Zarina Suárez O'Hagin grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and attended Salpointe High School, graduating in 1972 as valedictorian. She moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago, where she received her A.B. in 1976. After working for four years at the Orthogenic School, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children, at the University of Chicago, she went to law school, to Chicago-Kent College of Law for one year, and then to the Law School at the University of Chicago, where she received her J.D. in 1984.
After graduation, Zarina worked at three Chicago law firms – Katten Muchin & Zavis, Schiff Hardin & Waite, and Sidley & Austin. Her practice at these firms was primarily in the area of employee benefits. Specifically, she helped employers in the design and implementation of tax-qualified retirement plans, employee welfare benefit plans, and non-qualified retirement plans; this involved working with the Internal Revenue Code, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and state tax and labor statutes. She also assisted clients who marketed investments to employee benefit plans, helping to insure that the ERISA requirements for such investments were followed.
Lastly, at each of these firms she was also involved in pro bono work in two major areas:
(1) incorporating and obtaining tax exempt status for not-for-profit clients, and
(2) providing assistance in personal income tax filings for low income individuals.
In 1993, Zarina moved to the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc., where she was the director of the Lawyers' School Reform Advisory Project. In this position, she provided assistance to members of local school councils and the Chicago school reform community. Local school councils were created by Illinois law, and permit elected parents, teachers and members of the community to make important decisions about each of the over 550 Chicago public schools. The powers of the local school councils include the selection of the school's principal, approval of the school improvement plan, and the determination of how certain discretionary funds were to be spent in implementing the school improvement plan. In this position, Zarina advised local school councils, prepared publications on changes in the law for dissemination to all local school council members, advocated with the Illinois legislature and the Chicago Board of Education for local school councils, and worked closely with other organizations in Chicago involved in school reform.
During her tenure at the Lawyers' Committee, Zarina was awarded recognition for her work from the Chicago Association of Local School Councils in 1999, and the Elsie Award from Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) in 2000. In the fall of 2000, Zarina left the Lawyers' Committee and moved to Vermont. She began her practice in Vermont with her admission to the bar there in November 2002.