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Posted Sept. 24, 2010

Billionaire Alum Talks to Students About Nontraditional Careers

Randal J. Kirk
Randal J. Kirk '79

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Contact: Rob Seal

A legal education can benefit even those with little interest in practicing law, Randal J. Kirk ’79 told students last week.

Kirk, a former country lawyer turned billionaire biotech investor, spoke about nontraditional career paths at a Sept. 14 event sponsored by the Student Legal Forum.

“I do have one piece of advice for you,” he told students. “It’s a request, actually. I would ask that you be nice to your weirder classmates.”

Kirk, who was appointed in 2009 to serve on the University’s Board of Visitors, said he came to the Law School not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he wanted an education that would help him in a variety of different endeavors.

“My economic geek friends and faculty advisers encouraged me to go to law school because it is a very flexible degree and it provides very good training,” he said.

As a law student, Kirk said he received more intellectual gratification from learning to program a computer to create 16-note polyphonic music than he did from the study of black letter law. Still, he said the skills acquired in law school are broadly useful because they encourage the ability to quickly become familiar with a wide array of topics.

“You have to at least become conversant with a subject well enough to maneuver within it,” he said. “Any of us who have ever hired patent counsel know that a patent attorney might know nothing about metallurgy, but if his case is metallurgical, you would think he was a metallurgist.”

Through what he called “sheer advantageous events,” Kirk did become a working lawyer after graduation, and spent 10 years in general practice in Bland County, Va. For the first four or five years out of law school, he had the lowest adjusted gross income of anyone in his graduating class, he said.

“The good news is that it was by choice,” he said.

While practicing, Kirk also pursued some investment and business opportunities that he said never quite panned out, such as the attempted creation of a UHF television station. Before leaving his law practice in 1990, he cofounded General Injectables and Vaccines, a next-day-delivery medical supply company. The company blossomed, and Kirk sold it in 1998.

He then founded New River Pharmaceuticals, which developed safer and improved versions of already formulated drugs for distribution in large markets. Kirk was founder, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer until selling the company in 2007.

He now helms Third Security, an investment management firm in which he is senior managing director and chief executive officer. Kirk said he’s currently excited about the development of new technology in the area of synthetic biology, a field he believes is primed to expand rapidly.

“Synthetic biology today is more or less at the same point as the computer industry was in 1980,” he said. “If you are looking for an industry poised for exponential growth, this is it.”

Kirk cautioned students interested in entrepreneurial ventures to value passion and originality in the projects they choose to undertake.

“I would encourage you to work on things that you are very very excited about,” he said. “Every time I ever did something that was imitative and designed to make money, we lost money. Every time we focused on something that had tremendous value to the world and we were passionate about, we did well.”