Alumni Profile: Kelly Tompkins '81 Turns Legal Education into Corporate Success

Posted 2017-01-10 6:11pm

Cleveland-Marshall College of Law graduate P. Kelly Tompkins ’81 attended law school knowing that his career ambitions would likely progress away from practicing law.   His inspiration for attending law school came from a semester he spend interning in Washington D.C. and the wide-array of professionals he met during that experience.

“In Washington D.C., I met practicing lawyers and professionals in government, business, advocacy and lobbying,” explained Tompkins.  “The common denominator was how many of those individuals had law degrees and that made me realize the flexibility provided by obtaining a law degree.”

Tompkins has gone on to transition from legal to executive positions and find great professional success with major corporations during his 35 year-career.  He was recently promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer of Cliffs Natural Resources Inc., where he will oversee the U.S. Iron Ore and Asia Pacific Iron Ore Operations, as well as the Commercial and Business Development functions.

The Erie, Pa. native started his career as in-house counsel with Cleveland-based Reliance Electric Company and then spent time with Exxon Corporation, where he held various legal and general management positions.  Tompkins joined RPM International Inc., a NYSE-listed, global specialty chemical company in 1996 and was promoted to the company’s executive vice president and CFO before joining Cliffs in 2010. 

While a legal degree is not required of Tompkins’ recent executive positions, he still recommends pursuing legal education to those looking to achieve similar career goals, along with centering on business-focused studies as an undergrad.  Tompkins feels his legal education provided problem-solving, persuasion, public speaking and reading comprehension skills that have allowed him to thrive in general business settings.

In addition, Tompkins believes that a legal education provides strong leadership traits, including the capability to separate fact from opinions and sort through information to find the key material.  The ability – and responsibility – of law graduates to serve as leaders in the community was a key component of Tompkins’ commencement address to the C|M|LAW Class of 2005.

“Leadership is integral to membership in our profession – as much as appearing in court, providing advice and consolations, or negotiating a contract,” Tompkins explained in his commencement address.  “While we are indeed advocates, we are also uniquely suited to lead others in finding common ground – particularly among diverse stakeholders in a divided community.  Our profession must restore civility to public discourse and I urge you to take it on as a serious life-long commitment.”

Tompkins, a past Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association Alumni of the Year honoree, has demonstrated his passion for community leadership through active roles with several area organizations.  He is a trustee of the Playhouse Square Foundation and co-chair of the United Way’s Humanitarian Society. Previously, Tompkins was chair of the Board of Directors of Magnificat High School, a trustee of the Alzheimer’s Association, director of the University Hospitals Case Medical Center and director of the Great Lakes Science Center.  In 2005-2006, Tompkins served as president of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, becoming the second corporate counsel to serve as president in the association’s then 132-year history.

“The year I was fortunate to be president of the bar association was one of the most demanding but rewarding years of my career,” said Tompkins.  “The opportunity to be the face and voice of this profession in my city was extraordinary.”

One of Tompkins chief goals as CMBA president was to advocate for women and minority attorneys and to increase their prominence as role models in the profession.  Looking back on the decade that has followed his presidency, he believes the local legal community is in a state of “continuous improvement” regarding inclusivness in high-ranking positions but that it is vital for improvement to continue forward.

Tompkins feels especially motivated to advocate for women in leadership positions as the father of three daughters who are all working professionals.  His daughter Kim is a financial analyst at American Greetings, and Britt is a corporate buyer for Arhaus.  His other daughter Lauren is a lawyer with Giffen & Kaminski and a 2011 graduate Cleveland-Marshall.  Tompkins finds it uniquely special to have one of his children follow at least the early stages of his career path, but made sure Lauren decided to attend C|M|LAW for the right reasons.

“I told her to go (to Cleveland-Marshall) because she wanted to and not to please me and I let her know that she was going to work harder in law school than she ever had in her life,” said Tompkins. 

Well before Lauren could have even considered becoming a second-generation student at C|M|LAW, Tompkins immersed himself as one of the most active alumni of the law school.  Tompkins currently serves on the law school’s Executive Advisory Council and for six years was the chair of the C|M|LAW Visiting Committee.

“My degree from Cleveland-Marshall is what I attribute much of my success to.  I have no doubt I would not be in the position I am now if not for my law degree and I feel an overwhelming motivation to give back and share with the law school.”

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