Rising Through Resilience: “Be bold and try something that is against the grain or takes some guts”, With Neil Zola of JND Legal Administration
Fail at some point. Better yet, be bold and try something that is against the grain or takes some guts. I left a law firm partnership to get into legal administration. A lot of people thought I was taking a huge gamble, but it was the best career decision I ever made.
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Zola, Executive Co-Chairman and Founder at JND Legal Administration.
As an Executive Co-Chairman of JND Legal Administration, Neil has made it his priority to be involved in all aspects of the business, both strategic and operational. At JND he oversees the company’s Securities Administration group and has direct involvement in the company’s largest matters, among other duties.
Prior to forming JND, between 2000 and 2015, Neil held positions as General Counsel, Chief Operating Officer, and President at another class action administration company. Before this, Neil was a partner with a boutique litigation firm in New York City where he handled complex litigation matters for nearly 10 years.
Neil earned his J.D. from UCLA School of Law, where he has served on the board of the Alumni Association and has been a featured speaker in their Distinguished Alumni Lecturer Series. He received his B.A., cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I grew up in a suburb of New York and went to college at The University of Pennsylvania. After spending all my winters on the east coast, I made the decision to attend the best warm-weather law school I could get into. That turned out to be UCLA. I loved being out there, and thought long and hard about starting my career in California, but decided to come back home to New York to practice law. I took a job with a firm that specialized in securities class action litigation — Wolf Haldenstein.
After making my partner I realized that practicing law was not something I wanted to do forever. However, I did not want all of the experience and learning I had gathered to go to waste. I decided to take a position as General Counsel with the Garden City Group (“GCG”), at the time a relatively small class action administration company on Long Island. It became clear very quickly that my years of working as an attorney litigating class actions provided me with a lot of good experience to help shape the administration process and I quickly dug into the operational aspects of GCG as much as the legal ones. I became Chief Operating Officer of the company within a few years and then President, a position I held for more than 9 years until the end of 2015. At that time, my partners and I decided to branch out on our own. GCG was owned by a public company and we were not happy with the direction the public company wanted to take GCG. So, at the beginning of 2016, Jennifer Keough, David Isaac and I formed the JND Legal Administration (“JND”). JND has quickly become one of the leading players in the legal administration space. And because our main operation is in Seattle, I get to spend a lot of time on the west coast, including in Los Angeles, where we have an office.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
At my former company, we were being considered to handle the administration for the class action settlement arising out of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. This was one of the largest settlements in class action history. The parties wanted to hire us, but only if we could do the bulk of our work in Louisiana. We had no facilities or personnel in that region. Nevertheless, we said yes, and my partner Jennifer Keough and I went to Hammond Louisiana and built a 50,000 square foot center staffed with 200 people in 30 days. It was a monumental task for a case with huge import to the residents of the Gulf. We found some great people with whom we worked side by side for several years. The people we hired were very passionate about what they were doing and took great pride in their work. People were excited about the opportunity not only for good jobs but to help their fellow members of the community. It was a good lesson. Sometimes hiring isn’t about prior work experience but finding people with the passion to get the job done. In the film Field of Dreams Kevin Costner built it so “he” would come. We built it and, luckily, they were already there.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In keeping with the theme above, what makes our company stand out is the people. When we started JND we had a unique opportunity — the ability to start from scratch and hire the kind of people we wanted from the get-go. As you might imagine, a lot of people from our former company wanted to join us. And we hired many of them. But the ones we hired were the ones who had the right spirit of excitement to create something from the ground up. Lots of people are sometimes scared about new endeavors — most people just don’t like change. But those who joined us saw the potential, rather than the risks.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Mike Sherin, who was one of the Founders of GCG and who brought me into the company many years ago, was a big influence on me. (Today, Mike is a Senior Advisor to JND.) Mike was always a very steadying voice during times of stress in what can be a stressful business. His demeanor was very calm, which was the exact opposite of me when I was younger. When a problem would arise Mike used to say, “We should let it grow whiskers,” meaning, let’s not make a knee-jerk decision. Let’s think about this and be smart and reasoned in our approach. As I’ve gotten older, I try to emulate more of Mike’s relaxed countenance. Not sure everyone would agree, but I try.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the ability to get up off the floor after you have been knocked down. Resilient people are strong, hardworking and steadfast.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
To have resilience you need to fail. With failure comes one of two things, either defeatism or rising to the challenge. One person who personifies rising to the challenge is Thomas Edison. I am sure I am paraphrasing, but in describing how long it took Edison to invent the light bulb, he supposedly said words to the effect of “I have not failed. I just found 1,000 ways that didn’t work yet.” Clearly he did not give up or we might still be in the dark.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I’m not sure about the word “impossible,” but there were a lot of people who told me that I was crazy to try to start a new company at age 50. When we launched JND, my partners and I had very well-paid, comfortable positions with an established company. The safe route would have been to stay and continue to make a lot of money working for someone else. But we figured it was time to put our money where our mouths were and so we invested our money, time and reputations in a brand-new venture. It was certainly scary and there were more challenges than I realized in starting from scratch. But it has been worth it. We got to build the kind of company we wanted, hire the kind of people we wanted to work with and provide clients with the kind of service which had become our trademark. We are now one of the biggest players in our market, in just three short years.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
My daughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in January 2017, not long after we launched JND. She went through 6 months of chemo and is now in remission. I don’t want to get into all the personal details, but watching how she dealt with her illness and how she handled the whole ordeal was inspirational for me. She came through it stronger than ever and hopefully made me stronger too by association.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I started working part-time jobs when I was 15, worked after school throughout high school, and always had summer jobs. Although my family lived in a community where many families were well-to-do, we were not, and I felt compelled to earn my own money earlier than a lot of my friends. Having to fend for yourself makes you a little tougher. I remember in one of my earliest jobs, I almost got fired in the first week. I worked in a deli and got caught by the manager drinking Yoohoos on my break that I didn’t pay for. (For anyone who has never had a Yoohoo, it is a delicious, chocolatey drink.) I didn’t like the idea of getting fired. Worse, I didn’t like the idea of letting someone down who was paying me to work hard. I never slacked after that.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Step 1: Fail at some point. Better yet, be bold and try something that is against the grain or takes some guts. I left a law firm partnership to get into legal administration. A lot of people thought I was taking a huge gamble, but it was the best career decision I ever made.
- Step 2: Get back up after you fail. The easiest thing to do after the failure of any kind is avoidance. It’s like the old story of falling off a horse and getting on it again. It’s true.
- Step 3: Put yourself out there. It is hard to build a successful career in any industry on your own. Don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. Some people will say no, or worse yet ignore you. Don’t stop looking for friendly assistance. It is out there.
- Step 4: Don’t fear the competition. If you are successful, there will be copycats. One of my competitors many years ago told me he built his whole business by copying ours. Take the compliment and keep finding ways to outdo them.
- Step 5: Embrace change. The status quo only works for so long. Don’t be afraid of change. In fact, become an agent of change. As the cliché goes, it is the only constant. We once gave all our employees the book Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. It is a bit hokey, but the message is a good one. People who embrace change can survive anything.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I read an interview with Tom Hanks who plays Mr. Rogers in the recently-released “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” (He is fantastic in it, as usual.) In the interview, Mr. Hanks discusses his theory of parenting, which distilled to its core seems to amount to the following: be kind and love them. Right now, our children are not seeing a kind world. They see a world of violence, a world where they are forced to learn at an early age how to hide from someone with a gun walking into their school. They see a world of supposed winners and losers where the “winners” are crowned based on how harshly they can berate and insult the “losers.” In my movement, kids, all kids, are treated with kindness so that they learn to treat others the same way.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
After my previous answer, I guess I need to say, Tom Hanks. But considering this is a business publication, I will go with Adam Silver. I am a big NBA fan and, like me, the commissioner was a lawyer who decided to leave the practice of law for a different career. I think it would be fascinating to find out how he got where he did to manage a multi-billion-dollar business where he deals not just with basketball-related concerns, but with issues like potential player protests over the national anthem and freedom of speech in China.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please follow our company on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/company/jnd-legal-administration.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!