Louis Goodman / Jocelyn Burton – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:03
Welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. I’m Louis Goodman. Today, we welcome attorney Jocelyn Burton to the podcast. Ms. Burton has served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Northern District of California, and she’s argued in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
She’s also worked in civil litigation before founding her own firm, Burton Employment Law. She is licensed in both California and North Carolina. Ms. Burton is a longtime member of numerous professional organizations, of course, including the Alameda County Bar Association. Jocelyn Burton, welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.
Jocelyn Burton 00:54
Louis Goodman 00:56
Hi, good to see you. Good to have you. Where are you speaking to us from right now?
Jocelyn Burton 01:02
I’m sitting here in my office.
Louis Goodman 01:04
And where is that? In Oakland?
Jocelyn Burton 01:06
Louis Goodman 01:07
How long have you been at that location and then the kind of practice that you’re in at Burton Employment?
Jocelyn Burton 01:14
Well, right now I’m in a Berkeley office, but I’ve been in Oakland downtown since 2010.
Louis Goodman 01:22
Where are you from originally?
Jocelyn Burton 01:24
I’m originally from Youngstown, Ohio.
Louis Goodman 01:26
Jocelyn Burton 01:27
Louis Goodman 01:28
And did you go to high school in Youngstown?
Jocelyn Burton 01:31
No, we moved to Virginia when I was 12 and so I went to high school in Richmond, Virginia.
Louis Goodman 01:37
What was that experience like for you?
Jocelyn Burton 01:39
Well, it was, when I first moved to Richmond, it was very interesting. You know, I had grown up in Ohio. I had never gone to segregated schools. Most of my classmates started at least at some point in segregated schools. When I got there, they were studying the civil war and the book that they used in Virginia throughout the States had what I would happily call the happy slave theory that, oh, you know, all the slaves were really happy. They were sad when slavery was over because their masters were so good to them. So that was my intro to education in Virginia.
Louis Goodman 02:19
That must have been, I don’t know, I just think that must have been kind of a big shock to a young African American girl who had grown up in Ohio and then had gone to Virginia.
Jocelyn Burton 02:36
It was and what I did was a couple months later, I had to do a book report. And so I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is if anybody’s ever read it, it’s a very long book. It was like 16, 1700 pages long and so at that point it was the longest book I’d ever read. But when I actually had to do the oral report, what I did was talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe and the abolitionist movement, because I wasn’t willing to let it rest even for my classmates that all the slaves were happy.
Louis Goodman 03:08
Yeah, I remember reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and just being very, very moved by it. I mean, I don’t see how anybody couldn’t be. So when you graduated from high school in Richmond, you ultimately went to college where?
Jocelyn Burton 03:24
Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
Louis Goodman 03:28
What was that experience like compared to being in Richmond?
Jocelyn Burton 03:31
Well, it was interesting because when I first started at Wake Forest, that was even more challenging in Richmond because at least in Richmond, we were all bused. So my class was about 50 percent black, 50 percent white. And then when I got to Wake Forest, I was one of 12 black women in my freshman class.
Louis Goodman 03:50
And how big was the freshman class?
Jocelyn Burton 03:52
Eight hundred students.
Louis Goodman 03:53
Wow. So what was that experience like? I mean, how did you deal with that whole thing? I mean, I’m not saying that it was necessarily a bad experience, but again, I think it’s a very different experience than the one you were describing in high school in Richmond.
Jocelyn Burton 04:10
Yeah. It was a different experience, but, you know, one thing, I became very close to all my African American classmates, and then I also, you know, wanted to be a part of the, the entire campus. So I was very, I was an RA, I was active. I even joined a sorority in which I was one of three black members.
I was involved in a lot of things. And the nice thing about my time there was that, you know, I can do a number of things and still be true to myself.
Louis Goodman 04:46
And when you graduated from college, you ultimately went to law school. Did you take some time off between college and law school or did you go straight through?
Jocelyn Burton 04:55
I worked for about a year and then I went to graduate school and got a master’s in public policy from the university of Texas at Austin at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Matter of fact, I was just there back in Austin this weekend for 40th reunion for graduate school. And after graduate school, that was my first foray into California. I worked for the legislative analyst’s office for two years in Sacramento, and then I went to law school.
Louis Goodman 05:23
So how did you end up going from the LBJ school in Austin to California? What was that step?
Jocelyn Burton 05:31
For some reason, the legislative analyst at the time, he, well, the legislative analyst at the time hired a couple of the top graduates from each of the top public policy schools, there was a pretty good pipeline from the LBJ school into the California legislative analyst’s office. So they recruited there and I was fortunate enough to get the job in California.
Louis Goodman 05:53
When was it that you decided, I want to be a lawyer and I want to apply to law school?
Jocelyn Burton 06:01
I decided I wanted to be a lawyer when I was 15, but I didn’t go directly to law school. And I say, I’m glad I didn’t go directly to law school to be perfectly honest.
Louis Goodman 06:11
Well, what was it when you were 15 years old that made you say, I want to be a lawyer?
Jocelyn Burton 06:16
I thought I could help people. And I thought that the things that I like to do, research, writing, were, were well suited to being a lawyer.
Louis Goodman 06:25
And it was the sort of notion of trying to help people with those skills that made you think that the law would be a good avenue for that?
Jocelyn Burton 06:33
Louis Goodman 06:34
Now when did you actually decide, okay, I’m going to go to law school?
Jocelyn Burton 06:37
Well, I mean, it was always in the back of my mind, but when I was at the LBJ school, I took the LSAT. I did really well. I decided, I did apply to one or two places. I’d gotten in, defer at least one or two schools, but I wanted to, I had this public policy degree, I wanted to see what I could do with it. And besides, I wanted to make a little bit of money before I went to law school.
Louis Goodman 07:04
So where did you ultimately go to law school?
Jocelyn Burton 07:06
University of Chicago.
Louis Goodman 07:08
Do you think that having taken some time off between college and law school and work in a legally adjacent field made you more focused and a better law student?
Jocelyn Burton 07:21
Yes. I think taking a year off between grad school, before grad school made me focus. And I think taking some time off between grad school and law school may helped as well. I mean, I remember when I, because my first job out of college, I was supervisor in a department store. And I took, when I went to grad school, I took a shopping bag from that grocery store with me and I taped it in my carrel. And whenever I didn’t want to study, I’d look at that bag and say, okay, you could always go back to that department store.
So yes, I think having being a little, having a little work experience gives you a little better perspective and a lot, and I think it helps to have been around more people and realize, I mean, one of my frustrations sometimes with some of my fellow law students who have gone straight through, some of them had notions like, well, if you were poor, it’s just because you weren’t that smart or whatever, and when you’re out in the world, you realize there are a lot of smart people who just haven’t had the same opportunities.
Louis Goodman 08:29
Yeah. Yeah. I had a similar experience. I took a year off between college and law school and I worked, you know, two jobs. And when I got to law school, I used to think, yeah, I could go back to one of those jobs, but you know what? I better pay attention right here. You said where you went to law school, but refresh my recollection one more time, please.
Jocelyn Burton 08:54
University of Chicago.
Louis Goodman 08:55
University of Chicago. What did you think of being there compared to being in the South? Because now all of a sudden you’re back in the Midwest. You’re at one of the most competitive schools in the country. And it’s a different, another different world for Jocelyn.
Jocelyn Burton 09:13
Well, believe it or not, I actually found Chicago to be the most racially challenging place I’d ever been.
Louis Goodman 09:20
Jocelyn Burton 09:21
Yeah, because I was there, it was Harold Washington was the mayor and you should, you could cut the racial tension with a knife in that city. I’ll never forget one of the first days I was there, there was a group of, it was almost like the first day I got to Chicago, there was a group of white young people who were going to, I think it was a Bruce Springsteen concert, and they happened to get in an accident with a city bus. And it was driven by a black driver, either all or most, some of them were killed. The Commonwealth attorney immediately charged the bus driver with manslaughter and had this poor man who was practically in his sixties chained to a hospital bed. Then they did an accident reconstruction later and found out it was the kid’s fault. But it’s that sort of thing.
It was, it was really a tough, I mean, one time, one of my classmates, who that was a black man with a PhD was walking the campus with his backpack and he comes across a white woman and she, without speaking to him, just takes out a can of mace and sprays him with mace, it was interesting.
Louis Goodman 10:39
To say the least.
So when you graduated from Chicago, what was your first legal job? What did you do when you got out of law school?
Jocelyn Burton 10:48
I went to a big law firm in San Francisco, the old Field and Merritt Jobson and Bridges law firm.
Louis Goodman 10:53
Yeah. What did you do there?
Jocelyn Burton 10:55
General, general civic, civil litigation. I mean, back then I was fortunate enough to be part of a time which no longer is this where you didn’t have to specialize. You could just say, okay, I want to be a civil litigator. And you can dibble and dab in a lot of different areas of civil litigation.
Louis Goodman 11:14
What was your path to the United States Attorney’s Office?
Jocelyn Burton 11:17
My plan was to pay off the student loans, get enough money for a down payment to our house and then do something fun. So, and I wanted to go to the U S Attorney’s Office. I was probably itching a little bit to run with my own cases after like, after four years at law firms. It took a little bit longer than that to get a job at the U. S. Attorney’s Office, but that was about six years out in my legal career before I got to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but I was thrilled.
Louis Goodman 11:47
Jocelyn Burton 11:48
I think it’s a great honor to say, this is Jocelyn Burton for the United States. Plus the great thing about the U. S. Attorney’s Office, at least in the civil division, it wasn’t competitive. I mean, you could walk into somebody’s office. Or send an email, has anybody done a brief on such and such, and they would give it to you.
And the other thing is you could always do the right thing.
Louis Goodman 12:14
Yeah, that’s what I liked about being a prosecutor. You know, always feeling that you could do the right thing. Can you briefly just walk us through your career from the United States Attorney’s Office to what you’re doing now with Burton Employment and how you decided to go in that direction.
Jocelyn Burton 12:34
I spent 12 years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. So about a third of my legal career was there. And after I decided to leave there, I went to another big law firm, this time in North Carolina, and then realized I should go back to California. So I went back to California and I was working for the courts in Santa Clara for a while. And then the thing that actually encouraged me to start my own practice, my grandfather died and he always said, well, why don’t you start your own practice?
When I was going through his papers, I found an obituary for a great uncle. And my great uncle, he was 10 years older than my grandmother. So he was born in roughly 1898. My maternal grandparents were all from a small, well, Appalachia, Pulaski, Virginia. And they all moved up to Ohio. So they all went up to Ohio and Western Pennsylvania then. And this particular great uncle, when he got up there, they didn’t have a school for black people, so he never finished high school.
But when he was working in the steel mills, he started work, he started going to night school. And so he finally got his high school degree by going to night school. And then when he finished night school, he came down to North Carolina and he went to North Carolina ANT where he graduated first in his class.
And he went to medical school and got his medical degree when he was 37 years old. So when I read his obituary, I thought, well, if he could do that, being all that being born in 1898, I can certainly do this. And the worst thing that can happen if I fail is I go back to another law firm. So that was what led me to make that decision.
Louis Goodman 14:29
As you have sort of alluded to, obviously you could do pretty much anything that you wanted to do and whether inside the legal field or outside the legal field. But what is it about practicing law that has kept you in the profession for this long?
Jocelyn Burton 14:50
What it is, it’s generally intellectually stimulating, you know, dealing with discovery fight is not intellectually stimulating, but if you take that part of the job out of it it’s intellectually stimulating. You get to help people. Every person is interesting. One of the things that I really appreciate about being in a place like California is I have incredibly diverse clients, I mean, clients who’s first language, you know, immigrants whose first language is not English to C-suite level, tech people, and it just, it runs the gamut of people and issues, et cetera.
And sometimes it’s hard. I mean, sometimes you’re trying to manage your clients and you’re managing the other side and trying to manage the judge. So it’s hard.
Louis Goodman 15:51
If a young person were coming out of college looking for a career, would you recommend the law?
Jocelyn Burton 15:56
Ooh, I think it’s a lot harder than it used to be. I’ll be honest. And I would tell people to really look at yourself. If you want to do it to make money, I would say, no, don’t do it. But if you really want to help people, I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but it’s a lot harder. And I think you need to go into it with your eyes wide open.
Louis Goodman 16:19
What advice would you give to a young attorney just coming out of law school and starting a career? And if you can think about it. What do you think is the best advice that you’ve ever received? And you could answer either or both questions.
Jocelyn Burton 16:38
The best advice, for a little while, when I was at the U. S. Attorney’s Office, I was the civil chief and the advice that I would give to lawyers who were working for me and for associates that I’ve had was that the most important thing is your reputation.
And I told him I wanted it to be such that when if I walk into court and tell the judge that the sky is purple, they’re at least going to look, okay? So I really do believe that’s the most important thing that you have.
Louis Goodman 17:13
I agree. Yeah. What about the business of practicing law? You know, all of us are, who are not working for, you know, the government on some level are in business as lawyers.
And you’ve spent time working for the government, but you’ve also had a successful business as an attorney. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Jocelyn Burton 17:38
I think that’s the hardest part of the job, to be perfectly honest, because none of us went to business school. I mean, you have to learn how to do marketing. You know, fortunately for me, I had been out, I mean, I feel a little bit, I think it’s a little bit harsher, harder for people who decide to open up a shingle right out of law school. You know, for somebody who decided to open up a shingle after 20 years of practice, I knew people who referred the cases to me, but you have to learn marketing. You have to learn accounting. You have to figure out what cases to take and what cases not to take. It’s easy to feel sorry for everybody. And sometimes, you know, that’s one of the first lessons to learn is to put your ego aside and trust your gut when you’re trying to decide whether or not to take a client.
Louis Goodman 18:29
What sort of things do you do to get your mind off of the law? What sort of recreational things do you involve yourself in?
Jocelyn Burton 18:38
I love to go to the theater. I love concerts. I mean, at one point pre pandemic, I had subscriptions to Broadway, SF or whatever they’re calling it now. ACT, Berklee Rap, Marin Theater Company, was a member of SF Jazz. So I love the performing art of all sorts, and reading.
Louis Goodman 19:03
Let’s say you came into some real money, three or four billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Jocelyn Burton 19:11
Take more vacation. That would be the only thing. I’m on the board of my undergraduate college, so I would give them a significant gift. I’m on the board of St. Vincent’s day home in Oakland. I’d get them a significant gift. But other than that, I don’t think I would really want to change a whole lot.
Louis Goodman 19:28
Let’s say you had a magic wand, there was one thing that you could change in the legal world or the world in general. What would that be?
Jocelyn Burton 19:36
In the legal world I think we’ve got to, at least on the civil side, we’ve got to figure out a little bit what to do about this discovery issue because discovery is the issue swallowing up the whole, nobody follows the rules anymore. And it makes things a lot more difficult. In general world, If I were queen of the world, I would try to make some radical changes to the educational system because I think, I think it’s a lot more unequal than it was 40 years ago.
Louis Goodman 20:10
Do you think it’s even more unequal now that we don’t have legal segregation?
Jocelyn Burton 20:16
We do have segregation, and I think in a lot of ways, the schools are failing more than they did 40 years ago.
Louis Goodman 20:23
Yeah, well, what I would like to do right now, Jocelyn, is I’d like to bring some of the other people in that we have on the call. I’ll have a couple more questions for you after I’ve had the other people have a chance to talk with you. And to that extent, let’s bring in Helen Hoffel. Are you there and available to unmute and have a question or comment for Jocelyn Burton?
Helen Hoffel 20:49
Yes, I am here. I’ve loved hearing about your background and your story.
Jocelyn Burton 20:55
Oh, thank you.
Helen Hoffel 20:57
I wanted to just say that I loved your reaction to when you were at the segregated school and your reaction to their view on slavery and the happy slaves to write that book report on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I wanted to know what their reaction was and also what kind of support you had going through that, just the shocking time that you had, and I’m sure very difficult.
Jocelyn Burton 21:25
I was lucky. I mean, my teacher was supportive. She gave me an A. At home, my dad was really active in civil rights. He was, he was working at the urban league at the time. And I mean, my dad was always at the forefront of these types of issues. I mean, my parents were separated when I was eight or nine.
And when I was 10, I went to live with my dad and I’m the oldest of three children and my other brothers are nine and. We’re nine and four at the time we went to live with dad at the time, dad was, my dad was running community action centers, a Youngstown community action center. I’ll never forget at one point where, you know, we’re 10, nine and four.
And dad is like, well, I’m going to go and sit in today for the welfare rights organization and you kids, you guys can decide whether you want to stay with a babysitter or go with me to sit in and you might get arrested. My brothers always teased me because they went to sit in and got arrested. I was like, babysitter, and I joked, I was thinking about my security clearance even then.
Louis Goodman 22:33
Thank you. Tracy Lemon.
Tracy Lemon 22:34
I’ve been a big fan watching your career for a number of years, so it’s a real honor to be on this, in this discussion with you. I guess I have a question for you. I’m an employment attorney as well, and I’m a solo practitioner. So I am always involved in the David versus Goliath cases. And a lot of them involve discrimination, harassment, retaliation, kind of bully tactics that are such a part of our culture and that so many people have experienced in so many ways, but I often find it almost just cruel the way it goes through litigation and then the discovery with, you know, evasiveness and then the piling on the single employee cases. And I guess I’m just wondering in your experience, both as a litigator and otherwise, do you have any ideas of how to rectify one of those, that injustice, the injustice that we’re in, in the legal system? I mean, I’m in motions to compel up to my eyeballs and I’m, there’s gotta be a better way. There’s just gotta be a better way.
Jocelyn Burton 23:41
I was really surprised. Oh, I am really surprised that over a 30 some year career, just how bad it’s gotten when I was at the U. S. Attorney’s Office. I mean, there was no way I could have gotten away with that kind of behavior because Okay, I’m appearing before the same judges all the time, and they would have read me up one side and down the other if I pull a lot of the tactics that you see regularly.
And some of the things that the courts have done to supposedly make it easier for you to get discovery, I don’t know if they really work. For example, the IDCs, it gives the defendants a little bit more incentives to hide the ball a little bit longer because you got to request the IDC. And then usually judge doesn’t make a decision. They say, well, you can either follow motion, or you got to do X, Y, and Z before. So then you got to play this little meet and confer game a little while longer. I mean, when I first started practicing law, you objected. They were reasonable objections, and when you got them on the other side, you could kind of halfway understand what they were, why they were objecting, and they usually gave you everything.
Now, you have intelligent people, and I have one right now, where you say any documents that refer to the plaintiff. The term referred to is vague and ambiguous. What could that possibly mean?
Louis Goodman 25:02
Well, Jocelyn, we’ll have to get that magic wand out, for you and Tracy.
Yeah. Thank you, Tracy. Monica Lippis.
Monica Lippis 25:12
I’m a human resources professional and mediator, and I have to say, I really appreciate some of the responses that she had to some of your questions as you know, the very honesty of it.
Louis Goodman 25:23
Jocelyn Burton 25:24
Louis Goodman 25:25
Well, great. Well, thank you, Monica. Cyn, you’re with us today. Do you have a question or a comment for Jocelyn Burton?
I really totally understand when you said it was just an honor to represent the United States. You know, I just, my just heart swelled with the pride that you must have felt and maybe I’m oversensitive to racism or whatever, but that’s where it would stem from, for me is, you know, for my family, you talked about 1800s and you had somebody there that became a, a doctor, went to medical school. And just to follow through to do that, that moment when you became part of the U. S. Attorney’s General’s Office, that’s something I know, you know, I’ll never get that.
Louis Goodman 26:13
Okay. Well, I think everyone on the call, I’ve gotten everyone on the call to have some input.
Monica Olympus 26:21
Sure. I have a question. Sorry to interrupt you. I had my hand up.
Louis Goodman 26:24
Oh, okay. Oh, thank you. Monica Lippis, can you give us your question?
Monica Lippis 26:29
Yes. So my first question, and again, Ms. Burton, thank you for speaking to us today. Very insightful. But my first question to you is, do you generally represent the employer or the employee or both?
Jocelyn Burton 26:42
I do both, but primarily plaintiff.
Monica Lippis 26:47
Okay. So let me ask you this, when you were on, one of the things that you had stated was that you really have to kind of pick and choose your clients, if I heard you correctly. So how do you feel when you, when you hear a case from an employer side where, you know it’s absolutely wrong, will you take the case?
Jocelyn Burton 27:10
I think with any client, you got to be on the same page. I mean, you can think that based on what happened that they don’t have a very good shot of winning a case, but you could counsel them in such a way that you can attempt to reduce their damage.
Louis Goodman 27:26
Thank you, Monica. Okay. I have a couple of more questions for you, Jocelyn.
Is there someone living or dead who you’d like to meet?
Jocelyn Burton 27:35
I always wanted to meet Nelson Mandela.
Louis Goodman 27:38
Jocelyn, if someone wants to get in touch with you, someone listening to this podcast, who’s an attorney that would like to get in touch with you to refer you a case or to ask you some questions or someone from the public who listens to the podcast and wants to get in touch with you about an issue that you might be able to help them with as an attorney. What’s the best way to get in touch with you?
Jocelyn Burton 28:02
The best way to get in touch with me is through my website, which is www.BurtonEmploymentLaw.com It’s www. B U R T O N E M P L O Y M E N T Law. com
Louis Goodman 28:23
Great. Thank you. Jocelyn, is there anything else that you would like to bring up, to mention that we haven’t discussed, that you haven’t had a chance to address?
Jocelyn Burton 28:33
No, the only other advice I’d give to young lawyers, if you’re a new lawyer starting out, is to get involved in other organizations. Even if you’re in a big firm, get involved with your local inns of court, get involved with your barrister’s committee. Get involved with some other organization outside your little law firm.
I know you’re working hard. It will pay off dividends down the road because that will be your source of additional job opportunities or referrals later on, those people that you meet along the way. And the wider that net is, the better off you’ll be later on.
Louis Goodman 29:15
Well, I think that we met through the inns of court and obviously I’ve seen you at, you know, bar functions, that sort of thing.
You know, since this is the Alameda County Bar Association’s podcast, maybe you could talk just a little bit about your experience with Alameda County Bar Association.
Jocelyn Burton 29:33
Yes. I’ve been a member of the Bar Association, at least since I moved, started my practice and I’ve been on the Labor Employment Committee for a number of years, on the executive committee, and I’ve enjoyed it going to the functions. I’ve met a number of people through the bar. It is a great source of referral and way to meet new people. I particularly enjoyed the inns of court because that was the way to meet people outside of your own practice group and all sorts of practice group and have a lot of fun too.
Louis Goodman 30:04
Well, Jocelyn, on behalf of myself and on behalf of the other participants on this call, I want to thank you so much for joining us today on the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.
Jocelyn Burton 30:22
Louis Goodman 30:23
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 lovethylawyer.com, 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.
Louis Goodman 31:04
I think that no matter what you do, If you’re going into something that’s going to involve some litigation, get ready to get punched in the mouth.