As Zeb's teen years came to an end, his life took on more direction. Apparently he had a clear outline in mind of the way his life should unfold, and he worked toward the goals he set with considerable drive. It is clear from the surviving sources, however, that his clarity of vision did not cause him to move with single-minded commitment. As was true when he was a child, Zeb continued to be an ebullient person who rarely passed up an opportunity to have fun. Despite his seeming addiction to the light side of life, he gained public prominence at an unusually early age. The combination of political ambition, irrepressible wit, and the need to be the center of attention would characterize Zeb for his entire adult life.
Kemp P. Battle, a later adviser, provided a brief portrait of what Zeb was like as he approached manhood. Battle was the son of a distinguished lawyer who was a law professor at the University of North Carolina and an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. When he met Zeb, the younger Battle was in Asheville accompanying his father on his rounds of the state court system. Their brief meeting in the moonlight left a lasting impression on Battle. He was amazed to find in this small mountain village a young man who knew the classic literature of the period better than he did. Battle had to concede that Zeb's knowledge of Shakespeare put his to shame. The same was true for the Bible and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Battle also noted, however, that Zeb's knowledge of the Scriptures was not accompanied by a corresponding piety. His conversation sparkled with good humor, but his manner was often somewhat crude and unpolished.1
Two years after he met Battle, Zeb began to study law with the expectation of passing the bar. He and his Asheville contemporary Augustus S. Merrimon studied under the guidance of Nicholas W. Woodfin. Fortunately, Merrimon kept a somewhat cryptic diary during this period, and a fairly detailed account of Zeb's activities emerges. It appears that Zeb and Merrimon were only two of several aspiring lawyers who studied with Woodfin, who was widely considered to be the leading attorney in the region at the time. Known both for his knowledge of the law and his excellent courtroom