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Highmark Chief Legal Officer Tom VanKirk '70: A Career Well-Planned

If Tom VanKirk ’70, could point to only one management practice that has led to the successes he has experienced in his career, it would have to be strategic planning. “Buchanan (Ingersoll & Rooney) was one of the first law firms to develop a strategic plan back in 1985,” Van Kirk remembers. At the time, he was chief operating officer and the firm was trying to determine the geographic region in which it was to become a leader. “We decided we wanted to be a dominant firm in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We could have gone in a more regional direction but that initial plan served us well.”

Over the course of the next twenty-five years, Buchanan updated its strategic plan every three years and developed operating plans each year. In his first year as CEO, Van Kirk said he led Buchanan through another strategic planning process and the resulting plan led the firm to focus on “delivering what the client wants and not necessarily what we wanted to deliver. That again worked well for us.” Today the Pittsburgh-based firm is ranked 115 by American Lawyer with more than $250 million in revenues. 

VanKirk had been at Buchanan for forty-one years and was in his last year as chairman of the firm when he got the call from Highmark, Inc., a $15 billion in revenue diversified health and wellness company based in Pittsburgh that serves 34.4 million people across the U.S. through its businesses in health insurance, dental insurance, vision care, information technology and integrated health care delivery.  “I joined as Chief Legal Officer and Executive Vice President and am one of seven direct reports to the CEO so the role is a real part of the overall management that is shaping the direction of the company,” he said.

Less than a month after starting the job, Highmark’s CEO became embroiled in a scandal that led to the CEO’s termination. “It was amazing how quickly the senior management team just started meeting every other day and going about their job keeping the strategic direction in place. I was very proud of the board for acting as quickly as they did and taking the action that I definitely thought was important and necessary for the company,” he said. He pointed out that it was the strategic plan that enabled the organization to move forward. “It wasn’t the CEO’s strategic plan, it was Highmark’s strategic plan and that is what enabled us to continue.”

What made VanKirk attractive to Highmark was his experience in handling high profile antitrust and corporate takeover cases which often had him dealing with boards, CEOs and COOs. “They also wanted someone who knows their way around the community and who knew Highmark. I have admired what Highmark is trying to accomplish in developing an integrated delivery network and reaching out and trying to save a local hospital system.”
Highmark initiatives mesh with VanKirk's commitment to community

VanKirk said he also liked that Highmark’s community support initiatives which dovetailed with his own longstanding commitments to the community and the importance of “giving back.” “One thing I checked with Highmark before joining was to be sure I could stay involved in the community,” he said. His community commitments include serving on the executive committee of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Pennsylvania State Economy League and the Pennsylvania Business Council, and serving as trustee of the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh and a board member of the United Way of Allegheny County, and the Women and Girls Foundation. Together with his wife, Bonnie, he co-chaired the capital fundraising campaigns for the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Serving on the Board of Trustees at the University of Pittsburgh and as a member of the UPMC Cancer Institute’s Council may appear as a conflict since Highmark and UPMC compete in some areas. However Highmark, Pitt, and UPCI determined that Van Kirk’s continued involvement would benefit each of the organizations.  

Looking ahead, VanKirk believes it is important for students and recent graduates to be very focused on what they want to accomplish and to do everything possible to support that objective. “There are lots of opportunities for law school graduates but they have to stop enrolling in law schools thinking that 75 percent of them will get $125,000 a year jobs.” As a hiring manager VanKirk said he relies a lot on a personal interview. “If a person has passion and enthusiasm for something they want to do that’s what I look for. Over and above that, academics are important but I don’t put as much credence in only hiring from the top 5 percent. I’m willing to reach down as far as the top 40 percent so long as their resume indicates that they have had other experiences.”

VanKirk looks back on his own decision to attend law school. “I was weighing an offer of $6,800 and a car from P&G against attending law school. It seemed almost impossible to pass up. But I made the right decision.” He said he appreciated the small class sizes at Dickinson and the practical approach to law his professors, like Lou Del Duca proffered. “I learned to look at statutes in the context of where and why they were passed and it helped me to understand what the law was intended to accomplish.…it was also nice to be in a safe community and close to opportunities to work part-time.”

Now that VanKirk has switched chairs and is purchasing legal services, his perspective has changed as well. “When I was with Buchanan I would have wanted clients to use Buchanan exclusively. I can see why you turn to different firms for their particular skills and it would be foolish just using one firm. Not every case is a major case and you ought to look for a lower price firm to do those tasks,” he said concluding with a laugh, “And I do hate paying legal bills.” 


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