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MBA Alumni

Litigator, Military Veteran Expands Career Possibilities with Jenkins MBA

When Kirk Warner retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel in 2013 after 33 years of active and reserve duty, he could have simply focused on his career as successful civilian lawyer. 

For more than three decades, Warner had run two careers in parallel. 

In the civilian world he’d spent time as a litigator for law firms in Ohio and North Carolina handling complex, high-profile cases. As an Army officer he’d served in a variety of roles, including serving as the deputy staff judge advocate for coalition military forces following the fall of Baghdad in the second Gulf War and advising three chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as deputy legal counsel.

But he wasn’t ready to slow down.

“I don’t like downtime,” says Warner, a senior litigator at Smith Anderson in Raleigh. “We’re all lifetime learners.”

He had already earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology, a law degree and two master’s degrees — including a master’s in history from NC State University — before he figured it was time, with the help of the GI Bill, to dive into business.

“There was a gaping hole in my background,” he says. Though he had spent much of his civilian career advising and representing large corporations, he didn’t understand business as well as he wanted to. 

“I wanted to get to understand my clients better and why their decisions are made the way they are,” he says. “I was starting to potentially get on some boards, and I thought I had better get the business background in order to provide the best possible legal advice.”

NC State and the Poole College of Management’s military friendly culture made it the obvious choice. “The MBA program at Poole just jumped right out at me,” he says.

Which isn’t to say that it was easy to juggle a rigorous graduate program and a demanding career.

“The hardest part was if you were in a trial out of state trying to keep up with some of the curriculum,” he says. “The professors were great as needed, and my colleagues were great when you were working in teams in a class.”

In the Jenkins MBA he also took advantage of study abroad experiences in Ireland and Germany, and even guest lectured when some of the biosciences curriculum covered topics related to litigation and liability.

It was fun, Warner says, to often be the oldest student in the class and the same age — or older — than professors.

“I felt like I was bringing a different perspective to this,” he says. With decades of leadership experience from his military service, he brought additional depth to classes. In other areas, such as marketing, he had lots to learn — new know-how and insights that he now applies to his client work.

“It gave me a lot more breadth and depth when I talk to clients,” he says. 

The Jenkins MBA has also had a bottom-line impact on his career.

“It’s expanded both my practice and the firm’s practice in a myriad of ways,” he says. “I’ve transitioned a bit from product liability defense and government contractor defense, which I’ve always traditionally done, to more of a business and commercial litigator because the MBA’s allowed me to do that. It’s made me a better litigator.”

For anybody with a military background, Warner says, NC State and the Jenkins MBA is a “no-brainer.”

“They understand the veteran,” he says. “They have a great veteran support network and the folks walk the walk and talk the talk in the veteran world.”

He adds that what he learned at Poole lines up with the leadership values he was first exposed to in the military.

“It gives you the motivation to not just walk up the rank, but to walk up all kinds of ranks of business in the future,” he says. “It provides you with that type of background and platform to do what I think is the most important thing, which is to act.”

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