Think Locally: How This Law School Landed $50 Million from a Donor Who Didn't Go There

When Drexel University's law school was founded in 2006, it was initially named after alumnus Earle Mack, who pledged $15 million toward the school. The name was later dropped and Drexel law dean Roger Dennis has been looking for ways to raise more funds and attract more students. Scholarships and financial aid are key, and Dennis has been busy—not only courting students, but also, it turns out, one of the most prominent plaintiff lawyers in the country.

That would be Thomas R. Kline, who was raised in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region as the son of a dress factory manager. Kline went on to get degrees from Albright College and Lehigh University. He worked as a sixth-grade teacher for a time before attending Duquesne University School of Law. 

Look again at the name above: Duquesne, not Drexel

In 1995, Kline cofounded Kline & Specter with Shanin Specter, son of late U.S. Senator Arlen Specter. Since then, the firm has reached the apex of law firms handling catastrophic personal-injury cases. On its website, Kline & Specter lists its awards and settlements on behalf of clients as more than $1.7 billion. A damage verdict against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) totalled $51 million, though it later was reduced.

Kline also scored big as one of the players that went after Merck, the maker of the deadly drug Vioxx, and he's been a regular commentator on television. 

Kline has been in the news in recent years for representing one of the victims in the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University's football program. Kline has also been honored for 11 consecutive years as the No. 1 attorney in Pennsylvania by the independent rating service Super Lawyers.

So Dean Roger Dennis certainly picked the right guy to tap, and we could only imagine the chagrin at Duquesne Law. But what's Kline's connection to Drexel?

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Well, geography for starters. Duquesne is in Pittsburgh, while Drexel is in Philadelphia, where Kline has spent most of his career. It's natural for people to get involved with nearby institutions, which can escalate to philanthropic giving. We've seen other cases in which geography trumps alumni loyalty and the obvious lesson for university leaders and development officers is to focus beyond rich alums and pay attention to wealthy locals who may believe in your institution's mission. (Okay, we know: Most campus fundraisers realize this already, but it still bears repeating: There's gold in them thar neighbors!)

Long before Kline made his $50 million pledge, he had swung behind Drexel and its law school in a big way. He currently chairs the board of advisors at Drexel law and is a member of the board of trustees of the entire university. While it's true that Kline didn't attend Drexel law, his son did, and we're always struck by how attached people can get to the schools their kids attend, as opposed to smarting over high tuition bills.

Related: Pharmaceuticals Star Is Immersed in Duke in Every Way, and His Gifts Are Getting Bigger

Widening the lens, you'll see that Kline is active in the Philadelphia area, and is a frequent lecturer at area law schools. He was an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he taught a trial advocacy course. Kline also gave between $100,000 and $250,000 to UPenn Law in 2011.

So why didn't Penn get the big money? Maybe one reason is that a guy like Kline from a scrappy background is more inclined to root for the underdog than to go with the name-brand place that plenty of other wealthy people throw money at.

Remember, donors want to make a difference with their money, and that's harder to do by giving to prominent schools that are already rolling in dough. In contrast, $50 million can really be transformative at a place like Drexel, especially given how new its law school is. 

If Kline would rather be a big fish in a small pond than vice versa, he found the right school to invest in. 

The seeds of Kline's $50 million gift were planted when in 2012 he purchased the former Beneficial Bank building, which is within walking distance from Drexel's campus. Kline's gift will include that building, which will house the law school's Institute for Trial Advocacy.

The gift—the fourth-largest ever given to a law school, according to Drexel—will also fund scholarships and add faculty. We wouldn't be surprised if Kline taught a course or two at the revamped Drexel Law, which will bear his name, in the coming years.