Zack Kaplan: Of Lewis and Lincoln

Zack Kaplan
2024 Feature Nominations

A poster of the late Congressman John Lewis and his quote, “Get in good trouble,” hangs prominently in attorney Zack Kaplan’s office at Raleigh-based plaintiff law firm Zaytoun & Ballew, PLLC.

“John Lewis’ life is the quintessential example of walking in your purpose. He consistently put himself where he felt called to be and refused to accept injustice as inevitable,” said Kaplan, explaining his admiration.

Kaplan said the principles set forth by Lewis and former president Abraham Lincoln inform his practice.

“I’ve always really been inspired by and drawn into great leadership by people who have a vision for the world as it should be and how that’s different from the world as it is, and who are willing to put in the hard work to try to narrow the gap between the two.”

Civil rights and appellate litigation constitute roughly half of his practice at Zaytoun & Ballew. The other half includes more general plaintiff matters such as personal injury, medical malpractice, and trusts and estates. In April, Kaplan argued his first case before the North Carolina Supreme Court, involving public official immunity.

Some civil rights cases involve allegations of police or prison misconduct under a federal civil rights statute, section 1983. Other cases may arise from a contract or employment dispute, “where there’s not an express claim of racial discrimination, but there is a broader context of civil rights or racial justice,” said Kaplan. “As a lawyer, you can use the procedural skills and levers that we have to pull in the law and get creative around using those toward accomplishing a civil rights objective.”

Kaplan is being mentored by Zaytoun & Ballew founder Robert Zaytoun, firm veteran Matthew Ballew and the firm’s newest partner, P.J. Puryear, Jr. “They have a lot of institutional knowledge and experience they are conveying to me. I’ve learned from Robert, Matthew, and P.J. that I have to be willing to learn and try new things. They emphasize that’s why it’s called ‘the practice of law.'”

Repair Your Community

Kaplan grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania a suburb of Philadelphia, but has called North Carolina home for his entire adult life. “I have always had a deep sense of justice. I’m a middle child, and sometimes people say that middle children have a keen awareness of what’s fair and what’s not based on interacting with older siblings and younger siblings and acting as a bridge between the two.”

Growing up going to synagogue, Kaplan learned a major tenant of Judaism called Tikkun olam. “It’s a Hebrew term that translates roughly to repairing the world or your community, creating the ‘beloved community’ in which we build a society where people who are marginalized are brought to the center. Those values led me to a career in the law and in particular it led to being interested in civil rights.”

Inspired by Children

Kaplan graduated with honors from UNC Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts in American studies and political science. He earned his Juris Doctor with honors from Duke University School of Law.

Before law school, he spent three years as a fifth-grade teacher at Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham through Teach for America.

“I love spending time with and being inspired by young people. They have a great moral clarity and imagination,” said Kaplan. “I also see education and education equity as foundational civil rights issues. If we afford every single student the opportunity to an excellent education, then so many of our downstream societal problems and racial justice issues could be improved.”

Lessons From NCAJ

Kaplan furthered his education as one of the 11 members of the NCAJ NEXT Leadership Program class 2024. He was inspired and encouraged to join NCAJ by the two judges he clerked for after law school, Justice Robin Hudson on the North Carolina Supreme Court and Judge James Wynn on the Fourth Circuit United States Court of Appeals, both of whom were longtime plaintiffs’ lawyers before becoming judges.

Kaplan has found purpose in building authentic relationships and professional coalitions with like-minded lawyers through NCAJ. “All plaintiffs and criminal defense attorneys spend their careers advocating for marginalized people going up against institutional power: a worker against an employer, an injured person against an insurance company, an inmate against a prison, or an accused person against the state.”

Refilling the Cup

Kaplan is a big fan of biographies. Every summer, he tries to read a different biography of Abraham Lincoln.

“Anyone engaged in civil rights and community building knows that this work is a slog. You can’t pour from an empty cup, right?” explained Kaplan. “These sorts of jobs require a lot of pouring out of yourself. One way that I refill that cup is by reading some of these stories of people who have dedicated their lives and careers to causes that I’m also really committed to. And learning how they overcame their obstacles and challenges.”

Bob Friedman

Robert "Bob" Friedman is the publisher of Attorney at Law Magazine North Carolina Triangle. He contributes articles and interviews to each issue.

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