The Legacy of John M. Burman

It is with heavy hearts that we read the latest edition of the Wyoming Lawyer dedicated to John M. Burman. Professor Burman meant a great deal to so many lawyers across the state. Leah C. Schwartz was honored to take part in this special tribute.

But For John M. Burman

by Leah C. Schwartz

“Please describe the legal test for causation.”

It was the first week of torts and, as luck would have it, Professor John M. Burman had called on me. I muttered something about proximate cause, trying to sound smart. Professor Burman kindly re-directed me: “Before we get too lawyerly, Ms. Schwartz, we can’t forget the basic concept of cause in fact—but for the actions of the negligent tortfeasor, would this person have been injured?”

Ah. Right. Cause in fact. The moving force that takes us from A to B.

In the days since his passing, I have found myself thinking a lot about what a causal force John Burman was to me, my classmates, and so many Wyoming lawyers. We all know what a tremendous human being he was, but he was more than that. He was a person whose goodness improved and inspired those around him. He caused us to change.

Here are a few ways I saw that:

But for John Burman, many Wyoming law students wouldn’t have made it.

John Burman humanized the process of legal education. There wasn’t a class that went by that didn’t include hearty laughter. You could tell Professor Burman liked the law, and he made you feel good about wanting to be a lawyer. Surely, you though, lawyering had to be worthwhile if a person of his intelligence and humor thought so. When exam time rolled around, his words eased the pressure. “The people who love you will still love you no matter how you do on my exam,” he said. The entire class breathed a communal sigh of relief. Exams were tough, but John gave many of us the perspective we needed to do our best, show up again the next semester, and stick it through to the end.

But for John Burman, we would not know the power of humility in our profession.

The College of Law threw John a “retirement” party in the spring of 2013. (Hardly a retirement given all John continued to do in the last half decade.) John asked me to say a few words at the event. A few days before, I got a note from him masquerading as a “thank you.” Really it was more of a request that I not overdo it. He wrote: “I consider myself to be a Wyoming lawyer who just happens to have taught some.”

The reality of course is that John never “just happened” to do anything, and he did a lot more than “taught some.” He was a nationally regarded professor, the author of hundreds of papers and articles, the director and spiritual force behind the College of Law’s clinical education programs, a trusted counselor to hundreds of Wyoming practitioners, and the person elected by students as the Outstanding Faculty Member a record EIGHT years.

Yet John viewed his incredible accomplishments in the most modest of terms, considering them as much a matter of “luck” as anything else. His attitude sent a powerful message to all his students that self-promotion and arrogance are not the requisites to success in the law. As John told every 1L class: “The top ten percent of the class aren’t usually the best of people, or even the best of lawyers. Don’t allow law school to let you lose sight of what matters.”

But for John Burman, Wyoming lawyers would be more disconnected and boring.

Aside from Marilyn, I think what mattered most to John was his relationships with students and lawyers. Anyone lucky enough to have worked in his clinic was given an example of the value of community and esprit de cour. Despite his years of experience, John shared our triumphs and defeats as if they were his own. He made us laugh with his over-the-top ties and Wyoming stories, and he happily took part in all the jokes. I’ll never forget his delighted conspiratorial look when I got pulled over for speeding on I-80 en route to a hearing before Judge Campbell. “Well, Leah, we’d better call the Judge and tell him we’ve been detained!” Or the twinkle in his eye after he realized we’d made a silly mistake—“nothing an order nunc pro tunc can’t fix!” John made it fun to be part of a team.

But for John Burman, our moral compasses would be less true.

At the clinic, John always had his door open to discuss any issue that might come up in a case. As inexperienced students, these issues were most often of the ethical variety: At what point did our representation of this client begin? Is it important that we disclose an apparent misstatement by our client to the Judge? Our client can’t be located—what should we do? WHAT SHOULD WE DO, JOHN? The questions were nearly constant, but John’s patience never faltered. He was excited to speak with his students and to help them reach the right decision—not just one that technically complied with the rules of professional responsibility—but one that fit within the broader calculus of what it means to be a good lawyer and a good person. Beyond teaching us about the black and white ethical rules, John imparted to all of his students a deep commitment to fairness, access to justice, and the uniform respect for others involved in the legal profession. I know I am not the only former student of John’s who when confronted with an ethical or moral dilemma asks herself: What would John do?

But for John Burman, our legal educations would have been incomplete.

In my years in the clinic, I observed John strategizing with students, sharing advice with judges and practitioners, celebrating and grieving with clients, joking with opposing counsel, and greeting his wife warmly at the end of the day. Despite his busy schedule and health struggles, he always had the energy to make everyone around him feel respected and valued—from the janitorial staff at the annex building to the Chief Justice of the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Now that I’m a practicing lawyer out in the trenches, I think I know better now what John meant by encouraging us to look beyond class rankings as we experienced law school. My admiration of John doesn’t much depend on his many tangible achievements. It rests in the everyday integrity, good cheer, and perseverance he brought to his work and interactions with people. That is something he taught us as law students, and something we can all aspire to in our practices.

Our experiences with John make it clear that a legal education including clinical experience can in fact prepare students for meaningful and satisfying lives as lawyers. Thanks to John, our particular legal education went beyond the fundamentals of legal analysis, writing, and research; it prioritized human connection.

For me, and many others, John Burman was the cause in fact of all of these things, and more.

We will miss him terribly, but we are better for having known him.