Reflections: A Passion for the Process by Jack W. Burtch, Jr.

Jack W. Burtch Jr.The longer I practice law, the more I discover opportunities to engage in solving client dilemmas. I am not a legal scholar. I lack any sense that the law is a conceptual unity. Yet what has kept me engaged in my practice for more than thirty years is a passion for the process.

My journey has been somewhat paradoxical. Long ago, I was told it was important to establish myself in a legal specialty, because the common wisdom held that success in law practice meant success in specialization. After leaving the Army, I landed my first job in the Labor Section of a large law firm. For the next six years, I learned – by trial and error – the fundamentals of a labor and employment practice. I also learned, by observing the experienced lawyers in our section, how to handle myself in a meeting, how to think strategically about a case, and how to interact with clients.

Independence has always been an important value for me. When I didn’t find enough of it in the large firm, I joined a small firm. Even though some labor and employment clients came with me, I found myself doing other types of legal work, including some family law. I soon realized that while I actually enjoyed the stylized combat of labor-management disputes, participating in the process of separating children from their parents was more than I could handle. Likewise, representing a client in a dispute over who was liable for a boxcar of damaged widgets engaged no part of my legal curiosity.

But the law of the workplace offered continuing fascination. Conceptually, it was challenging. Practically, it put me in the middle of hotly-contested issues that could actually be resolved. So while I began my legal career learning to litigate employment disputes before courts, National Labor Relations Board judges and arbitrators, I soon found myself intrigued by the process of dispute resolution itself.

This interest crystallized in federal court one morning as I was about to begin a jury trial. Judge Williams looked at the jury panel and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, can you sit through a case where two otherwise sophisticated businessmen can’t solve a problem between themselves but have to bring in total strangers to do it for them?” The judge’s question was in the back of my head when, shortly thereafter, I signed up for a course in mediation, then agreed to teach a course in negotiations at the University of Richmond law school.

When I was fresh out of law school, I thought being a good lawyer meant representing clients and winning cases. But eventually I began to pay attention to how an event becomes a case; how people can conclude that a legal solution is better than some other kind of solution. Armed with this knowledge, I was pleased to be asked to teach a second law school class in client counseling. I saw this new course as my chance to delve deeper into the client decision mentality, to examine how people determine which goals are essential, which are secondary, and which are not actually goals at all. My conclusion? The lawyer’s primary job is to figure out what the real problem really is. And today, when each new client comes in the door, that‘s the first question I ask myself.

I wasn’t thinking much about process when I was studying torts and contracts in law school. Or when I was focused on litigation deadlines and court dates working for a large law firm. But through the years, I’ve developed a passion for the problem and a fascination with the process that leads to its solution. I’ve learned how otherwise ordinary events become disputes soluble by legal analysis and conflict resolution. And that is why I want to continue practicing law -- at least, until I finally get it right.

Jack W. Burtch Jr.© 2009 Jack W. Burtch, Jr.
Jack W. Burtch, Jr. is a partner in the Richmond, Virginia law firm of Macaulay & Burtch, P.C.

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Updated: Aug 05, 2009