Megan Burns / Louis Goodman – ACBA Transcript
[00:00:00] Louis Goodman: In collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association, this is Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk with members of the ACBA about their lives and legal careers. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the LTL podcast. And yes, I’m a member of the Alameda County Bar Association. Today, we’re very happy to welcome Megan Burns.
She is an aggressive and experienced trial attorney. She has over 15 years of litigation experience and has tried approximately 50 cases to jury verdict. She spent many years advocating on behalf of the criminally accused as a San Francisco Public Defender, and she handles both criminal and personal injury matters.
She helped file a civil rights case that resulted in an important First Amendment decision in the Ninth Circuit. Megan Burns. It’s a pleasure to talk to you this afternoon.
Megan Burns: Hi Lou. Thanks for having me.
Louis Goodman: Megan, where is your office [00:01:00] located right now?
Megan Burns: The main office is located in Pleasanton, California, but we also have offices in Oakland as well as in the Fremont Newark area. You may know some of my law partners. One of my law partners is a founding member of our firm Jules Bonjour, who’s been in practice here in Alameda County for more years than he’d like me to count. My other law partners include Michael Thorman, Emily Dahm, and Jared Winter. I was actually born in Detroit, Michigan, and grew up for most of my life in the suburbs of Detroit.
I went to Oxford high school, which is, as I like to describe it, it’s a suburb of Detroit. Where at the time that I lived there, it was right where the suburbs ended, and the cornfields began. So that was kind of my main place I grew up as a kid.
Louis Goodman: How was your experience there?
Megan Burns: It’s good. I mean, it’s ideal kind of Midwestern living, [00:02:00] although there are certainly any issues with small towns, and I was anxious to kind of get to a larger urban area and kind of knew that relatively early. My father was an airline pilot growing up. So I’d had a wonderful opportunity of travel at a young age, and so kind of strived for kind of moving to a bigger city and more metropolitan life experience.
Louis Goodman: So did you do that when you went to college?
Megan Burns: Yes. I actually played soccer in high school and was recruited to different colleges to play soccer, but I ended up at Boston College on a soccer scholarship, which was amazing.
And Boston is such a great place to go to undergrad with all the different Universities. Each University in Boston has a very different kind of culture and experience, so it was great to be there and be a part of it. And I spent four years living in Boston and was a Division One Athlete as [00:03:00] well for my time at Boston College.
Louis Goodman: After you got out of Boston College, did you go to Law School directly or did you take some time off?
Megan Burns: Well, I actually had always known that I wanted to be a Lawyer. I actually can’t remember a time where I did not expect to go to law school or to be an attorney? Not necessarily because I have a bunch of lawyers in my family, so I don’t know what prompted me to want to follow that particular career path.
But when I graduated from undergrad, I really wanted to have just some life experience, not be a student, have a job, have an apartment, pay my bills, kind of live in the real world for lack of a better term, and just really kind of decide whether being a lawyer was something I truly wanted or whether it was something that had just been kind of an idea in my head.
And with some years I might feel differently. So I actually moved to Chicago after I graduated from [00:04:00] undergrad and spent a couple years living there doing consulting work in the finance industry.
Louis Goodman: That was before you went to law school?
Megan Burns: Yes. So my undergrad was in finance and so I did strategy consulting and then I also work for an intellectual property consulting firm in Chicago had great experiences, did a lot of very intellectual work, interesting work, but I didn’t find it as fulfilling as what I thought life would be like being a lawyer.
So I did, after a couple of years, decide to pursue my dream to go to law school.
Louis Goodman: And where did you go to law school?
Megan Burns: I ended up in Lewis and Clark Law School, which is in Portland, Oregon. It’s a relatively smaller school, primarily known for its really excellent Environmental Law Program, but it’s a beautiful campus.
Great place to go to school.
Louis Goodman: How was your experience in Law School? How’d you like that?
Megan Burns: I actually only spent two years at Lewis and Clark. I was a visiting [00:05:00] student at Hastings College of the Law for one semester where I was actually working at the Public Defender’s Office while in Law School. And I also spent another semester in Georgetown, taking different sorts of classes in Civil Rights Law, and other kind of related classes.
Louis Goodman: That’s great.
You said that you kind of like had always known that you wanted to be a lawyer. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Megan Burns: Sure. I come from a very blue-collar background of which I’m very proud of. My family are primarily auto workers and farmers and people that know how to put in a good day’s work.
And I think that forms a lot of who I am today. So I didn’t grow up with lawyers or other professionals really as role models. And I really honestly don’t know why I got it in my head that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I remember that kind of being my goal or dream in elementary school. So I don’t know what kind of [00:06:00] prompted it, but I just always knew it was something I wanted to do.
Louis Goodman: What was your first actual legal job after you got out of law school?
Megan Burns: So I had been working for several years as an intern in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. I had actually accepted a position at the Mendocino County Public Defender’s Office, and I worked there for one week, that particular position was a Dependency position, which as you know, Lou, is pretty different than the actual experience of doing Criminal Defense. I had been talking to a lawyer that had been at the San Diego Public Defender’s Office for many years, but at the time was living and working in Nevada City in Nevada County. And he offered me a position as an Associate with his firm.
And so my partner and I moved up there for a couple of years and it was great living in Northern California and going to all these different counties, [00:07:00] Sierra County was 6,000 permanent residents and just all the way down to Sacramento. So that’s what I did for the first couple of years after law school.
Louis Goodman: You eventually got to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. How did that come about?
Megan Burns: My partner had actually gotten a job at Bay Area Legal Aid, so we were going to be moving back to the Bay Area. I love trying cases. I wanted to try cases. I wanted to be a Trial Lawyer and I knew that if I didn’t go into a Public Defender’s Office, I really wasn’t going to get the trial experience that I needed and that I desired to have.
So I actually went to the Solano County Public Defender’s Office for about a year. And at the time I was being promoted into the Felony Trial rotation. And at that moment, I was also offered a job in San Francisco and decided to take it.
Louis Goodman: Interesting. When you first started out in the Public Defender’s Office can you give us a story from your early years [00:08:00] there.
Megan Burns: Oh my gosh. I very much remember those first years. And in fact there is a whole group of wonderful female lawyers that are just absolutely exceptional trial lawyers, smart as whips, just brilliant litigators that we were all in misdemeanors at the same time. We had great support. We had team meetings, and everybody was just kind of constantly in trial and that was the culture there.
And the office was really to build you up into a true trial lawyer with top level skills. And so the main thing I remember is just many, many late hours coming back to the offices, after our various battles in court. And usually multiple people were in trial at the same time, kind of talking and collaborating about our experiences.
I had the same office mate for seven and a half years that I was at the Public Defender’s [00:09:00] Office, a very well-regarded Criminal Trial Lawyer in East Bay by the name of Kiana Washington. And she and I were just constantly in trial. So I’d say probably my favorite memories are just Kiana and I coming back from court and talking about our trial worst stories.
Louis Goodman: What do you really like about practicing law?
Megan Burns: You know, I think that there are a lot of ways to kind of earn a living in this world that are a lot easier than being a lawyer, if I’m to be totally frank. So it’s not that the practice of law or being a trial lawyer is easy. You know you work an eight-hour day where you just get to go home and forget about everything that’s happening, but I really truly enjoy helping people.
I do that every single day and it’s very rewarding.
Louis Goodman: Would you recommend going to law school for a young person coming out of college?
Megan Burns: I would, with an exception. You must understand what it means to be [00:10:00] a Lawyer. And the analogy that I give to a lot of young people is think about Doctors. I mean, there’s a million different kinds of doctors out there.
You could be a Knee Surgeon; you could be an Ophthalmologist and similar to the specialty areas that exist in Medicine. I think that’s also true of the law. Like what your experience of being a lawyer might be, is very different based on the type of practice area that you go into. And so I think it is a mistake to graduate from undergrad, take the LSAT without having any kind of real-world life experience, and then go to law school expecting, you know, what you want to do, and then have that job look and feel very different than what you expected it to be.
Louis Goodman: How has actually practicing law either met or different from your expectations?
Megan Burns: Like I said, I actually spent a lot of [00:11:00] time in law school doing clinical work and making that a core component of my law school experience. So I felt like I had a good sense of what it meant to be a lawyer in practice, at least the kind of lawyer I wanted to be before I started practicing, certainly in private practice. In comparison to public service and the public defender’s office, you really have to have an understanding of business and marketing and, you know, promoting yourself online and how people review you or review your firm.
And so kind of understanding those business aspects of running a business and being in private practice was certainly something that I had to adapt to. Once I left public service.
Louis Goodman: Is there anything that, you know now that you really wished you’d known before you went to law school or before you started practicing?
Megan Burns: I think that when I went to law school, and I [00:12:00] think this is true of a lot of people. The cost of law school was not something that I was particularly concerned about and I think if I was to give one piece of advice to young people that are considering law school is really to consider what the overall debt burden is going to be for yourself.
Once you graduate. I do think that there is a return on investment of going to law school, but I think you have to be cautious if you leave law school, $300,000 in debt and you really want to be a Public Defender.
Louis Goodman: What about starting out in private practice? Are there some things that you think are really important for a young attorney to know about when they’re starting off their practice?
Megan Burns: I think if you’re a young lawyer and you’ve just graduated from law school and you’re thinking about hanging out your own shingle, First, I would say the most important thing about being a lawyer is looking for mentors you really can trust and that [00:13:00] relate to you and you relate to them that can help guide you.
Being a lawyer is not just a job. It is a profession. I think the core, at least for me, is you know, your reputation as an attorney, making sure that not just you’re respected in the community, but that people consider your word to be your boss.
Louis Goodman: Do you think the legal system is fair? That sometimes the legal system does get it right?
Megan Burns I do think at least, if I’m speaking to my experience as a Criminal Defense Attorney, I think in today’s day and age, you cannot ignore the impact of Systemic Racism on the Criminal Justice System. You know, when I went to the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, I actually, I had a lot of guilt about going there because I knew there were so many other exceptional lawyers that were already practicing in that office.
And I felt like maybe my skills and what I had to offer would be better [00:14:00] served in a different community where there weren’t quite as many people that were as dedicated to the practice of law and providing the best representation that money can’t buy, is the way that I described what I tried to do as a public defender.
Louis Goodman: What, if anything, would you change about the way the legal system works?
Megan Burns: I think even in the last 15 years that I’ve practiced; a lot has already changed. I think that understanding and being trained on Implicit Bias is something that is more a focus of the Judiciary, as well as both District Attorney’s Offices and Public Defender’s Offices.
So part is recognizing that we have a problem. Step two is talking about it in a productive way. And step three is figuring out what to do about that.
Louis Goodman: Let’s talk about your work-life balance a little bit, you know, your family life, what you do when you’re not practicing law?
Megan Burns: I [00:15:00] I am very blessed to be married to a wonderful woman.
She and I have been together for nearly 20 years. We have two beautiful kids, a daughter who’s nine and a son who’s four. If I’m being totally honest, work-life balance is something that I definitely struggle with on a daily basis. Doing work where I know that I’m representing human beings that are facing the cross. She’ll be there. The Criminal Justice System are going up against a large insurance company. When they’ve been seriously injured in an accident. There’s a lot of responsibility of representing people like that and doing the best I can for them. And really I could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and there’d still be more to do.
Louis Goodman: If you couldn’t be a lawyer, is there some other line of work that you think you would like to pursue?
Megan Burns: Oh sure. I can think of a million things. I might go back to my roots and have a small farm, or I could [00:16:00] see studying Art History, being a Travel Writer. I mean, the list is a million miles long of different things that I’m interested in and love to do.
Louis Goodman: Let’s say you came into some real money, couple of billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Megan Burns: You know, I can think of small things that I might do for, you know, my family members, my extended family members, but I don’t think I would live my life that much differently than I do now.
I think it would certainly give me more flexibility with time. And maybe I cut back on the day-to-day practice of law a bit and hire more attorneys to kind of continue the work that I love to do, but I’d probably start working immediately to figure out how best can I make that money go to work, to kind of deal with some of the Systemic changes that made me want to be a lawyer in the first place.
Louis Goodman: This podcast is presented and supported by the Alameda County Bar Association. ACBA [00:17:00] provides a wide range of certified continuing legal educational programs, networking opportunities, and social events. If you’re a member of ACBA, thank you. If you are not yet a member, we hope you will consider joining this organization, that is by, for, and in support of practicing attorneys.
And now back to our interview.
Let’s say you had a magic wand. That was one thing you could change in the world, the legal world and the general world. Anything. What one thing do you think you would like to change?
Megan Burns: Wow, that’s a big question, Lou. You know the idea that we live in a society where you have children that are dying of hunger in places like Yemen and Africa is Sub-Saharan Africa and in War Zones. And we here in the United States have internet access that is stable and certainly have, you know, vehicles and public transportation, [00:18:00] not to mention climate change. Gosh, I can I get three wishes? Can I fix world hunger, eliminate global warming? And finally, as I mentioned before, help in whatever way I can to adjust, address systemic racism.
I think we would be a much better world if we could deal with those three main issues.
Louis Goodman: We’re doing this recording in conjunction with the Alameda County Bar Association and the Barristers Club, and I know that we have a few other people who are on the call and listening. I’m wondering if anybody has some questions for Megan, some things that I haven’t covered or that specifically you have some interest in or follow up.
All right. Do I have to call on people here? Manjula Martin. I see you’re muted out. Are you there?
Manjula Martin: I’m here. Hello? How’s it going?
Louis Goodman: Hi, how are you?
Manjula Martin: Hi, I’m Manjula. Good to see you
Louis Goodman: Nice to see you [00:19:00] all too. Do you have a question or a comment either for Megan or about anything that she said?
Manjula Martin: Yeah, actually I was curious about how she has dealt with the, I guess know, glass ceiling of being a woman and what’s pretty much been the most part of male dominated world for quite some time.
Megan Burns: You know Manjula, I’ve had a lot of great women mentors that have come before me. So on the one hand, I recognize the struggles that we as women, particularly in the litigation field of being an attorney experienced today. But I also recognize that there are people that came before us that had it a lot worse. For many years, I was a Board Member for Women Defenders, which was an organization started several decades ago by many kind of well-known well-regarded women trial attorneys here in the Bay Area to kind of support each other.
And I guess if, you know, I think number [00:20:00] one, community and support are really essential to kind of dealing with issues of gender bias in the court system. And particularly as attorneys.
Louis Goodman: Jason?
Jason Leong: Sure. One of the things that I appreciate that Megan saying was the importance of having a life outside the law. And I’m just wondering if there’s any particular extracurricular activity that helps you get through the work week or helps keep you focused when you are on the clock, like one activity that you enjoy above others. Do you still play soccer?
Megan Burns: I don’t play soccer anymore, although I’m happy to do it. My daughter is an aspiring soccer player, so I do play with her and she’s on the team. So that’s fun, certainly kind of doing physical activity, like hiking and that kind of thing. But in terms of extra curriculars or hobbies, I really like to completely step aside [00:21:00] from things that are intellectual. I like to garden. I’d just like to put my hands in the soil and plant something and see it grow something that is a totally different skill set than what I do on a day-to-day basis, which is using my brain power and my voice and my written advocacy to fight for people and their rights. So I really need to kind of step aside.
I need to get outside right. And that’s really helps me stay sane.
Louis Goodman: Joanne Kinston is on this call. Joanne, are you there?
Joanne Kingston: Hi. Can you hear me?
Louis Goodman: Yeah, we can hear you Joanne.
Joanne Kingston: Well, I’m impressed by the amazing person you are. I was curious, do you feel if there is a glass ceiling that it’s different in the criminal arena than it is in the civil arena?
Megan Burns: Wow. That’s a big question. I think, you know, I recently had this amazing opportunity to [00:22:00] present at a conference of Women in the Law, which was a group effort between the Contra Costa Bar Association, Alameda County Bar Association of the Queen’s bench, and several other professional organizations to really kind of come together as a group and really talk about the struggles of gender bias and just by us in general, in the court system.
And I remember very distinctly the first night of that conference, which was shortly before the pandemic. We had this amazing panel of presenters, including several judges, including a Supreme Court Justice talk about their experience. So I think to say that there is not a glass ceiling is not credible. I do think some of the struggles in Civil practice are different in the sense that, you know, there are so few women partners at big firms. And so I do think that, you know, being in private practice as a Criminal Defense Attorney [00:23:00] does certainly help you avoid some of those glass ceiling problems that other individuals have experienced in larger organizations.
So I hope that answers your question.
Louis Goodman: Lisa Simmons. Is there something you’d like to jump in here with?
Lisa Simons: Thanks Lou. Good to see you again, even if it’s on video. I’ve enjoyed you speaking several times and I’ve been out to Dublin before, but my name may be unfamiliar to a lot, but I worked for 20 years under an older attorney and I recently left his office after COVID at how do some of us Attorneys that are wanting to get that experience and used to hang out in the courtroom. And now we’re kind of cut off from all of that, what would you recommend?
Megan Burns: Well, a couple of things, Lisa, I don’t think you and I know each other, but if you ever have an opportunity where you’re going to do a big hearing or a trial, first of all, feel free to give me a call and I’m happy to talk to you.
That’s kind of the beauty of being where I’m [00:24:00] at in my career at this point. I’ve been mentored by so many excellent trial lawyers. It’s my job to kind of give back to people that also want to grow within the profession and really develop their trial skills. I actually just completed a trial this week in Department 706 out at the Dublin Courthouse.
It was a competency trial. So it was a court trial, not a jury trial, and one thing that I learned is that there is a public feed for a lot of these trials that continue to happen, even in the age of COVID. And so if you go to the court website and maybe ACBA could do a blog about that and put it up on the website or something, because to be honest, I was familiar with going to court based on the video conferencing software that we usually access to actually appear in court.
I was not aware that the court was actually doing a public feed of what was happening in the courtroom until I did that trial last week. But apparently that is the case. [00:25:00] And so, yeah. my understanding is that you can access that public feed on the court’s website to maintain kind of the constitutional rights everybody has to public proceedings.
So there’s that. And like I said before, whether it’s me or somebody else that, you know, if you want to kind of grow your skills as a trial lawyer, find mentors.
Lisa Simons: Awesome. Thank you so much, Megan. That’s exactly what I was looking for.
Megan Burns: You’re welcome.
Lisa Simons: We’ll get started together.
Megan Burns: You bet.
Louis Goodman: Megan, thank you so much for doing this.
I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I think that we’ve all heard a lot of very interesting information about you personally and gotten some great tips from you professionally. So thank you very much for doing this.
Megan Burns: Well, it’s an honor, Lou, I’ve really enjoyed listening to your prior podcasts on the Love Thy Lawyer podcast.
I think this is a great idea. So I really appreciate you [00:26:00] taking this on and kind of giving us an opportunity to talk about our careers and our experiences. And I’m also appreciative to the ACBA. I’ve been a Board Member of the ACBA. I’m currently a Board Member of Legal Access Alameda.
So I’m always here to support our local Bar and local Attorneys and whatever their professional endeavors are. So thanks to both of you. And it’s an honor to be asked.
Louis Goodman: This is Love Thy Lawyer in collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association, please visit the Love Thy Lawyer website at Lovethylawyer.com where you can find links to all of our episodes. Also, please visit the Alameda County Bar Association [email protected], where you can find more information about our support of the legal profession, promoting excellence in the legal profession and facilitating equal access to [00:27:00] justice.
Special thanks to ACBA staff and members, Caitlin Dahlin, Saeed Randle, Hadassah Hayashi, Vincent Tong, and Jason Leon. Thanks to Joel Katz for music, Bryan Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Megan Burns: I, for one, bring a lot of my experience as a collegiate athlete to the practice of law.