H. Nicholas Berberian
H. Nicholas Berberian
Michael H. Schill
Michael H. Schill
George Kovac
George Kovac

Even in Florida, George Kovac has not forgotten the University of Chicago Law School.

Kovac, a Chicago native, earned his J.D. at U. of C. in 1976, worked in Chicago at Altheimer & Gray until it closed in 2003 and has been in Miami since then at Stearns, Weaver, Miller, Weissler, Alhadeff & Sitterson PA.

He looks for any opportunity he can to support his alma mater, so when he heard about the school’s Law Firm Challenge, he dove in.

“I think this Law Firm Challenge is one of the most brilliant fundraising ideas I’ve ever seen,” Kovac said.

“It’s very successful because it harnesses two of the best attributes of lawyers: their natural competitiveness and their commitment to supporting nonprofit organizations.”

Kovac’s firm is one of 61 that participated in the school’s third-annual challenge, which runs during the school’s fiscal year from July 1 to June 30.

Firms are divided into groups based on total number of alumni. The firm in each group with the highest percentage of alumni donating to the law school wins.

“Nothing like adding a little bit of competition to make the lawyers work harder,” Kovac said.

The genesis of U. of C.’s program came from Dean Michael H. Schill, who brought it from the UCLA School of Law. Schill joined U. of C. as dean in 2009 and helped launch the challenge in Chicago in 2012.

The challenge was embraced immediately, with 60 firms participating in 2012 and 2013 and 61 this year.

Those firms are broken into four groups based on alumni totals — under 15, 15 to 24, 25 to 49 and 50 or more.

This year’s winners in those groups were:

  • Fox, Swibel, Levin & Carroll LLP (four alumni); Stearns, Weaver, Miller, Weissler, Alhadeff & Sitterson PA (four); Sugar, Felsenthal, Grais & Hammer LLP (five); all with 100 percent participation
  • Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP (17 alumni, 100 percent)
  • Bartlit, Beck, Herman, Palenchar & Scott LLP (27 alumni, 100 percent)
  • Sidley, Austin LLP (136 alumni, 76 percent)

Each participating firm selects one or more lawyers to serve as challenge representatives, the people responsible for communicating with the school and organizing the firm’s participation.

“When I first took this on, I thought it would be difficult, but it really wasn’t,” said H. Nicholas Berberian of Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg. “I was pleasantly surprised by the degree of cooperation and willingness of people to participate.”

U. of C. representatives are happy that firms take the competition seriously, if only because it gets them participating. The school raised $34.42 million in the 2014 fiscal year, but only $1.96 million came from the challenge.

But 58 percent of alumni at participating firms donated in the 2014 fiscal year, compared to 35 percent of alumni at non-participating firms.

“The firm challenge is simply one vehicle that might strike a chord with one of our graduates who otherwise might not be motivated to give,” said Matthew Young, U. of C.’s associate director of firm giving and the challenge’s coordinator.

Kovac agrees.

“It’s lighthearted,” he said. “It makes it a challenge, a game. Lawyers like that sort of thing. It makes it more civilized than just reminding people that it’s time to send in their annual check.”

While it is just a game, the school does provide an incentive for winners — greater name recognition among students. A list of winners is posted on signs in the school and printed on the school’s website and in its quarterly magazine.

Winning firms also get free sponsorship of a student breakfast — valued at $2,500 — in which students can speak with both partners and associates about their firms in an informal setting.

Northwestern University School of Law is the only school in Illinois with a comparable program. Theirs is open to alumni in both firms and corporations; 56 participated in 2013.

For other schools wanting to start a challenge, Young recommends four steps.

First and most importantly, find enthusiastic firm representatives who will push the challenge. Second, set up the school’s website so that it will take online donations and consistently update the standings. U. of C.’s site does that with an animated bar graph that moves across the graph every time users open the page.

“It catches your attention,” Kovac said. “We want to make sure our red line goes all the way to the end of the page.”

Young’s other two recommended steps are to build relationships with the participating firms — bonds that go beyond the representatives so that more people are talking.

Lastly, create an incentive for winning firms.

“I think so many of the winning firms have such a comprehensive presence on the campus that this is just a piece to the larger puzzle of them getting their firm name recognized by students,” he said.