Nov. 17, 2014 | Volume XXII, Issue 14

UF Law grad pays experience forward as new assistant dean

Published: September 16th, 2013

Category: News

birrenkott By Kelcee Griffis (4JM)

Even though Rob Birrenkott (JD 05) has moved to a larger office, he still has a shrine in his former workspace down the hall.

A collection of about 25 thank-you cards from UF Levin College of Law students sits on top of a tall metal filing cabinet, and there are more in boxes within the drawers.

He can’t bring himself to throw any away. To him, each card represents a student he has impacted – and often connected with a job.

During the summer, Birrenkott took over as assistant dean of the Center for Career Development at UF Law. Previously, he served as the office director, and interim dean as of December. Although he’s been working in the office in various capacities for the past four years, his new role involves heavier administrative duties. He said this greater responsibility means a greater scope for coordinating programs to impact students individually.

“I’ve really worked with almost every single segment of the student population,” Birrenkott said. “I’ve worked with 1Ls, 2Ls, recent graduates, LL.M. students. That’s all been helpful now that (I’m) overseeing the whole operation.”

Since he officially took on the role May 28, he’s been focusing on expanding career services to smaller firms and to the government sector.

He’s been particularly successful at making job connections possible among small law firms, state attorney’s offices and other government sector markets, said UF Law Dean Robert Jerry.

“In just a few months, Rob has designed and implemented a number of new, innovative programs that I believe will help our students take advantage of opportunities I believe UF Law graduates are not fully taking advantage of,” Jerry said.

To connect employers with job-seeking students and recent graduates, Birrenkott has been working to organize “city days” – organized legal recruiting events in larger cities with a prescheduled itinerary of interviews at multiple firms in the area.

This is often more efficient for smaller firms than inviting them  to visit UF Law in search of students to hire, he said, and it also helps students avoid multiple trips to a location they want to work.

Birrenkott is also working to develop a system of online drop-down menus to later incorporate into UF Law’s website that would allow employers to submit a request for recent UF Law graduates with certain criteria, such as practice area and geographic location. Employers can download resumes and contact information for students in the database who fit the description.

Both the city days and the online strategies are designed to show employers, “You can hire a Gator from the convenience of your office,” he said.

Rachel Inman, associate dean for student affairs, said Birrenkott lends stability to the office. Students have confidence in him, and he’s managed administrative responsibilities to allow time for meeting with students and is even willing to meet after 5 p.m. if their schedule requires that time.

“I think that when you are in charge of running a unit, you’re concerned about being able to do the thing we all love to do – that is work with students,” Inman said. “He’s managed that by leading by example.”

On the student programs side, another new initiative Rob is overseeing is “Bridge the Gap.” It pairs students or recent graduates with industry veterans who can provide professional mentorship and connections.

Birrenkott chuckles when he remembers the day Dylan Shea sat down facing him at his desk in the CCD.

“I have four kids. I need a job,” Birrenkott recalls Shea, a 1L at the time, telling him.

“One step at a time,” he told Shea. “We’ve gotta crawl before we run.”

And Birrenkott “crawled” with Shea throughout his three years at UF Law. As Shea’s graduation date approached without signs of a job offer, Birrenkott brought him on a visit to an Orlando law firm. The firm wanted to hear a student’s perspective on how it could improve its outreach to students, and Shea delivered a talk.

What he didn’t know was that Birrenkott was pulling for him behind the scenes.

“I shot them an email and said ‘While he’s down here, I think this is a student you should really, really take a look at. He has a lot of intangibles – strong leader. He’s a candidate I can easily go to bat for.”

That day scored a job interview for Shea, which resulted in a job at the firm.

“I was able to see the whole life cycle,” Birrenkott said. “You get to work with them throughout their journey, and then there’s a positive outcome at the end of it.”

Birrenkott’s wife, Amanda, said her husband was initially concerned about how accepting the assistant dean position would affect the way he interacted with students. He didn’t want taking on more administrative responsibilities to detract from his ability to invest in students individually.

“He said ‘This is where my strength is.’ He wanted to make sure he still had time to interact with them – and us,” she said.

But so far, Birrenkott has taken that transition in stride and has even found new ways to impact the profession.

He was recently appointed as member of the standing committee on diversity and inclusion by Florida Bar President Eugene Pettis (JD 85).

Being part of this task force will give him even more insight into “what’s being done to help foster diversity and inclusion within professional circles,” he said.

It gives him a vantage point to see what’s coming up in the job market as well as the ability to bring the information back to the students getting ready to enter that market and help prepare them for it.

His background has given him the ability to coordinate programs between firms and students. After all, he’s been in both places.

“I’d like to think I’m not so old that I can’t remember what it’s like to be a law student,” he said, “but at the same time, I have the benefit of also being an attorney.”

***

Birrenkott’s new office in the CCD is a blend of professional pride and family joy.

Gold-embossed thank-you cards from students and law firms are displayed beneath a large white poster smeared with colorful paint and the words “We love u Daddy.”

Birrenkott’s calm voice becomes lively when he talks about his family.

He and his wife live in a house about a block away from the law school with their two children, Bailey, 5, and Mackenzie, 3.

“I get to raise them in the shadow of a place that means a lot to me,” Birrenkott said.

He often walks Bailey to preschool on his way to work, and at the end of the day, he regularly takes his daughters to campus for bike rides or to play at a fountain.

“I’ve got so many great memories from my time here as a student and it’s so fun that I get to develop new memories and help my kids develop fond memories here,” he said.

After he and his wife were married in Tampa in the summer of 2003, they lived in a small unit at Corry Village, a UF family and graduate housing community near the law school.

“We’ve come a long way in some respects, but in others, we’re still just a block away from the law school where we started out,” he said.

Now that his time at UF Law has come full-circle, Birrenkott often gives the same words of advice to students. It’s also the philosophy that is contributing the success of the CCD under his leadership.

“I honestly believe that with hard work and following your passion, there’s no obstacle that you can’t overcome,” he said. “That’s why, despite the economy and external challenges that we face, I’m confident that we have an internal team that’s going to be able to overcome those obstacles. And we’re going to equip and instill those values into our students.”

Birrenkott can speak from experience, because he’s found it true of his own path. From UF Law grad to the recently appointed assistant dean of career services, Birrenkott has found his niche. As he coordinates programs and coaches students to follow their passion, he is following his.

“It’s impossible to predict where life will take you sometimes, and you just get swept up in it, follow your passion, and hope it takes you to a good place,” Birrenkott said. “I was fortunate enough where that was the case for me.”

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