We're Not in Kansas Anymore
Angela Zambrano out-Algers Horatio Alger
Published in 2007 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 15, 2007
Updated on December 14, 2016
Angela Zambrano is experienced in the workings of international business. She has successfully represented a cotton seed producer against a Greek distributor and an insurance company in multijurisdictional litigation across the United States. So when a case arose involving a small company that needed debt relief to stay in business, why did it choose Zambrano to defend it? And why did she go to the wall for the company, even moving to the city where it was headquartered, to better represent it—eventually resolving the case on very favorable terms? What does a corporate lawyer know about losing jobs? Actually, she knew a great deal.
Born in Topeka when her mother was just 17, Zambrano was the oldest of three children in a family struggling to stay afloat. Both parents came from farming backgrounds. “My parents couldn’t afford child care, so they made creative arrangements,” Zambrano says. “My mom worked nights, and my dad took jobs where he only worked a couple of days a week. I remember my mom working in a factory and as a waitress. No one in my family had ever gone to law school. No one had ever traveled internationally, or even dreamed of a job over six figures,” she says.
But her parents knew that education was the key to a better life. When her kids entered grade school, Zambrano’s mother finished her high school degree and then, over the course of 10 years, put herself through college, eventually earning a degree in communications. Her hard work made an impression on her oldest daughter. “My mother was such a good example of never taking for granted what’s in front of you,” Zambrano says. “She believed that if you work hard, things are possible.”
From an early age, Zambrano understood that college would be the first step to success. She was a top student; she played drums in the marching band and was on both the cheerleading and softball teams. But during her junior year in high school, she began to understand for the first time just how hard it would be to pay for college. “I suddenly realized that, even though I had really good grades and extracurriculars and worked every day after school—all of that still wasn’t going to be enough,” she says.
She started applying for every scholarship she could find, and eventually received dozens—just barely enough to attend the University of Kansas, the least expensive good school she could find. “The first year, I didn’t have enough for tuition and my living expenses, so I worked part time that whole year,” she says. “The second year, I was selected as a teaching assistant for the economics department, so I had a steady income and then did waitressing on the side.”
Zambrano graduated from college with a 3.7 GPA and a degree in business with a minor in economics and another in criminal justice. By then, she’d already been accepted at SMU School of Law, which she chose in part because of the higher average starting salary of its graduates. “Law school is a huge gamble as far as being able to pay it off when you’re done,” says Zambrano, who graduated with more than $100,000 in debt. “I wanted to go someplace where I could see the end of the tunnel on paying it back.”
She arrived in Dallas in late summer, driving a 10-year-old Ford. “The first week of law school, my car broke down. And I didn’t know any better, so I just walked to school in the August heat—I think it was 100-some degrees,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know anyone, so I just walked. I would arrive at school just sopping with sweat. Eventually a classmate took pity on me and drove me to school.”
Despite the rocky beginning, Zambrano loved law school, which she balanced with a job at a local frozen-yogurt store to help cover living expenses. “I am a huge fan of SMU. There were so many very bright people, and we had such a great law school class,” she says. “I loved talking to people about the law. I joined moot court, the law review—anything I could—and the more I did, the more I liked it.”
In class, she met Marshall Dye, now general counsel of Match.com, who became her moot court partner. According to Dye, Zambrano’s intellect and drive stood out. “We did very well as moot court partners,” Dye says. “Angela was extremely bright and very, very hardworking. Then, as now, she was very passionate about what she did.”
Zambrano began her career with Weil, Gotshal & Manges as a summer associate, during her second summer in law school. Yvette Ostolaza, the hiring manager for the firm’s Dallas office, interviewed Zambrano for the position, and immediately liked what she saw. “Angela was very bright, very charming and very eager,” Ostolaza says. “And she was No. 2 in her law school class.”
Weil Gotshal—a billion-dollar international firm of more than 1,200 attorneys—was also at the top of its class, ranking high on the American Lawyer’s A-List. The Vault Guide routinely ranks it among the top 10 most prestigious law firms in the country, and other organizations have recognized it for its quality of life, diversity and treatment of women.
Zambrano saw the opportunity to work with all kinds of businesses at Weil Gotshal, doing work that would allow her to use her undergraduate degree and the additional business and tax classes she’d taken at SMU. She saw it as a place that would reward hard work and intelligence.
“That summer, the firm was handling a big trial involving a multibillion-dollar lawsuit, and we all flew down to watch the opening statements,” she says. “Afterward, we went into the war room to talk to Ralph Miller, the partner in charge of the Dallas litigation section—and in the middle of everything, he stopped and said, ‘What did you all think?’” Zambrano was struck by the notion that a senior partner would be genuinely interested in her opinion. “I realized that this was a place that would enable people to contribute. There were no lawyers in my family. I had no connection to any companies. I didn’t have anything but the desire to work hard and a couple of years of law school. And here, the moment you got in the door, he wanted to listen to you.”
When Zambrano returned to Weil Gotshal one year after graduation, it was as an associate in Miller’s group. One of her first big clients was North Richland Hills-based HealthMarkets, then called UICI, an insurance company serving small businesses and the self-employed. Glenn Reed, who had recently joined the firm as its general counsel, first encountered Zambrano as a young associate.
Reed says that Zambrano’s intelligence was evident from the outset. “She grasps things very quickly—she’s a very hard worker, and very dogged. That was true seven years ago, and it has only amplified over time,” he says. “There are lots of litigators out there, lots of lawyers who want to try cases and be involved in the process. What separates the good ones from the ordinary is someone who can think strategically—someone who can remove him or herself from the day-to-day fray of the case and identify how this case should end, and how you get to that end. That’s what turns someone into a true counselor that senior executives of a company can rely on.”
Work for HealthMarkets eventually grew to fill half of Zambrano’s docket. For Zambrano, Reed served as an important influence: “He was such a good example on how to conduct yourself, how to negotiate, when to take a stand, when not to,” she says. “He was a good mentor—which was funny because I was his lawyer.”
Outside of HealthMarkets cases, Zambrano continued to develop her skills in complex commercial litigation. In one case, she represented a cotton seed producer in a dispute with its primary Greek distributor. “That case featured my best and worst travel,” Zambrano says. “All the witnesses were in rural Mississippi, and the arbitration was in Switzerland.” Zambrano was able to take her mother with her when she traveled to Switzerland, and the two also went to London together on a layover. “It was our first international trip,” she says, “and I have some very fond memories. We skied in the Alps, which—for poor people from Kansas—was … well, let’s just say it was a long way from Kansas.”
Unfortunately, her mother was sick at the time, suffering from a rare form of appendix cancer that would prove terminal. Zambrano’s early practice at Weil Gotshal was spent balancing a new law career with her mother’s illness. At one point, she took a month-long leave of absence to travel with her mother to Washington, D.C., for surgery and treatment.
She also got married—to Luis Zambrano, a fellow associate—and in early 2006, just a few months after she was named partner, she gave birth to their first daughter, Olivia. Today, she works to balance her career with family life. “I think to be a partner at a big firm, especially as a mother with children, you have to be good at balancing,” she says. “You balance the client’s needs with what needs to be done right now. You figure out who really needs to be attended to right that second and balance that with the other work that needs to be done soon afterward.”
Zambrano continues to be fascinated by business and its impact on the lives of everyday people, and she strives to continue to develop her business judgment, so that her legal advice is appropriate in the context of her clients’ businesses.
“People often tell me I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “And it’s true that I don’t suffer slackers very well. With my upbringing, I look at people who complain about working in the evening, and I think: People are doing this all across town, and they’re getting paid a tenth of what you are. Lawyers get paid a lot, and we have a lot of responsibility. It’s a service industry. When clients call, it’s because they need something—and if they need it, we should respond quickly and thoroughly. There’s no excuse for anything else.”