Revenue Code, and made it so alive with respect to the way people can maneuver, manipulate, plan, and strategize business decisions. I decided to become a tax lawyer to be as much of a sleuth and as creative as this [professor].

Were there any experiences during your LLM program at NYU Law that you found particularly influential?

After my [JD, at George Washington University Law School], I was fortunate that I got a job with a big law firm, and could move to New York [where Zachary has lived since]. While my wife was studying at Columbia [University], I could practice and attend NYU on a part-time basis. I got to have several glorious years in the LLM program doing just what I wanted, exploring every aspect of tax. I loved the fact that there were so many kindred spirits, weird people who love tax. NYU was and is the leading program in the world in terms of tax analysis. That inspired me, as did professors like Laurie Malman [’71, professor of law emerita], who made me a better tax lawyer and a more passionate one.

What do you like about tax law? What have you learned about it, in a broad sense, during your career?

The tax code is a labyrinth, and you proceed in the most creative solutions with nuance. You have to be flexible in how you get there. I think that tax lawyers have a nimbleness to the way they think, and, I think, can accept roadblocks.

If you’re an intellectually curious person, it gives you an opportunity to learn about every kind of business, every kind of geopolitical issue. If there’s a part of your professional bent towards social issues, there are many, many ways to contribute. Tax involves the redistribution of wealth. The basic underpinnings of capitalism are embedded in tax. Tax inspires charitable giving or not. Tax inspires saving for retirement or not, or government additions to saving for retirement. Tax relates to the separation of church and state, if that’s important to you. Tax can relate much more aggressively to a decline in legislative spending and political influence. People often think of how social issues are dependent on the right of the individual, but I think a tax lawyer thinks it is the obligation of government to defend the social order or promote the social order.

For people who are interested in helping people with immigration, or opening a small business, or [furthering] gay rights or women’s rights, or whatever those issues are that are core to your own identity, on a substantive level, a tax lawyer can make a big difference.

Have there been any important lessons or guiding ideologies that have helped you become an effective leader? Are there any long-term goals you’ve held in your tenure as chair?

I think the way to generate respect and persuasiveness is to be absolutely clear that the decisions you make are for a common good, and that people always have a right to disagree with the decision. If your judgments are generally good, people will tend to defer to the way you want to lead. If your judgments are really good over a period of time, you build up a momentum of common thought and common aspiration and trust. Trust and confidence are the essential elements of leadership, and authenticity and steadfastness and consistency.

The other thing I think is that the best leaders should demonstrate their vulnerability. I think that it’s impossible to be authentic if you don’t demonstrate some level of vulnerability. That can take a lot of forms. It can mean not needing to be right and being vulnerable to being wrong.

Our overriding goal is to drive our firm to the very top tier of the practice. What it means to be at the very top of our profession today is so much bigger, and so much more rigorous, so much more demanding than it was when we set that goal. If there’s something I’m really proud of, it’s the progress we continue to make toward that goal.

What do you find exciting about the future of tax law as you return to practicing it more directly?

I’m excited about how our tax dialogue is returning to being an instrument of social policy in a less politicized way. Going back to using the code to stimulate jobs, to stimulate investment, to stimulate progress in the social order in a more civilized, nonpolitical environment is very exciting if we can get there.

The other thing that I think is very exciting from a tax practitioner’s perspective is the new emergence of ideas of global tax, and how the global tax arena can create a global sense of fairness without stifling global investment. I think those are two parts of tax that are going to be great in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted November 15, 2022.