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Hail Mary: $5M gift to Catholic school funds creation of business law institute

Naples-based Ave Maria School of Law seeks to shake up the career path for young attorneys.

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Change is in the air at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, which has strengthened its focus on business law with the hiring of a new dean and the creation of a new institute — the latter made possible by a $5 million gift from Peter Cancro, founder and CEO of Jersey Mike’s Subs, and his wife, Tatiana.

Dean John Czarnetzky, who also serves as the school’s CEO, arrived at Ave Maria, a private Catholic institution, from the University of Mississippi, where he taught law for 27 years. In his new role, he’ll oversee the nascent Ave Maria Institute for Business Law, which Czarnetzky, 61, says is similar to a program he ran at Ole Miss.

“We want to give our students excellent training in corporate and business law,” he says, “give them the opportunity to spend a summer with a corporate partner.”

But why does a law school need $5 million to start what is, essentially, an internship program? What business problem does it solve? And why is Cancro, who also financed the construction of a fitness center at Ave Maria, such an avid supporter of the institution?


The answers to all the questions start with Tom Monaghan, the Michigan food industry mogul who launched Domino’s Pizza and owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team in the 1980s and early ‘90s. Monaghan, now 84, founded Ave Maria School of Law in his home state in 1999 but moved it to Naples, where he lives part of the year, in 2009. After selling the lion’s share of his stake in Domino’s to Bain Capital for approximately $1 billion, he turned his attention to philanthropy.

“The story of Tom Monaghan, Domino's Pizza … everything that was happening to me happened to him,” Cancro says, recalling a time, in the early 1990s, when he struggled to keep Jersey Mike’s afloat. “All of a sudden, the banking environment just shut down, and there was a big recession. No one could borrow money, whereas before, they were just giving it away. We flatlined.”

‘In a law firm, you’re always having to get clients, maintain them, and you have a bunch of different clients, whereas in-house, you're focusing on one client. That's probably one of my favorite things about working in-house.’ Alicia Dietzen, general counsel at KnowBe4

Cancro says he had to lay off his entire team of office support staff, leaving just himself to oversee Jersey Mike’s fledgling network of 30 franchise locations. It was then that he read Pizza Tiger, Monaghan’s autobiography, published in 1986.

“That book gave me hope,” Cancro says. “I read it, and I underlined passages on almost every page about what he did and what happened.”

Cancro says he connected with Monaghan’s deep Catholic faith but also how he put his beliefs into action through donating large portions of Domino’s profits to charitable causes. Cancro was determined to do the same with Jersey Mike’s.

“Where I see a need, I go after it if my heart is drawn to it,” he says, “and it’s the same for our franchise owners around the country. The most important thing about our company is that we give and make a difference in people’s lives.”

Jersey Mike’s, with more than 2,000 stores nationwide, is on track to generate $2.3 billion in sales this year. Since 2011, when it launched its Month of Giving program, held every March, the company has raised more than $47 million for charities and nonprofits such as food banks and hospitals.

Courtesy. Jersey Mike's Subs founder Peter Cancro has donated $5 million to Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, which will use the funds to establish a new institute for business law.
Courtesy. Jersey Mike's Subs founder Peter Cancro has donated $5 million to Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, which will use the funds to establish a new institute for business law.

But now, Cancro wants to help fulfill Monaghan’s goal of enabling Ave Maria School of Law to churn out greater numbers of young attorneys who adhere to high moral standards — practitioners who view law, like medicine, as a noble vocation that requires them to use their time and skills to help the less fortunate among us.

“It's tough to give when you're not doing well, but attorneys, most of them can give at any time and just watch the doors open up for them when they start giving and helping others — the reward, internally, is so great when you give to others like that,” Cancro says. “And what a powerful tool they have with that law degree; it’s incredible what they can do to help others.”

Czarnetzky has a similar view of the legal profession, saying law schools can do a better job of producing lawyers who prioritize service to others and embrace their roles as defenders of justice and the public good. He believes that outlook will lead to greater professional satisfaction.

“The Catholic church teaches — and they're not the only ones that teach it — that freedom is for a purpose,” he says. “It is to become what we are intended to be. That, in itself, is extremely liberating. It took me a long time in my life to understand what that meant. But once I figured it out, I can't tell you the joy that I have found in life by living my vocation.”

The establishment of the Rod Smith Institute for Business Law — the name pays tribute to Cancro’s high school football coach, who was also a banker and helped him raise the money to buy his first sub shop — also has a practical, business-focused purpose, as Czarnetzky indicated. Specifically, it aims to change and streamline the career path for law students who show interest in becoming in-house corporate attorneys.

“Internal law offices at corporations very rarely hire students right out of law school,” Czarnetzky says. “They're interested in lawyers who have established a track record out there in private practice. So, often it'll be a lawyer from a law firm who’s worked with that corporation as a client. And after a few years, they say, ‘Hey, you're really good. Would you like to come in house with us?’”


Alicia Dietzen didn’t follow the path described by Czarnetzky — but she supports his philosophy. The 31-year-old has served as general counsel for KnowBe4, a prominent cybersecurity firm based in Clearwater, for five years. Her only prior experience was as a legal intern for a U.K. law firm, Superior Group of Cos. in Seminole and the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Dietzen credits her education at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport for fast-tracking her path to an in-house corporate law position.

Stetson, she says, offered “in-house internships and business classes. So that really helped me get into the career that I’m in today. It's really great that other schools are looking to do that. I support that 110% … because historically it's been harder to go in-house without having a lot of years of experience in a law firm.”

Making more in-house positions available to young attorneys would bring additional benefits, Dietzen says, such as minimizing burnout. Law school and law firms can be highly competitive, stressful, serious environments that aren’t ideal to everyone who desires a career in law.

Courtesy. KnowBe4 general counsel Alicia Dietzen.
Courtesy. KnowBe4 general counsel Alicia Dietzen.

“It takes a certain personality type,” says Dietzen, a Business Observer 40 Under 40 winner in 2021. “A lot of my friends who’ve been working in firms, sometimes they express interest in going in-house because they see that we have a fun type of company culture, a lot of things that maybe law firms don't offer. In a law firm, you’re always having to get clients, maintain them, and you have a bunch of different clients, whereas in-house, you're focusing on one client. That's probably one of my favorite things about working in-house.”

Dietzen has gotten a taste of “firm life,” however, because as KnowBe4 has grown — the company, with nearly $175 million in revenue in 2020, went public earlier this year — she’s gotten the chance to build a legal department from the ground up. Her team includes attorneys who specialize in areas such as HR and employment law, compliance and commercial transactions.

It also helps that, thanks to KnowBe4’s progressive corporate culture, she gets to wear sweatpants to work.

“If you wore a suit, people would judge you,” she says with a laugh. “It's just a completely different culture — not as rigid, not as formal, it's more focused on making people happy and getting along with your coworkers than anything else.”


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