University of Illinois general counsel Thomas Bearrows
University of Illinois general counsel Thomas Bearrows (Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin)


One might say the University of Illinois was founded by Abraham Lincoln — by signing into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, he helped create the system of land-grant universities. As one of the original such universities, Illinois opened its flagship campus in downstate Urbana in 1867.

Today, the university operates on three campuses — the main one in Urbana-Champaign and satellites in Springfield and Chicago, with a total enrollment of nearly 80,000 students and an operating budget of $5.6 billion.


Thomas Bearrows manages a legal department of 50, including 26 attorneys, most of them in Chicago. His team oversees legal matters for all three campuses as well as the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago and its schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, pharmacy, public health and social work.

More than 40 percent of the department’s work is transactional, including real estate, public finance, intellectual property research and export controls, and health care. The rest involves litigation, employment and general legal needs.


In Chicago, the department has used Jenner & Block and Greenberg Traurig for litigation; Perkins Coie for transactions; Pugh, Jones & Johnson for public finance and litigation; and Jones Day and Schiff Hardin for internal investigations and employment. The department doesn’t do much with “more exotic” alternative fee arrangements, Bearrows said. “As a public entity, we typically find that a discounted rate and using either a rate cap or a blended partner/associate rate works well for us and outside firms in terms of fairness and predictability.”


A typical workday starts at 9 a.m. and ends by about 7 p.m. As the lead attorney, Bearrows finds that legal work takes up “about 20 to 25 percent of my typical day.”

One of his most intense periods came in 2009, when the Chicago Tribune reported that the university favored relatives of lobbyists, fundraisers, a union leader and other connected individuals for admission. “I’d like to think that our office personnel responded admirably to provide a high level of service under what were at times challenging circumstances,” he said.


Bearrows is a 1979 Illinois graduate and a 1982 graduate of its College of Law; he also holds a 1984 master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

He became a litigation ­associate at Winston & Strawn in 1984 and a partner in 1992. He answered an ad for the top job at Illinois and was hired in 1997: “I had been in practice long enough and I wanted something different,” he said. “The surprise has been how much psychic benefit I receive working for a not-for-profit. Even when I’m having a bad day, I’m doing something good.


Bearrows’ wife, Holly Hirst, is an in-house employment lawyer at AT&T Inc. They have 14-year-old twins, a son and daughter. Bearrows is a film and theater fan, a subscriber to Steppenwolf Theatre Company for more than 25 years.


“Steelheart,” young adult fiction by Brandon Sanderson. “I spend much of my day reading, so I don’t do as much reading in my spare time. When I do read, I sometimes read whatever my kids are reading so we can discuss it.”