Breaking Barriers

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Zna Portlock Houston has spent much of her legal career fighting for fairness and equality.

As an undergraduate student at Seaver College, Zna Portlock Houston’s (’84, JD ’87) sights were set on a career as a legal reporter at a big broadcast network.

“Law reporting was cutting edge at the time,” she said. “I had taken a broadcasting class with Bill Robinson who was a talent agent and had experience working in the industry. He served as a mentor for me and talked me in to the idea of applying to law school. My thought was this is a way to bolster my career and strengthen my legal skills.”

Houston applied and was accepted into the Pepperdine School of Law in the fall of 1984. She immediately became involved in the Black Law Student Association (BLSA) and the Sports and Entertainment Law Society. She even spearheaded the organization of a conference that featured some of the leading sports and entertainment law experts of the time. All the while, Houston’s heart was still sold on a life in front of the camera.

Rules to live by

If asked, Houston would say she is the product of her upbringing in Inglewood, California, raised by two parents whose work ethic was something their young daughter came to admire at a young age.

“They really led us by example,” Houston said.

Her father held a position with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power while her mother served as a teacher and eventually a pastry chef with the area’s community college districts.

“They provided my brother, sister, and me with stability,” Houston noted. “They gave us every opportunity to succeed. They taught us to always keep our word. To finish what we start.”

That commitment to responsibility led Houston to a life-changing decision.

“When I graduated from law school, there was this immense amount of debt I had to pay off,” she said. “The starting pay in journalism would not pay my debt. I needed something else, but still had a plan to eventually move into broadcast.”

In her third year of law school, Houston interviewed with Littler Mendelson, a firm specializing in labor and employment law, and secured a position that would be ready for her when she graduated. She stayed on as an associate attorney for two years before taking a position as counsel for Fox, Inc.–a role she held until 1992. All the while, Houston was authoring a column that ran in the Pasadena Journal and Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Law Notes with Zna Portlock was published weekly, breaking down basic legal issues for the average citizen. Lawyering, it seemed, came naturally to her.

A love for the law

After leaving Fox, Inc., Houston competed for a position as director of membership for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, and was chosen from a field of more than 200 candidates.

“It seemed like an exciting opportunity—something I was really interested in,” she said.

But the young attorney joined the Tournament of Roses at a tumultuous time for the organization. Controversial articles focusing on selected members became almost regular in local publications.

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“When I came on board, there were no people of color and few women in a management position,” Houston said. “I was the first African American in a management position in the Tournament’s then 102-year history. They lacked diversity and it was a matter of people not embracing the change.”

Houston quickly became an advocate for such change, continuously fighting for diversity both where gender and ethnicity were concerned. Then Los Angeles city attorney and fellow Pepperdine alumnus James Hahn (’72, JD ’75) noticed her efforts and asked Houston if she would be interested in joining his team in the City Attorney’s Office in downtown Los Angeles.

“He knew me from awards I received from his dad,” Houston said, noting that she was a recipient of the Kenneth Hahn Award for Community Service as a senior in high school. “I always admired his work, his family. But the job was in the Criminal Division—where everyone started at the time—and I didn’t have any interest in that.”

Houston did, however, accept the position, and trained for six weeks in the Criminal Division. On her first day as a central trials deputy, Houston stood in “the pit” in front of her then supervisor, Bernie Brown. She was among several other attorneys who were waiting for an assignment. Houston vividly remembers Brown looking directly at her, assigning her to the first case. It was the beginning of a year working on various cases, including within the arraignment court.

“I came to love working in the Criminal Division,” Houston said. “After a year, there was an opening in the Labor Division. It was where I wanted to be originally, but now I didn’t want to leave.”

But she did end up securing the position in 1994. By 2001, Houston became the managing attorney for the Labor Relations Division.

“First do right yourself”

Houston remained deputy city attorney in the Labor Relations Division for nearly 15 years before taking on her current role as senior assistant city attorney for the division–a position she’s held for the last four years. She has remained steadfast in her commitment to fairness and equality—
a commitment that led to her to be recognized by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at the 28th annual Women of the Year luncheon, as well as her 2012 appointment by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California African American Museum Board.

“The museum serves as a vault for the history of African Americans nationally,” Houston said. “To be a part of a vehicle that enables this kind of preservation of history and culture is extraordinary.”

It is ironic to Houston that her initial interest in becoming a legal correspondent led her to a love for her work with the City Attorney’s Office.

“One thing my grandmother used to always say was ‘first do right yourself,’” Houston noted. “I feel like our work in labor relations is a matter of doing right by the people. I’ve learned that it’s not my job to be political. It’s my job to give advice, even if it’s not popular.”

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