Zachary Weinstein ’21 didn’t always want to be a lawyer. In fact, for most of his life, he was more likely to be found in front of a camera than in front of a judge.
But on May 27, Weinstein will proudly graduate from Harvard Law School, where he was active in HLS Talks, the Disability Law Students Association, and as a legal research assistant — proving that you can be a lawyer and play one on TV.
Weinstein says acting was his first love. “Growing up, I always wanted to be an actor,” he recalls. “I was kind of singularly focused; there really wasn’t anything else I took seriously as an option for myself.”
After high school, Weinstein moved to New York State to attend Skidmore College, where he was a Theater major. But an incident in the summer after Weinstein’s first year threatened to derail his plans. One day while working as a camp counselor in Maine, Weinstein and some friends went on a canoe trip on a day off. During a break, he and a co-counselor were swimming and playing around; the friend flipped Weinstein over his back, and he landed on something under the water, striking his head and breaking his neck. The accident made him a quadriplegic.
At first, it was difficult to know what to do next. He had to take a year off from college to recover; he now uses a power wheelchair. “After I had my accident, the Christopher Reeve Foundation was critical in helping me and my family figure out what it meant to move forward successfully,” he says. Since then, Weinstein has served as an ambassador for the foundation to raise money and awareness for its work and to help others with similar disabilities.
Although Weinstein says his spinal cord injury changed his life, it did not deter him from show business. After graduating from college, he moved with his wife to Los Angeles to work as a professional actor. For nine years, he starred in a variety of projects and television shows, including “Glee,” “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds,” “Will & Grace,” and a 10-episode series called “Sing It!”
A few years ago, though, Weinstein began thinking about his next career move. He still loved acting, but says that the birth of his son — and the horror he felt at the election of Donald Trump — inspired him to apply to law school.
“Being an actor is already a difficult career,” he says, “and being an actor with a disability was always going to be even more difficult. I was good at it. But I kind of knew what the next 5, 10, 15 years were probably going to look like. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything of value, day in and day out, even as hard as I was working.”
Weinstein wanted to make a difference. And at Harvard Law School, he found a community of people whose passion matched his: “Actors tend to be people who care deeply about being connected with other people and putting good into the world, of contributing something of value in an intentional way,” he says. “I found that to be true of students at HLS too.”
As co-president of the student group HLS Talks during his second year, Weinstein applied his gift for storytelling to help his peers connect not only as future colleagues, but as people. “The idea is to encourage them to talk about themselves apart from their law school identity,” he says of the group. “To tell the story of their life. The slogan is ‘stories, not resumes.’”
In his studies, Weinstein says he was grateful that HLS gave him “the opportunity to explore.” He especially enjoyed the Trial Advocacy Workshop, which he says engaged his acting chops: “It was a lot of fun. I love performing. Giving an opening and closing statement, direct and cross examination. That’s was probably the most fun I’ve had in school.”
He also took a class on disability rights, and this year, served as the president of the Disability Law Students Association. Weinstein says the relatively new student organization offers a gathering space for students with disabilities and those interested in disability law, while also liaising with the Dean of Students to ensure that those with disabilities have the accommodations they need to succeed at law school — including people whose disabilities are not immediately visible.
“There hasn’t always been a strong culture of disclosure of one’s disabilities, unless they’re obvious, like mine,” says Weinstein. “One of the advantages of my disability is how obvious it is. I can’t make a choice to hide it, so I have to ensure I don’t let others define me by it. I think I manage to do that. What it also means is that people don’t question me when I say what my needs are because of my disability.”
And although Weinstein continues to advocate for people with disabilities, he says it is not necessarily what he will focus on in his future career.
“I was never made to feel like because I have an obvious disability that I needed to devote my life to that,” he says. “It’s okay to care about it, to be aware of it, and to be involved in it to some capacity without necessarily needing to dedicate my life to it. I think an important part of the movement is to allow people with disabilities the option of not having to devote their life to it.”
While a student at HLS, Weinstein also interned with the Federal Public Defender’s Office of Boston, at the Suffolk County Juvenile Court, and as a research assistant for Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. ’94, the Jesse Climenko Clinical Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at HLS.
Through it all, despite a full law school schedule and a family at home, Weinstein still made time for his other passion: acting.
“During the first semester of my second year at HLS, I auditioned for and booked a role on an episode of an NBC TV show,” he says. “My favorite aspect of the experience is that I filmed the audition with my friend Eric from my law school section in one of the study rooms on campus. I skipped classes for a few days to film in New York City. Don’t tell anyone.”
Weinstein says he is excited about his next role as a litigator for Goodwin Procter in Boston. “I took the Health Law and Policy Clinic at HLS, and I’m looking forward to continuing to explore legal issues in health care after I graduate,” he adds.
It’s a brilliant second act for Weinstein, who says he won’t be giving up acting, either. “I don’t feel I need to deny those parts of myself in order to embrace these new choices. I still have my agent. … It is a relief to see that I can still incorporate acting into my life when the opportunities present themselves.”
And whether Weinstein is on a stage or in a courtroom, his admirers continue to grow: When he celebrates his HLS graduation later this month, Weinstein’s wife, Anna-Maija, and son Theo will be joined by his newest and youngest fan — his second child, Silas, born on April 23, 2021.