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50 for 50 Spotlight: Zna Portlock Houston ('84, JD '87)

"I've always felt safe and strong in standing for what is right, even in the face of adversity. Victory is always in the truth."

As we navigate uncertain times, it is important that we continue to showcase the unbreakable bond among Pepperdine community members. Alumni are essential threads in the fabric of our community, and for fifty years, it is the alumni who have strengthened the reputation of Pepperdine Caruso Law as an institution of upstanding character, unwavering Christian values, and commitment to welcoming diverse viewpoints. Zna Portlock Houston, an alumna of the Class of 1987, is someone at the heart of this reputation. Houston was an instrumental architect in our recent partnership with three Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Tuskegee University. She currently serves as Principal Consultant at Employee Prescriptions, an employee engagement and wellness company focusing on diversity and inclusion, workplace harassment and discrimination assessments, and the productivity of the environment. Houston is among those redefining what wellness means in the workplace, something that will inevitably continue to evolve as we emerge as a post COVID-19 society. Despite a long career in the legal industry decorated with accolades and recognition, Houston believes her most important work is yet to come. We recently caught up with Houston to talk about her Pepperdine legal education and the importance of diverse representation in the legal profession.

What initially steered you into the legal field?

My plan was not to attend law school. I wanted to become a broadcast journalist. A professor at Seaver College who was a well known talent agent, Bill Robinson, convinced me to apply to law school. He said broadcasting will always be there but a legal background is something you can always utilize and it will even help in reporting. By the end of my second year, it became clear that from a financial perspective I needed to obtain a legal position to repay my loans and that I could not afford to go to a small media market with low earning to begin my career. This is another reason that I'm so grateful for the partnership with Tuskegee and other HBCUs. Students can begin their law school career and not be saddled with enormous debt.

How did a Christian legal education influence your professional trajectory?

In every position my goal was to be on the right side of an issue even if the environment didn't welcome this approach. My core is spiritual, and so receiving a Christian legal education enhanced my servant leader style of practice. I've always felt safe and strong in standing for what is right even in the face of adversity. Victory is always in the truth.

How do you use your experience in leadership to foster growth of diverse representation in the legal profession?

It is natural for me to observe where people of color and women are missing, whether we are missing from corporate boards, partners, the decision making table, or in the higher income ranks for positions held. Consequently, I determine if it is a situation that I can influence to make a difference and then I take action. I speak up. I lift my voice. I write, I call, and I seek changes. We can't wait for change to be an evolution. Most times change requires a driving force. I hope I'm one of those forces.

What advice would you give students of color who aspire to become legal professionals?

The word attorney should not define you. Know that with a JD there are many careers that you may successfully pursue. The background is invaluable. Think about where you can fill a niche and don't be afraid to strike out on your own and define your unique life path.

This year we are celebrating our 50th anniversary. What do you hope to see in the next 50 years at Pepperdine Caruso Law?

Pepperdine Caruso Law is on a legacy path. We have a great, trusted name that has stood the test of 50 years. I look forward to seeing the legacy continue and more alums participating in and recognizing, appreciating and valuing all that our institution has to offer.

As we resume regular coverage of our 50 for 50 series, we invite you to submit the name of an alumnus/a who demonstrates purpose, service, and leadership in their careers. Please email Chelsea Audibert at chelsea.audibert@pepperdine.edu.

Zna Portlock with four other alumni