September 2015 Bar Bulletin
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Profile / David Zapolsky

Never Say Never

By Kathleen Petrich

 

"Never say never" nicely summarizes the philosophy of David Zapolsky - the man, the attorney, the musician and the general counsel of one of the world's largest companies: Seattle-based Amazon. Even though Zapolsky oversees a global department of several hundred legal professionals and is energized by the many diverse aspects of Amazon's business - from Emmy Award-nominated TV shows to drones - Zapolsky exudes a quiet, low-key demeanor. He is both self-confident and modest - not a trait combination that you see in most lawyers, particularly given his interesting background.

He grew up in Maryland and New Jersey. The family moved to New Jersey when Zapolsky's dad was named chairman of the physics department at Rutgers University. Young Zapolsky had an interest and aptitude in the hard sciences and music. So, with these dual interests, Zapolsky headed off to Columbia University to major in both. Zapolsky noted that it was a lot easier to get into Columbia in those days: "They hadn't yet admitted women to the undergraduate programs when I first started."

Zapolsky loved (and still loves) history, and thought of himself as a professor in music theory and history, and so he eventually dropped the biology major (but only after convincing himself he could cut it in the sciences by getting an A-minus in organic chemistry) to pursue the music major.

But it wasn't all academics. Zapolsky displayed his social justice bent during his Columbia days, participating in on-campus protests to denounce the school's investments in companies with ties to South Africa and its apartheid system, which was still intact at that time.

Zapolsky has always had a fascination with Robert Kennedy and the work one can do to effectuate "greater-good causes" through politics. While he realized early on that he was not cut out for a career in politics, the possibility of doing good work through being a lawyer was on his mind. So, after graduating from Columbia and taking the LSAT (and doing "much better than I would have thought"), he applied and was accepted to UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall. He loved law school at Berkeley, did well and became an editor of the law review.

Zapolsky doesn't worry about surprising others by taking paths that few tread. Yet, this approach has worked well for him. After law school, he found his way back to New York City where he went to work for the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office for three years prosecuting sexual assault and domestic violence cases. It was not a path recommended by his professors at Berkeley.

He joined the Brooklyn D.A.'s Office when it was headed by Elizabeth Holtzman, then a former U.S. representative. Unlike her predecessors, Holtzman searched nationally to recruit top talent for the office. Zapolsky made a significant enough impression on Holtzman that she personally provided a strong reference for him when he was searching for a new job after his three-year commitment to the office ended.


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