Kathy Zachem oversees state and federal regulatory issues for the nation’s largest cable operator. That means overseeing a large staff, including those working with thousands of local Comcast franchising authorities.
She sees her job as “educating people, policymakers, regulators, elected officials, about our company and what we do outside of dockets and proceedings and transactions, so decision-makers know who you are, what you do, and so that it is not all coming up in the heat of the fire.”
Zachem said it has not been easy juggling the demands of home and work, but the key has been a life partner — her husband, Dan — who gives “110%,” plus a job that continues to challenge her.
“I think that, like probably most women professionals, you really never feel like you’re doing anything the way you should be doing it, whether it is kids, the spouse, parents, the family and work,” she confided. “You sort of wish that you could perfect it all.”
Dan is now a law professor, but retired from his job as one of the deputy chiefs of the homicide division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., to make sure their daughter, Alex, now a Division 1 collegiate tennis player, was ready for college and could get to all of her matches.
“All of it was doable because I have a teammate who sees his role and responsibility as equal to mine,” Zachem said.
Zachem oversees a staff of some 200 and heads advocacy before the Federal Communications Commission and other federal agencies, as well as state government affairs: governors, state attorneys general and local legislators.
She was faced with helping get the NBCUniversal merger through its regulatory hoops and hurdles not long after her arrival at Comcast. But she was actually concerned the job would not be as challenging as her former digs.
Zachem, who always wanted to be a lawyer at the center of the political action in Washington, had been a partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer. She helped build the firm’s communications practice and had been working there for 27 years, since college.
“When I was originally thinking about taking the [Comcast] job, I was worried that I would be bored because at my law firm, which I helped to build from scratch, I could write a business or legal brief or do business development or accounting. I could do whatever I wanted to keep myself interested, and I was worried about taking a job that was more of a niche, one-client one.”
Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, who hired Zachem, remembers her initial trepidation.
“I looked at her and I said, ‘Kathy, this is a never-a-dullmoment company,’ ” Cohen said. “One thing I can guarantee you is that not having enough work to do will not be one of the problems you have.”
He was right. “The challenge at Comcast is that you go nonstop,” Zachem said. “Because everybody is capable and always thinking, the strategy and the work never cease. But that is the exciting part of the job, too.”
Cohen said Zachem has done a “spectacular job” for Comcast and the cable industry at large.
Zachem said she decided to take the job, after initially turning down that and other offers, because after 27 years at the firm, she felt she was operating a little bit on automatic pilot. “I was close to turning 50 and thought to myself: Do I want to be sitting in my rocking chair 20 years from now and thinking I should have done something else?”
She opted for something else — helping Comcast’s Washington office as what Cohen calls the quarterback of the company’s increasing regulatory issues.
Among her chief mentors along the way was Wilkinson Barker Knauer founding partner Lee Knauer. “He included me in client calls and meetings and he let me be his teammate from the first day,” she said. “That allowed me to grow more quickly, I think, than other law-school graduates.”
That mentorship also helped make her the youngest partner in the firm’s history.
Zachem was apparently a team leader, as well as a teammate. “On one occasion, she successfully convinced me and other partners to keep an attorney we were going to dismiss,” Knauer said. “She worked with him. And he is now a leader in the firm.”
PRAISE FROM ON HIGH
Zachem learned a lot from other communications attorneys, including arguably the dean of the bar, Richard Wiley, who has one word to describe her. “Terrific.” OK, more than one word: “She is a really outstanding communications lawyer and personality. She is someone who can do it all and do it with verve and style and smarts.”
Added Knauer: “There are many accomplished attorneys in the telecommunications bar, and Kathy, who was a law clerk, associate and partner in our firm, is at the top of that list. However, Kathy’s attention to legal ethics and her loyalty to friends are more noteworthy. Kathy always set the ethical boundaries within which she would operate in representing numerous corporate clients over the years — being not only their attorney, but also their conscience.”
Said Comcast’s Cohen: “Anyone who has had any contact with Kathy Zachem always says the same thing, which is that she is smart, effective and a woman of her word. You know when you have a handshake from Kathy, you have a deal.”
TITLE: Senior Vice President, Regulatory and State Legislative Affairs, Comcast
HIGHLIGHTS: Founding Partner, Wilkinson Barker Knauer; building communications practice at D.C. law firm; heading advocacy work at nation’s largest cable company.
QUOTABLE: “The first thing you do before you do your legal research or provide advice or collect your facts and figures, is decide what is the right thing to do.”
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