Attorney at Law Magazine Cleveland Publisher Jim Schultz sat down with Kelly Zacharias to discuss her career.
AALM: When did you first know you wanted to become an attorney? What drew you to this career?
Zacharias: I always loved the idea of being a lawyer. Helping my parents clean out their attic a few years ago, I found an essay that I wrote in sixth grade about how I wanted to be a lawyer and then be in Congress. I participated in a mock trial in junior high school, and that cemented my desire to be an attorney.
AALM: How would you describe your practice? What is your main area of law?
Zacharias: My practice is criminal defense, juvenile and family law, including custody, child support and paternity. These areas of the law are very important considering how the law has changed over the years. For example, courts are increasingly recognizing the importance of fathers being involved in their children’s lives. As a result, I am able to help fathers assert their parental rights in custody cases, something that had traditionally been ignored.
AALM: Describe your early career. Did you work for a law firm prior to opening your own firm? What lessons did you learn from these early experiences?
Zacharias: Aft er college I went to graduate school, and I received a Master of Science in forensic psychology. I managed a group home for developmentally disabled adults at Our Lady of the Wayside. I also worked for Oriana House, a community-based correctional agency, doing research on ways to improve how that agency continually evolved its community-based chemical dependency treatment programs. I was also a case manager at a mental health services agency. These jobs gave me a deeper understanding of problems that my clients face such as substance abuse and mental health issues, as well as knowledge of community resources and the ability to seek alternative solutions for my clients.
Prior to starting my own practice, I worked for the Akon prosecutor and the Cuyahoga County prosecuting attorney. These two jobs provided invaluable experience; I couldn’t do the work I do now without the training and education I received from the many great attorneys at each office. Every attorney has their own style and each personality brings something different to the table. Ultimately, I was able to learn and adapt my style to what I liked in my colleagues.
AALM: What compelled you to start your own practice?
Zacharias: Like most business owners, I am a typical Type-A personality. I like to take control and make my own decisions. I can decide the direction of my practice, direct the culture of my business and choose the people I want to work with. When I actually sat down to think about my career, I recognized that I also wanted to create something tangible, something that I could take pride in building. Now, I can focus my practice on what is important to me. I have the flexibility to take the cases that I am interested in without waiting for someone else’s approval, and I can create my own challenges. As a solo practitioner, I can tailor my representation to the exact needs of clients.
AALM: What challenges have you enencountered since going solo and how have you overcome them?
Zacharias: My biggest challenge is that I was my own IT person. How did I solve it? I hired an IT person! I have realized that in a solo practice, you have to be smart about which hats you can wear, and which ones you have to delegate.
The other challenge in solo practice is that you are by yourself. In a firm, you can walk down the hall and find a knowledgeable co-worker when faced with difficult questions. As a solo practitioner, it’s important to maintain a good network of attorney mentors to bounce ideas off.
AALM: What do you find particularly rewarding about being an attorney?
Zacharias: In my practice, I represent everyday people. For many people, a divorce case or criminal case is their first and only encounter with the legal system. They have no idea what to expect and the process can be very overwhelming, scary and stressful. I try to explain legal concepts to clients in a relatable and understandable way. I’ve had lots of experiences where I was able to help make a bad situation a little better. Recently, I was able to help a juvenile with severe mental health problems get the services he needed, instead of following the unfortunate path that many people with mental health problems face by being sent to prison, where they cannot get appropriate treatment.
AALM: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Zacharias: When I took stock of my career before I opened my practice, one of the revelations that I had was that I wanted to have a better work-life balance. Because of that, I take advantage of activities and hobbies as much as I can. I have been boxing for the last several years and I would like to open my own boxing club someday. I love the outdoors, and especially hiking and camping. I have hiked the Shenandoah Trail, and I have started on my goal to visit all the National Parks in the United States.
AALM: Do you have any plans to grow your practice?
Zacharias: I’m not placing any limits on my practice – the sky is the limit. One day, I would like to have a multiple-attorney firm that can still cater to clients like a solo practitioner would.