Editor's Note: Zachary Zent, who would have graduated with the Class of 2019, passed away last year. A memorial will be held on the University of Chicago campus on Thursday, June 13.
Looking out at Chicago from the rooftop of the East Bank Club one sunny afternoon just before the start of his second year at the Law School, Zachary Zent marveled at the way things were coming together. The Redondo Beach, Calif., native with the fiery work ethic, the indomitable spirit, and the dry sense of humor had set his sights on a career in law years ago. His dad, a former police detective, had known and worked with lawyers for years, and the best ones, he often said, were smart and tenacious. Just like his oldest boy.
Zach Zent had been the first in his family to graduate from college, and he’d earned scholarships to the University of Michigan and, later, to the University of Chicago Law School. He’d had a good 1L year and an even better summer, interning in the criminal division of the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York and navigating On-Campus Interviews with the spirit and confidence that his friends had come to admire.
And now, sitting beside the pool with his friend Ben Lowenstein, a fraternity brother from UMichigan, Zent reveled in the latest piece of good news: he’d been offered a 2018 job as a summer associate in the San Francisco office of Kirkland & Ellis.
“Finally, all that hard work was paying off, and he was beginning his ascent to where he knew he could be,” said Lowenstein, who was planning his own move to San Francisco. “We just sat there looking at the city and talking about our plans, and the whole time he just had this huge smile on his face—and, by the way, he had a great smile. I think that was one of our last conversations before he was diagnosed.”
Zent, who would have graduated in 2019 and was a founding member of the Law School’s First Generation Professionals Association, died May 25 after an eight-month battle with cancer. He was 23.
“From the very beginning of Zach’s time with us, he impressed his classmates, who—in their own words during an orientation exercise—described him as a person who brought to the Law School a rare combination of ‘energy,’ ‘warmth,’ ‘determination,’ and ‘humor,’” said Interim Dean of Students Abbie Willard. “Those characteristics were contagious to all around him who were drawn to his spontaneous openness and sincerity. He is missed by all who knew him and will continue to inspire all who experienced his broad, genuine smile.”
Zent, a devoted sports fan who lit up rooms and loved to argue, established himself as a leader at the Law School. In addition to helping launch the First Generation Professionals (FGP) group, he was elected president of the Securities and Investment Law Society and the vice president of the Latino Law Students Association, and was a member of the intramural flag football team.
Mack Chitulescu, ’19, the first president of the FGP, said he, Zent, and others worked together to start the group after bonding over shared challenges.
“We talked about how there was a different vernacular and a different way of expressing yourself [in law school] than what we were used to growing up,” said Chitulescu, now the president of the Law Students Association. Chitulescu and Zent sought to create opportunities for students who hadn’t grown up in families where higher education was the norm, giving them a chance to share experiences and to hear from and network with successful lawyers who were also first-generation professionals.
Chitulescu said Zent brought a high level of energy to all types of gatherings; things were often just more fun when he was around.
“He liked to have a good time, but he was very ambitious,” Chitulescu said. “Whatever he was involved in, he’d give 110 percent.”
Omri Ben-Shahar, the Leo and Eileen Herzel Professor of Law, who had Zent in his first-year Contracts class, remembers him as a “person of great vitality.”
“I recall his magnetic smile, seeing him surrounded by adoring classmates, and enjoying the positive energy he seemed to radiate,” Ben-Shahar said.
Zent would often study in the library until 2 a.m., but wasn’t above taking a break to goof around. Jenni Saperstein, ’19, remembers a professor walking by late one night as several of them were tossing Skittles back and forth, trying to catch them in their mouths.
“Zach was a work hard, play hard kind of guy,” Saperstein said, laughing.
He was also a devoted and supportive friend. Saperstein remembers running out of steam one night when she and Zent were both in “crunch mode” during finals. “I told him I was giving up and going home to go to sleep,” she said.
Not long after, Zent appeared at Saperstein’s apartment with her favorite source of caffeine—a Starbuck’s Doubleshot drink.
“He just handed it to my roommate and left—he didn’t even wait to see my reaction, because it wasn’t about him,” Saperstein said. “Later, when I texted to tell him thank you, he just said, ‘Let’s get to work, kid.’”
Zent was born in July 1994, the oldest son of Steve Zent and his wife Luz, who grew up on a coffee bean farm in Colombia and immigrated to the US after she met Steve. Their younger son, Zane, a student at Penn State, was born in 1997.
When Zent was little, he was exceptionally quiet, his dad said.
“He wasn’t a talker, he was a thinker,” Steve Zent said. “He was always thinking.”
Steve Zent and his oldest son had a lot in common: the same wicked sense of humor, the same love of football. When Zach was 12, he went to court with his dad, who was working as an undercover detective. As they stepped into the elevator, Zach said, “Now I know what I want to do for a career, Dad.”
“You want to be like your Pop, huh?” the elder Zent said.
“No,” his son said. “I want to be one of the guys in the suits.”
After that, he never looked back, his dad said—Zach Zent was focused on becoming a lawyer.
“He was a leader, never a follower,” his dad said. “When he saw something wrong, he’d challenge it.”
In high school, Zent was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Crohn’s disease, a painful inflammatory bowel condition that led doctors to surgically remove part of his intestines shortly after his junior year. His toughness was on full display during his senior year as he continued to excel both athletically and academically despite his health challenges. That year, he served as the captain of both his football and lacrosse teams and was admitted to the University of Michigan.
At Michigan—where he majored in political science and graduated with distinction—he pledged Theta Chi and developed a reputation among his friends for his persistence, charisma, and ability to win people over in debates.
“We’d talk about football, and even if his team, the Oakland Raiders, was the worst in the league, he’d argue that they were going to win that week,” said Michael Ray, a friend and fraternity brother from Michigan. “He’d back it up with statistics and this deep knowledge of football, and you’d believe him by the end of it.”
In college, Zent was focused on getting into law school, studying for months for the LSAT—sometimes for more than 12 hours a day, Lowenstein said.
“I’ve never seen somebody work as hard as he did studying for the LSAT,” Lowenstein said. “He’d take practice exams and tell us that he was slowly getting better and better.”
He found out he’d been admitted to the University of Chicago Law School while he was on a spring break trip to Mexico with Ray and other friends; his dad still has a picture of his son weeping with joy after receiving the news.
"It was really special being with him when he found out," Ray said. "You could tell by his raw emotions that it really meant a lot to him, and I remember him being hysterical thinking about it. From starting as the first Zent to graduate from college to getting accepted to one of the top law schools, he was immensely proud of his own work and grateful for all the hard work his parents had done to get him where he was. Many of his close friends were there with him the night he found out, and we all had witnessed the hard work he put in to do well on his LSAT. I know he was skeptical he would get in, but when he did, it proved that his hard work paid off, and we knew it was well earned. We had a great night that night, to say the least."
Zent enjoyed his first year at the Law School, and each new opportunity was cause for celebration. He called his dad after his interview at Kirkland’s San Francisco office and told him about the view of the Bay.
“I told him that one of those windows would be his someday,” Steve Zent said.
But the cancer diagnosis came not long after, and Zent spent most of his second year in a battle that his friends and family say he faced with his characteristic courage.
“He was a warrior to his very last breath,” Steve Zent said. But more than anything, his dad said, “Zach was a good man.”
“He had a really amazing and unique outlook on life,” Saperstein said. “Nobody operated quite like he did. He had this charisma—you could feel his energy when he walked into a room. He’d smile, and he’d remind you not to take things too seriously.”