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Legally Speaking


Issue: February, 2005
Author: Mary Angell

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Q & A with Wyoming's Newest Supreme Court Justice

The newest justice on the Wyoming Supreme Court, E. James Burke, practiced law in Cheyenne for 24 years before being appointed a district court judge for the First Judicial District in 2001. He now replaces Justice Larry L. Lehman, who died on December 10, 2004.

A fervent advocate of professionalism and personal growth in the legal field, the Hon. Jim Burke agreed to an interview with the Wyoming Lawyer so the members of bar could learn more about his career, aspirations and personal life. Following is that interview.

1. You have become known as someone who promotes and advances attorney professionalism. How did you become interested in the issue and why is it important to you?

I think my involvement in that issue came as a result of the Board of Judicial Policy, in about June of 2003. There were discussions regarding what were not the finer moments of lawyering, discussions as to the extent of the problem. We set up a subcommittee and they put me in charge of that. I started doing research on professionalism, wondering what other bar associations had done in regard to the issue. It turned out to be a fascinating subject. My approach is not negative at all in terms of trying to correct judicial/ attorney behavior.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke recently at the University of Wyoming, she indicated that of her Stanford law school classmates, 50 percent wish they had never become lawyers and would not do it again given the chance. She attributed it to lawyer incivility.

In checking with other states, I found out New York has an institute on professionalism – the New York Institute of Professionalism. I like their approach to the whole thing. There’s not an emphasis on the negative -- the incivility, dissatisfaction. That can be cured by more professional behavior. We are all in this together, all on the same team. It doesn’t do anybody any good to badmouth the court.

2. You are one of the founders of the Ewing T. Kerr Chapter of the American Inns of Court. Why did you become involved and what are your hopes for the group?

I heard about it quite a few years ago from my sister in Delaware. The lawyer she works with was involved in it. She sent me some stuff on it in the mid-90’s, and it sounded interesting, but I didn’t follow through on it. I talked to her a few years after that and read about it with regard to the professionalism subcommittee and asked her to send me more information.

In reading what kinds of programs help foster professionalism and mentoring, American Inns of Court (a professional association designed to advance professionalism in the field) was always spoken of very highly. Wyoming was one of only two or three states that did not have one.

I identified ten young lawyers who had been in practice between two and eight years and had experience in a wide variety of practice areas. I got them all together and asked, “What do you think?” They all indicated they had some concern about attorney professionalism. These were people who I thought were competent, people I thought would be leaders. I asked if we should look at this issue further, and they all said yes. They all helped significantly in putting on programs for the bar association, and that group ended up starting the Inns of Court as part of a professional incentive here in Cheyenne.

Last April was the kick off, and we’ve had a few meetings this year. We have 90 some members who are divided into population groups: lawyers with different experience levels in each group and one judge in each group. Each group is responsible for putting on one educational program during the year. We meet at different lawyers’ offices so that young lawyers get to see all these different offices, get to see different problems, and we build relationships. The education goes both ways. There’s no doubt in my mind that the more experienced lawyers are also learning from the young lawyers.

It’s an opportunity to meet new lawyers and judges, and at the meetings we have different “forced networking” games to make sure people don’t sit with the same people all the time. It’s a good way to get to know other members of the bar. We meet almost monthly, Sept. through March.

There’s a significant cost -- $300 a year -- but younger members and those in government service pay less than experienced lawyers. You have to pay up-front, which forces commitment and participation during the year, but you get dinner and CLE credit. From what I have seen, it seems to be working.

My hope is that it would be the type of organization that would help lawyers find their jobs more satisfying and fulfilling. I tend to think if you keep focused on certain basic concepts and take the high road and are client-centered, we will have a much higher average than Justice O’Connor’s class in terms of how many people feel it was a good choice to practice law in Wyoming. I don’t think this is the answer, but I think it is a good part of it.

3. You also founded the People’s Law School, a program designed to teach the general public about the legal system and attorneys’ roles in it. It has benefited the public, obviously, but has it also benefited attorneys? If so, how?

I think we have to do some work as professionals to improve our image, but people and the lawyers who participate in the People’s Law School all learn something. It’s a mutual education.

We’re not doing well in the public’s perception, but when people actually see what we do, they understand. They have a very positive view of lawyers.

Rhonda Woodard now teaches the People’s Law School. We get great support from lawyers.

4. How has the practice of law changed since you graduated from law school in 1977?

It’s tough to say because you don’t know whether it has changed much or your perspective has changed.

There are fewer lawyers opting to go into public service now. Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson was also on the panel Justice O’Connor was on when she visited UW in March, 2004. Al talked about his day when he started in the legislature and all the different lawyers in the legislature at the time, what a wonderful experience it was. Today, I have talked to lawyers who say, “I don’t have the time.” Why don’t they have the time now if they did in Sen. Simpson’s day?

We need more lawyers to have the time to make that commitment to public service. I’m not saying they are not active in the community, but it seems there are certainly fewer and fewer who are willing to make that sacrifice. The ones who do that seem to find it personally rewarding and fulfilling. Lawyers need to seek out those opportunities.

5. You moved to Wyoming when you were in the Air Force. What were your impressions of Cheyenne during your service years? Why did you decide to make Wyoming your home?

I graduated from Wilmington College, Delaware, in 1971. I was in the ROTC in college. I was sent to F.E. Warren as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Air Force. I spent six months in Guam, got out of the Air Force here, went to law school, came back to Cheyenne and have been here ever since.

I had not traveled much at all growing up. I drove out here in my VW bug with all my worldly possessions, which still left plenty of room for hitch hikers along the way.

I got here in August and remember I had never seen sky so blue. That still stays with me – the sky out here. I was struck by the barrenness of Wyoming. I remember talking to my college roommate after the lunar landing. There was a lot of talk at the time about whether that really happened. I said, “I think I found where they filmed the lunar landing.”

During that first year, truly my only negative impression was the wind. It seemed like it never stopped. It’s either died down or I have gotten used to it.

Now when I go back East I feel claustrophobic because of all the trees.

6. Did you really have long hair in law school?

Judge Burke reached behind his desk and pulled out a large photograph of his law school class on graduation day. He pointed to himself, a young man who did indeed have plenty of long, wavy dark hair. Picture John Belushi during his “Saturday Night Live” days.

7. You stayed with the same law partners for all of your career as a private practitioner. What is your secret?

I was in private practice in the Boyd Building, right over there, from 1977 until I was appointed to the district court. The people in the practice changed a little, but I was in the same building the whole time. My office was on the sixth floor of the Boyd Building. I can see the window from here. I had the same office every day of practice until I came over here. Had the same secretary, Linda Pritchard, every day until I came here. It was a stable situation. I was really fortunate to have had that.

What’s the secret? I was lucky. I worked with good people.

8. During your career as a lawyer, you were very involved in the Wyoming Trial Lawyers and American Trial Lawyers Associations. How did that activity affect your life as a lawyer and how will it affect your career on the Wyoming Supreme Court?

Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association was a great organization for me. I lucked out to get involved in it early on in my career.

I got involved as a lawyer straight out of law school. The Trial Lawyers Association was a fledgling organization at the time. Jim Fitzgerald was secretary treasurer of it, and he asked me if I would like to join. I didn’t know what it was. I became secretary treasurer the same week I was admitted to the bar. I worked my way up the ranks to president.

Members of that organization are very open to questions from young lawyers, very willing to discuss opinions and approaches. It’s a tremendous network of lawyers dedicated to the profession and clients. There’s no doubt in my mind it helped shape me as a lawyer and helped me be a better lawyer.

9. Tell me about some Wyoming lawyers and judges that you admire.

The judges who had the most impact on me early on were Judge Alan Johnson (when he was a district court judge in Laramie County), and Judge Joseph F. Maier (district court judge before Judge Nicholas Kalokathis) and Judge Clarence Brimmer. These three judges I have respected and learned from.

They were all interesting judges from a young lawyer’s perspective. Judges Maier and Brimmer seemed to be judges who really demanded that you be prepared. If you weren’t, there would be consequences --- and those consequences would not be pretty. Judge Johnson -- I think what I took away from him was the respect and courteousness with which he treated everyone.

With all of them, I had this sense of commitment to wanting to do the right thing. All, I thought, were willing to make difficult decisions --- decisions they may not personally agree with but felt compelled to make because the law required it.

I would say after working with Judges Edward Grant and Nicholas Kalokathis that I have tremendous respect for them. They have taught me a lot.

10. What were your biggest frustrations and surprises when you became a district court judge?

This is a great job. I have been surprised with regard to how fulfilling I have found it. I have also been amazed by the dedication I have found with regard to the people I work with up here.

It’s certainly not a situation where the offices up here are overstaffed. I think the latest survey indicated we are still in need of extra judicial help.

The logistics of this job have been surprising to me because of the very busy docket. We have three judges who all create their own criminal and civil dockets. You would think you could schedule a docket whenever you want, but the same district attorney and public defender could be involved in both cases, so there’s a coordination problem. We have had to divide the months into weeks so as to avoid a conflict with those offices.

Every time you have a criminal case, you have to have deputy support in courtroom, and that has to be coordinated The clerk has to manage files. Judicial assistants have to manage the docket. The court reporters have an amazingly difficult job . They have to be in court all day, so when do they do the transcription? They have to work at night.

I just see a dedication up here with respect to all those people, and I find that inspirational. This was my first step into public service. I have found that people bend over backward to help people out.

Yes, I will miss this job. I’m worried about that.

11. Besides driving a Saab convertible, how do you spend your free time?

It’s my wife’s convertible. She lets me drive it in rainy weather. My hobbies include a little golf, hiking, and reading. And hanging out with friends and family.

12. It is my understanding that you have a very special mother. Please tell me about her.

My father died in 1958. Mom was a stay-at-home housewife, like June Cleaver. My sister is two years younger than I am; she was about six or seven at the time. I was eight. He and I were playing basketball, and he just dropped dead of a heart attack.

Mom raised my sister and me. She went to work and became the office manager of a law firm. I certainly think one of the reasons I ended up in law was the positive impression she gave me of the lawyers in her firm and the respect she had for them.
So she was a single mom, and she raised both of us. We always had enough. I’m sure now, looking back, that we didn’t have much money, but it seemed like we never lacked anything. As I get older, I realize how difficult it must have been for her, but she never let us know.

It was a pretty neat moment to make the call to her about getting the appointment to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Her initial response was “I knew it!” and then she went on about how proud she is and all that. I think she prayed a lot over it.