Courtney Burris / Louis Goodman – Transcript

Courtney Burris – Transcript

Louis Goodman 00:05
Hello and welcome to Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk to real lawyers about their lives in and out of the practice of law, how they got to be lawyers and what their experience has been. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the show, and yes, I’m a lawyer. Nobody’s perfect!

Courtney Burris practices as an assistant district attorney for the city and county of San Francisco. She has prosecuted every type of crime from misdemeanors to serious violent felonies. She is currently assigned to the homicide unit. She has served as a community liaison officer, trained police in the handling of domestic violence cases and trained victim advocates in Albania. She sits on the board of the Charles Houston Bar Association and as a board member of the Bay Area Black Prosecutors Association. She grew up promoting civil rights, working in the nationally famous law offices of John Burris. Courtney Burris, welcome to Love Thy Lawyer.

Courtney Burris 01:15
Thank you for having me.

Louis Goodman 01:17
It’s a privilege to have you, and it’s an honor that you’re on with me. Having someone from the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office is I think a first for the podcast. Yeah. So you are in San Francisco County District Attorney’s Office and where is that located?

Courtney Burris 01:35
We are located in the dilapidated building of 850 Bryant Street, right near the bridge. But it used to be the hubbub where all of the different county organizations used to be. Since then it has kind of thinned out a little bit, but we’re over on Bryant Street, right in the heart of the south market area.

Louis Goodman 01:53
Yeah. They keep threatening to tear that place down, don’t they?

Courtney Burris 01:56
Oh yeah. They keep promising it. They’ve been promising the same thing for the past eight years. Right.

Louis Goodman 02:03
When I first started doing criminal defense, I would go over to that building and have a cup of coffee in the basement cafeteria. I don’t even know if it’s still open anymore, but I used to feel like Sam Spade down there because it looked like the 1930s.

Courtney Burris 02:19
I’ve heard of this infamous basement cafeteria.

Louis Goodman 02:22
What sort of assignment do you have right now?

Courtney Burris 02:25
I’m currently assigned to the homicide division and I actually just recently was promoted to that particular unit back in December of this past year. Prior to that, I had spent close to two years in the child assault, sex assault unit. And then immediately before then I had the, what we called the high lethality grant in the domestic violence unit, which where I’d been for several years prior.

Louis Goodman 02:50
Where are you from originally?

Courtney Burris
I’m from Oakland, California.

Louis Goodman 02:53
And where’d you go to high school? In Oakland?

Courtney Burris 02:56
Bishop O’Dowd, actually I just had the pleasure of going back to campus last week to visit and see that just like you described this building, it hasn’t changed since the fifties apparently.

Louis Goodman 03:09
What sort of activities did you participate in when you were in high school?

Courtney Burris 03:14
Well, I started in acting because believe it or not, I actually wanted at first to pursue a career in acting. So I took a lot of classes in the drama department, but because you really, it was one of those schools, quintessential high schools, where there were a lot of different things that you could get into. But if you were in drama, that meant you had to be hardcore drama all the time. And I wanted the more diverse, you know, the kind of funner, broader range of high school activities. So I did cheerleading when I first started, back then they were, it was a Catholic high school, so they were very conservative. They wouldn’t really let us do a whole lot. And so I got out of that early on and decided that I wanted to take on a more competitive track and literally ran track. So I was on the track and field team for a couple of years, I ran the 100 and the 200. I was anchor and the four by one. And then, you know, it was actually, it was actually pretty good, but Bishop O’Dowd is just so, they excel so highly in sports that at some point though, I was a bit outmatched, but I hung in there as long as I could.

Louis Goodman 04:19
All of those things sound like great preparation for being a trial attorney.

Courtney Burris 04:24
Definitely. It’s not that you’re acting in terms of, you know, being a fake person or being disingenuous, but what acting teaches you is, you know how to use your body and how to use your voice in a way that is intentional and conveying a message.

Louis Goodman 04:42
When you graduated from O’Dowd where’d you go to college?

Courtney Burris 04:45
I started at Cal State Northridge, CSUN down in the Southern California area. And I stayed there for about three years and transferred to UC Santa Barbara. And while I was there, I majored in psychology because that was a field that I was considering as a potential career path if I didn’t ultimately go forward with law.

Louis Goodman 05:11
You eventually went to law school. Did you take any time off between college and law school or did you go directly?

Courtney Burris 05:17
Well, that wasn’t quite by choice. So I graduated from college in 2008 and as you know, that’s when the big recession hit and I had assumed that I was going to go immediately into law school. I had taken the LSAT and I didn’t apply to enough schools, you know. So second time around I want to say I played the law of large numbers, but, you know, from a strategic standpoint and, you know, ultimately I got my two highest choices were USF school of law. I was really looking to get back to the Bay Area, and that was one that was offering a nice scholarship opportunity. Between that or Tulane School of Law, which was also offering a scholarship, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around moving to the deep south. I just couldn’t do it. I’m too much of a California girl through and through.

Louis Goodman 06:10
You know, I got into Tulane Law as well, and I gave some consideration to going there and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around going to the deep south either. When did you first start thinking about being a lawyer?

Courtney Burris 06:24
Very, very early in my formative years. As you stated earlier, I grew up essentially in a law household. My father is a well-known civil rights attorney.

Louis Goodman 06:38
How much time went by between the time you went from college to law school? Was it a year, two years?

Courtney Burris 06:45
Two years.

Louis Goodman 06:46
What did you do during that interim time?

Courtney Burris 06:47
Well, at first I had clerked at a law firm, a boutique business litigation firm. And that was interesting just to see a completely different side of law that was removed from social justice and victim rights advocacy. And I’m glad I had that experience, but it kind of solidified for me that that really wasn’t the pathway that I wanted to take with law.

Louis Goodman 07:10
Do you think having that time off between college and law school really kind of helped you focus once you got to law school?

Courtney Burris 07:18
Definitely. Definitely.

Louis Goodman 07:20
What was your path from USF to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office?

Courtney Burris 07:25
Yeah. So you kind of have to backtrack a little bit into, you know, why I chose prosecution.

Louis Goodman 07:34
Why did you choose prosecution?

Courtney Burris 07:37
Yeah, yeah. You know, because, well, so like I said, I knew early that I wanted my career to be working with and advocating for victims of the violence of discrimination and crime. But I was also raised in an era, you know, during the nineties and during the eighties where, you know, there’s a court TV era. This is the time when a lot of cases, the most highly publicized cases that were very prominently displayed in the media and that I saw a lot in either the news or in documentaries. You know, these were cases that really showcased the intersection between what it’s like to be a black and brown person when you come into contact with the criminal justice system, you know, I was raised following the Rodney King era, the OJ Simpson case, how polarizing that was. I watched a lot of American Justice. I watched a lot of Cold Case Files. That was a show that came out, you know, that’s where DNA was just starting to develop. And you would see all these cases where there were, you know, African-Americans, brown people who were exonerated for cases where they had been demonized and villainized and ultimately incarcerated back then. And so I became very interested early on in understanding how the system values a black life and how too often you would see from a victim’s standpoint, that black and brown people’s victimhood is not regarded as necessary to protect at the same level as perhaps their other counterparts. And so to the extent that I can be, lead by example and let people see that there are African-Americans who not only care about their community, but also care about accountability and wanting to again, protect the community. And what I really appreciated about prosecution is the exercise of discretion, the discretion that you have, you know, not only am I making sure that victims of all colors are treated with dignity and respect and held with the highest regard, but on the other hand, equally as important is me making sure that whoever comes across in the system as the accused are treated, again, equally and with the fairness that the constitution demands. And what was the original question?

Louis Goodman 10:24
Well, the question was, okay, so you had a sense that prosecution might be a good career move, something that you were interested in. So how did you get from USF to the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office?

Courtney Burris 10:40
Yeah. So I had initially decided that I wanted a more neutral experience. So I clerked for Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte. She is this fantastic superior court judge out of Alameda county. She’s one of my mentors and I wanted that experience outside of criminal law first, just because I think it’s important to clerk for a judge, if you’re able to, just to learn, you know, how they think, you know, and what they’re looking for when they’re evaluating the merits of each side. Understanding that each person that comes into the system, they have a story, you know, that they’re not just defendants. These are people who have lives, who for one way or another something went away for them and they ended up here as an accused person.

Louis Goodman 11:35
So how did you get into the DA’s office?

Courtney Burris 11:39
How did I get into the DA’s office? I went into the San Mateo County DA’s office as a law clerk back in 2012 and then San Francisco almost actually didn’t happen for me because I applied for their post-bar program, you know, the program while you’re waiting for your bar results. And I kept getting a call from this blocked number. And I don’t pick up block numbers, you know, ever. And so something had told me, you know, after several weeks of getting this blocked number to finally pick up the phone and I did, and it was Lisa Ortiz who used to be with the office saying, we’ve been trying to get ahold of you, you know, like, would you like to come in and interview for post-bar? So I did and Cristine DeBerry, and that was to the person who interviewed me, she was the chief of staff to George Gascón. And, you know, I was able to impress them enough or, you know, show them that I was an ideal candidate for their post-bar program. And the rest is kind of history from there. Thankfully the bar worked out for me that first time around. I did their volunteer attorney program for a couple of months until I got my first trial under my belt, which I actually lost. But after I, but literally the day after I got my trial under my belt, they hired me as a full-time attorney.

Louis Goodman 13:05
If a young person was thinking about a career choice, would you recommend the law?

Courtney Burris 13:09
Absolutely. Definitely. I would say, because there’s so much that you can do with it. There are a few other careers that I can think of where you can directly make an impact in someone’s life or situation in a meaningful way. Because, I mean, granted not, not all laws are for everybody, not everybody has what it takes to do criminal law. But there’s wills and trusts, there’s corporate law, there’s contract law, there’s general counsel. Even if you’re not actively practicing law, it’s a degree that no one can take from you unless you did something unethical that you shouldn’t have been doing. You know, and there’s just so much practical value that that it adds. Even if you decide, you know, ‘I don’t want to do law, I want to do business later.’ Well, you know, it certainly doesn’t look bad on your resume that you’re also a lawyer too.

Louis Goodman 14:14
How has actually practicing law either met or different from your expectations?

Courtney Burris 14:18
I think it’s met my expectations. I’ve had that exposure, you know, my whole life, to seeing what it means to be in the trenches of tough litigation with issues that are, you know, really difficult and emotional for people to grapple over. I expected there to be a lot of work, a lot of emotional attachment, some tears, late nights, you know, dedicated weekends. And that has been exactly what it’s been about. Now, granted over time, I’ve learned how to work with the demands of the profession so that I don’t burn out, but it’s exactly kind of what I was raised to know it was going to be and what it’s showing itself to be.

Louis Goodman 15:09
What do you think is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Courtney Burris 15:11
It was my mother instilling in me, you know, you match your goals with your gifts, you figure out, try to, you figure out like, what are you, not just what you’re good at, but what, what are you passionate about? What is your talent that you’re bringing to the world and what can you do to match your ultimate pathway to bringing that to light? For me, I learned early that I have a voice, you know, and a fairly fearless one. And I have empathy that really just guides me. And so that was particularly impactful in guiding me towards the law in the beginning.

Louis Goodman 15:47
Do you think the legal system is fair?

Courtney Burris 15:49
I think that there are aspirations to make it fair, but you know, ’cause and I think that really speaks to, you know, what is justice, right? Because when we think of justice, we think of the word “fair”, but what’s considered fair for one side of the table may not necessarily feel fair for the other sides. I believe all of those purposes of the justice system are put in place to try to achieve some sense of fairness and justice, but you know, unfortunately a lot of the times it doesn’t come out pretty. It doesn’t come out with all sides feeling like they’re winning. But I think that generally speaking our system as a whole is striving towards a measure of fairness.

Louis Goodman 16:49
I’m going to shift gears here a little bit, Courtney. How has practicing law fit into your personal or family life?

Courtney Burris 16:58
Well, as a very single gal with no children yet it fits in quite well. You know, I think the biggest thing for me that I’ve had to learn over the years is to not, I don’t know, over exploit myself, if you will, because I have time. I realized just for my own personal health and because this is an endurance game, this is a marathon.

Louis Goodman 17:23
What sort of recreational pursuits do you enjoy?

Courtney Burris 17:26
Well, I’m really into fitness. I do really recognize the connection between mind, body, and spirit. And so, you know, I make it a point at least five days a week to do something that’s very active. Before the pandemic I was really into powerlifting against my mother’s recommendations or her wishes. Powerlifting, I’m running. I was hoping to train for a marathon, which would have been my first marathon and I’m still hoping to get out there. And then yoga, you know, yoga is something particularly in the pandemic that I’ve really taken up a lot and more so, and ironic because a lot of people think, “Oh, that’s a low impact, you’re not doing anything.” But ironically, I have found that yoga that I’ve been doing has not only just elevated me in terms of fitness, but mentally. You know, the level of focus, the calm, the being able to kind of work through the discomfort and the storm, if you will. I channel that with me in court now. You know, because you’ll be arguing a really tough motion, heavily contested, adversarial, but knowing that you can center yourself and not be as reactive, but rather be, you know, in control of how you choose to confront the situation, that’s been great.

Courtney Burris 18:59
I like to hike. I basically chase the sunshine, like recreationally. If it’s sunny, you will see me at the lake, you’ll see me at the beach. If there are any pickup volleyball games or soccer games or anything like that, you know, I try to stay engaged. Also I’m big into the house music community in Oakland. You know, there’s soulful house, you know, there’s just a really beautiful community out there with great music and I love to dance.

Louis Goodman 19:28
How about travel? Have you been any place that you’ve found interesting?

Courtney Burris 19:31
Yes. Last year I got out to several different places. I made it to Maui twice and that was beautiful. I went to Tulum last year.

Louis Goodman 19:46
Where’s that?

Courtney Burris 19:47
Tulum is, if you haven’t made it, you should, you should check it out. It’s on the Caribbean side of Mexico. And if you fly into the Cancun airport, you take them about an hour and a half drive a little further south, and you were just met with this beautiful Caribbean beach.

Louis Goodman 20:06
How do you define success?

Courtney Burris 20:08
You know, that is something that I really had to, I really did contemplate a lot over the past year. And I know that if I show up and I put everything out on the table and I give it my all, and I can genuinely say that, that to me is success. You know, it’s not about necessarily what the outcome was, it’s the fact that I showed up and I didn’t phone it in. We can’t control the way the world’s going to receive us. We can just control, you know, the effort that we put into what we do.

Louis Goodman 20:48
Let’s say you came into some real money in your life, 3 or 4 billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently?

Courtney Burris 20:57
Well, I know I would still work. Yeah, I would still work because I’m mission-driven. You certainly don’t get into prosecution for the money. But you know, I would do more philanthropic work, you know, unfortunately the way that we’re at, where I’m at right now, the phase that I’m in, you know, everything that I earn, it goes to bills. It goes to being a self-sustaining ship. And so, you know, the opportunity to, you know, give scholarships, donate to those who are less fortunate, make sure that my family, who don’t come from the same means that I necessarily did, you know, that they have prospect towards futures. That my nieces and nephews that they’re, you know, taking care of in terms of their college and whatever career goals they have in that regard. And then that would extend out to the community as well. I definitely believe that we have a duty to each other, we have a duty to look out for one another, as neighbors, as members of the community. And so it certainly would not be the case that you would see me sitting on my, you know, on the top of my mansion, sipping a pina colada, watching the rest of the world, you know, go through their struggles. I would certainly find a way to have a broader platform for the things that I care about.

Louis Goodman 22:30
Let’s say you had a magic wand, was one thing in the world, the legal world, or the world in general, that you could change. What do you think that would be?

Courtney Burris 22:38
To end racial and ethnic oppression and subjugation. Cause if you think about it, I mean, most of the world’s problems have been based off of that in one form or another, right? Whether we’re talking about slavery or the Holocaust, or the Armenian genocide or the many other genocides. The fact of, you know, the civil rights movement and the incremental changes that we’ve been able to make, but the work that still needs to be done.

Louis Goodman 23:14
Is there anything you want to talk about that we haven’t discussed?

Courtney Burris 23:18
Not that I can think of. I just, I think this is a really great platform. I was listening to some of podcasts that you’ve had and, you know, just hearing other people’s experience and comparing my own and just listening to how folks got to where they are, it’s been informative and I hope that there are more opportunities to learn more about my colleagues and hopefully pathways towards partnerships and collaborations. So I really appreciate your thinking to have me on the show.

Louis Goodman 23:50
Well, Courtney Burris. Thank you so much for joining me today on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Courtney Burris 23:57
Thank you for having me. I hope we can do it again sometime.

Louis Goodman 24:01
That’s it for today’s episode of Love Thy Lawyer. If you enjoyed listening, please share it with a friend and follow the podcast. If you have comments or suggestions, send me an email. Take a look at our website at, where you can find all of our episodes, transcripts, photographs and information.

Thanks to my guests, and to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support, Paul Robert for social media and Tracy Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.

Courtney Burris 24:43
Knowing the necessity of putting in the time to be able to excel is obviously something that, you know, carries on through college, certainly through law school, through the tenacity and passing the bar exam. And then again, you know, becoming a trial attorney.

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