VanKirk, Harper Move City Law Firms to Support Pitt Law School

Issue Date: 
October 24, 2011
Thomas L. VanKirkThomas L. VanKirk
Robert T. HarperRobert T. Harper

While the value of a Pitt law degree is widely accepted, few take the time to consider the collective worth of the Pitt law school’s many alumni, who together have had an astounding impact on the Pittsburgh business and legal communities

“If you realize the monumental contributions Pitt law graduates make to our region, you begin to realize how significant the school is and what a vital role it plays in ensuring the continued success of our city,” says Thomas L. VanKirk.

He should know. He is the chair and immediate past chief executive officer of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, one of Pittsburgh’s largest law firms. Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, he has worked closely with many of the city’s most important business and civic leaders.

VanKirk and Buchanan Ingersoll partner Robert T. Harper share a high opinion of Pitt’s law school. While neither of them is a Pitt alumnus—VanKirk earned his JD degree from Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law and Harper received his from the Duke law school—the pair has made a remarkable commitment to promote Pitt’s School of Law by launching an initiative that in just 18 months has helped generate nearly $1 million in new philanthropic commitments to the school.

In November 2009, VanKirk hosted a dinner that brought the key decision makers from 18 of the city’s largest law firms together to hear a presentation by Mary Crossley, dean of Pitt’s School of Law, and Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, who served as dean of the School of Law from 1985 to 1993. Their appeal for support for student scholarships, faculty assistance, improved facilities, and expanded programs resonated with the firms and led directly to increased philanthropic support in the months that followed.

“We are very grateful to Tom VanKirk and Bob Harper, both for their personal generosity and for their leadership efforts in generating support for our law school from within the Pittsburgh legal community,” said Nordenberg. “It is gratifying to know that so many accomplished lawyers from within some of the region’s major law firms place such a high value on the role we play in preparing lawyers to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century—particularly in the areas of energy, innovation, and the life sciences, which have emerged as such key drivers of this region’s economy.

“In more human terms, it also is heartening that such accomplished lawyers are willing to generously invest in the next generation of the profession,” the chancellor added.

Harper has been a Pitt adjunct law faculty member for 14 years and a member of the law school’s board of visitors for four years. While his professional expertise has enabled him to be a top-flight instructor in the business organization and health care law courses he teaches, his long-standing connection to the school has given him a deep understanding of the importance of strong legal education programs and helped him develop a sense of loyalty to Pitt that may rival his allegiance to his own alma mater.

“What became obvious to me was the vital role Pitt plays in Pittsburgh and how much the local legal community benefits by having Pitt law students here,” says Harper.

When Harper wanted to do more for Pitt, he sought assistance from VanKirk, who joined the University of Pittsburgh Board of Trustees in early 2010.

“I already knew how important this law school was to all of us who practice law and conduct business in this community,” says VanKirk, who has been recruiting lawyers from Pitt for more than 30 years. Of the 400 attorneys his firm employs, 58 are Pitt Law graduates. Not only was he eager to help, he believed that there were many others in the legal community who would understand the need and support the cause.

“This initiative exemplifies how successful Pitt Law has been in establishing effective partnerships with the local practicing bar that have a profound impact for both our students and faculty,” says Crossley.

VanKirk says that Crossley and Nordenberg are making his work easy: “When you hear the passion they have for law and for Pittsburgh, it’s hard not to get behind this.”

To date, more than 30 attorneys from VanKirk’s firm have made collective commitments of $250,000 to the Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney Faculty Scholar Award for faculty who undertake ambitious scholarly work of high impact.

In addition to hosting the 2009 dinner that kicked off the initiative, VanKirk followed up by having one-on-one meetings with managing partners from individual firms, and his efforts are reaping the participation he had hoped for. Reed Smith LLP has established the Reed Smith Energy Innovation Fund to support programs and students in the areas of energy law and innovation. To date, more than 40 Reed Smith attorneys have collectively committed more than $270,000. And the law firm K&L Gates LLP has received more than $320,000 in collective commitments from its attorneys to establish the K&L Gates Fund for Innovation, which supports more broadly initiatives in areas relating to energy, the life sciences, and innovation.

VanKirk would also like to bring the corporate law community into the fold. He says that many of Pittsburgh’s large corporations have sizable legal departments, which have the same vested interest in building and maintaining a top-notch law school.

VanKirk explains that while he began the effort by approaching a select group of large firms, he intends to continue meeting with representatives from more of the city’s law firms and leading corporations. He is confident that the entire region, especially those in the legal community, will realize enormous benefits by supporting the Pitt School of Law through the creation of a culture that values and supports the common goals of the profession and Southwestern Pennsylvania.