Zac McFarland originally wanted to play professional football, but picked Esq. over ESPN. The University of Iowa College of Law student will join the Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron after graduation.
Tom Snee
Tim Schoon
Zac McFarland

Degree: Juris Doctorate
Hometown: St. Cloud, Minnesota
Future plans: Start a position at Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron.

Barack Obama changed the course of Zac McFarland’s life.

Then a 12-year-old growing up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, McFarland dreamed of a professional football career someday. But after seeing Obama elected president, he realized he had other opportunities besides sports (although he did keep playing football, all the way through the end of his undergraduate career at Division III St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota).

“He was a lot like me, the first person I knew of who had a similar experience as I did, a half-black kid with a white single mother,” says McFarland. His admiration was cemented further when he met Obama during a White House ceremony two years later, an experience McFarland describes as “surreal.”

The inspiration continued to drive him, through his undergraduate experience at St. John’s University in Minnesota and then to the University of Iowa College of Law, where he’ll graduate with a law degree this spring. He’ll head back home for a job with the Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson & Byron.

McFarland started on his career road early, working as a summer associate at Fredrikson after just his first year of law school. While there, he worked on some significant cases, such as a $100 million merger and acquisition deal.

“Here I was, a fresh 22-year-old with one year of legal education, working on a $100 million M&A deal between two Fortune 500 firms at the second-largest law firm in Minnesota,” he says.

The firm was so impressed, they brought him back as a summer associate after his second year and hired him to a permanent associate position following his graduation.

“It’s always kind of nebulous why they hire someone. It’s as much about who you are as what you’ve done, but I’m easy to talk to and I’m the kind of person who’s willing to learn and be the best attorney I can be,” says McFarland. 

He’ll work in the firm’s securities litigation unit, crediting his interest in the field to the Business Associations class he took as a second-year student with Professor Joe Yockey.

“I learned more about what business issues were, and it showed me how business enterprises worked,” McFarland says. “Plus, Professor Yockey is just a good guy and a great teacher who makes class enjoyable. It’s palpable how smart he is and how much he enjoys sharing that knowledge with his students.”

“I felt my professors were more than just professors, that they’d become mentors and friends.”

Zac McFarland
2020 graduate, University of Iowa College of Law

He enjoyed it so much, he took several more business law classes with Yockey.

“Zac’s enthusiasm for learning is infectious,” says Yockey. “I was fortunate to have him in several classes, and in each one his energy, thoughtfulness, and positivity elevated the level of engagement of every student in the room. He will go far, and I’m incredibly proud to have been one of his teachers.”

McFarland says the collegiality of the law school faculty played a big part in his success, noting it was easy to learn from people who are so approachable and passionate about their work.

“I felt my professors were more than just professors, that they’d become mentors and friends,” he says. “I’ve learned so much more than just the law from them. I’ve learned how to be a good professional and a good person. They take the time to talk with me about the issues I’ll face as an attorney.”

The highlight of McFarland’s time at the law school came in October 2019, when he had the opportunity to argue a mock case in front of the Iowa Supreme Court during the college’s annual Supreme Court Day events. He admits the nerves were noticeable as arguments approached, the same way they were leading up to a football game.

“Instead of enjoying it, I was stressing out,” he says.

But just like on the football field, when the big moment arrived in the courtroom, everything clicked into place.

“As soon as I stood up to the podium, the nerves just went away and I did really well,” he says. “It was the coolest thing in the world.”

Now that he’s followed his inspiration, Obama, through law school, is the next step politics? McFarland doesn’t rule it out, but it’s not on his radar just now. He wants to follow in the former president’s footsteps by becoming an inspiration to others and motivating them to reach for things they never knew were there, and he doesn’t need to throw his hat into the political ring to do that.

“I could give back and be a symbol of hope by becoming a football coach, a judge, or starting a nonprofit,” he says. “So, instead of focusing on what route I’m going to take, I’m trying to just focus on the goal for now. I feel like I have the ability to positively impact a lot of lives and that it’s my obligation to pay it forward and do so regardless of the means.”