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THE JOURNEY TO THE TOP – by Bob Dyer
October 30, 1994
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You know it’s going to be a bad day, as the old joke goes, when a crew from 60 Minutes shows up at your door.
Who ya gonna call? If you’re smart, Akron Lawyer. And then you’d better call your banker.
Burdon, 55, is widely regarded as Akron’s premier criminal-defense lawyer. He lands more front-page cases in one year than most attorneys do in a lifetime. And it’s been that way for more than 20 years.
Perhaps the best measure of a person’s professional status is the opinion of his peers. What do Burdon’s peers think? Let’s put it this way:
When a sitting judge needed a good criminal lawyer in 1980, James Barbuto turned to Burdon.
When a prominent local lawyer needed a good criminal lawyer in 1993, he turned to Burdon.
When a Portage County prosecutor needed a good criminal lawyer this year, David Norris turned to Burdon.
“This guy is the king,” says the attorney, who had faced felony charges in the widely publicized Revere Road Synagogue bingo case. “His respect is legion. … When he speaks, everybody listens. The guy is so impressive in the courtroom that it’s unbelievable. His choice of words and the way he makes his presentation is … just incredible. I’ve been practicing law 25 years and I was impressed.”
The attorney, who continues to insist he did absolutely nothing wrong, pleaded guilty to three technicalities involving record-keeping.
Barbuto, faced with a 26-count indictment, was con victed of only two charges and received shock probation after just 78 days in jail.
Norris pleaded guilty to one charge of cocaine possession and agreed to quit his job in exchange for the dropping of multiple federal charges and the retention of his law license.
Cops, councilmen and child pornographers. White-collar criminals and cold-blooded murderers. People with fancy family names like Seiberling. Burdon has defended them all.
His first highly charged case came in 1972, when client Patrick Conley Jr., a white policeman, was found innocent of beating a black jail inmate to death. Ever since, Burdon has been involved in one media circus after another.
Little wonder he is said to command a $50,000 up-front retainer for a typical serious case.
“He’s a very bright man and a very hard worker — and being very handsome doesn’t hurt at all,” says Akron municipal court judge and former prosecutor Michael Callahan.
“He’s very smooth. He keeps (his emotions) in check, and I think that serves him well.”
Despite toting around such a high profile, James Lloyd Burdon seems to be a man without enemies. The worst thing anyone will say about him is this:
“He could be very arrogant,” opines a former TV reporter who covered trials involving Burdon. “But so what? He was a lawyer, not a PR guy. And he was good.”
As anonymous put-downs go, that’s pretty mild. But even at that, people rush to Burdon’s defense.
“Any time you have somebody who is good at what they do, you’re bound to have folks that are jealous of his success,” Callahan responds. “Also, to be a trial lawyer, you have to have a certain amount of ego. You have to believe you are good to be good.”
So let’s sum up: The guy makes a fortune, has movie-star looks, has the admiration of his peers, is not overly stuck on himself, and is as bright as the sun.
Unfortunately for the mere mortals among us, that’s just the beginning. Burdon also has superior athletic talent, a great sense of humor, a wife who looks like a model, a loving family and a ton of friends.
Yeah, but he probably works until 11 p.m. and never sees his kids, right?
Sorry. For years Jim and Patty Burdon have been regulars at school functions — even those that come in the middle of a workday. His secretaries have standing orders to put through any family-oriented phone call, no matter what type of meeting he is in.
OK, but he probably isolates himself and his family from the rest of us peons in some high-priced den of hedonism, right?
Wrong again. Without any fanfare, he funds scholarships for needy kids, donates his considerable legal talents to people he thinks have been wronged, and quietly represents half a dozen local unions at discount rates. Wife Patty, 43, has long volunteered in a variety of roles at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School and currently serves as assistant to the principal.
Sure, but with all this glamour and attention, the kids probably rebelled and now loathe the old man, right?
Hardly. “He’s the most honest and loyal person I’ve ever met — or even heard about — in my entire life,” says eldest son Chris, 26 and now living in Newport Beach, Calif.
So what we seem to have here is the perfect couple. Pristine. Flawless. Pure. The Ken and Barbie of Akron.
Well, not exactly.
If Burdon appears to be sailing on laser-smooth waters, it is only because he has survived more than his share of major hurricanes.
In fact, there was a time many years ago when he very nearly required the services of someone just like himself.
“He was a hood,” says his wife, laughing, as she sits in a chair in their spacious West Akron living room. “A ducktailed, grease-back hood.”
Not just sartorially. “He was a South Side Chicago street kid. He was in a gang.
“People say, ‘What are his class reunions like?’ We’ve never been to a class reunion. We go to gang reunions.”
The young Burdon prowled the streets in a group known as The Friscos. When Patty first accompanied her husband to a reunion (“and I mean to tell you, that is a weekend I’ll never forget”), she discovered that Jim was one of the few members who hadn’t done any jail time.
The gang attributed that to Burdon’s speed: The cops literally couldn’t catch him.
Burdon’s legs eventually helped carry him away from that dead-end environment. He became a star basketball player — all-city in the highly competitive hoops environment of Chicago — and won a scholarship to Ripon College in Wisconsin.
“I wasn’t great,” says Burdon, whose only previous recognition had come from street fighting, “but I was good enough (at basketball) that all the kids had to deal with me now. Because now I was one of the guys.”
As Burdon sits behind a big cherry desk in a plush, spacious office in the Delaware Building in downtown Akron, you have a hard time picturing a young outcast sprinting away from the cops.
Perpetually tan, with wavy hair, network-anchorman looks and a GQ wardrobe, Burdon is the very picture of sophistication. But beam back a few decades and you find a poor kid living in multiple-family housing that resembled an army barracks.
Because his late father was a field rep for the United Rubber Workers union, he and his four siblings moved all over the country, struggling along on Dad’s $7,600 salary.
When Pop finally was elected president of the URW (a post he held for three terms in the early ’60s before leaving under the cloud of an expense-account controversy), they settled in the Chicago area in a lower-middle-class, post-World War II complex called The Victory Homes.
The rooms were so tiny that, when climbing into their bunk beds, the kids would scrape their backs against the other beds.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. As a toddler, Burdon and a brother were put into a children’s home in Waverly, Iowa.
“My mom, during that time in her life, couldn’t take care of us,” he says without apparent bitterness. (He still visits his mother, who lives in California.) “My parents did just fine with what they had.”
Rather than pout about his childhood, Burdon views it as an experience that taught him a lesson: “I knew I didn’t want to grow up like that.”
Basketball was Burdon’s salvation. Organized basketball was the only reason he begged to return to high school after being expelled for a variety of dirty deeds. Organized basketball was the only reason he wanted to go to college. His own children have continued the basketball tradition, playing at St. Vincent-St. Mary. And nothing has happened to lessen Burdon’s faith in sports.
He is troubled by the fact that varsity athletics are being phased out in economically troubled school systems. “What I hear, even from inner-city leaders, is that only one out of 10,000 make it to the pros,” he says. “Well, that’s not the point. The point is that if you create an interest in a sport, and you’re good enough that you think you’ll continue to play, you will stay in school to play. It’s the only organized place you have to play.”
He says the most valuable lesson taught by sports is not how to win or lose. “It teaches you one more thing that’s more important: If you have a skill, you develop that skill as best you possibly can and be the very best you can. … “When I’m getting ready for a trial, I don’t try to get ready so that I can just get by for those three days. I don’t want to make a fool of myself. And I don’t want my client to lose. And I think things like basketball teach you to do things the very best they can be done. And if you do anything less than that, you’re cheating yourself and everybody around you.”
That attitude has permeated Burdon’s life: Don’t just be a street fighter; be the baddest dude in the neighborhood. Don’t just play hoops; be all-city. Don’t just practice law; be the best in town. If sports has been a sort of ongoing religion to Akron Lawyer, a more traditional form of religion joined it as he grew older. He once wrote “Protestant” on his resume. Today, he writes “Roman Catholic.”
Although his parents sent him to a Methodist church as a child, he rarely got there, stopping instead to play pinball. “I viewed religion as kind of a weakness. I thought if you had to go to church on Sunday, you couldn’t control your own life.” That changed in 1965, when he married a Catholic.
“I had a belief, but I had no religion. And with Catholicism I changed, not because I was married, but because marriage introduced me to a priest I admired. And I started going to classes and converted.” He views Catholicism as more than a religion. “It’s a lifestyle. You don’t try to fit church into Sunday, that is your Sunday.”
That faith certainly has been put to the test. His first marriage became “a nightmare” and fell apart in the early ’70s. In 1975, Burdon, who had received custody of his two children, married the former Patty Dyer (no relation to the writer), a young Kenmore woman who worked in the clerk of courts office. They added two children of their own. Today the kids range in age from 26 to 16.
And they all lived happily ever after? Not quite.
On Burdon’s horizon were four more traumatic events — at least two of which might have knocked another person down for the count.
In 1981, while goofing around in his backyard pool, he did a handstand on the diving board and plunged into what he thought was 9 feet of water. But directly below the board, the pool was only 4 feet deep. He landed on his head and was temporarily paralyzed. Had longtime pal and law partner Larry Whitney not sensed something was wrong and pulled him out, Burdon would have drowned. The diving board is no longer there. The memories certainly are.
“I was totally paralyzed from the neck down,” he says, still looking a bit horrified. Only after several hours did he regain any feeling or movement. Full recovery took six months. I think my priorities were pretty well in order when that happened. The thing that changed is I now knew how mortal I was. My whole background, besides law, had been physical things. And suddenly, I couldn’t do anything. And I realized that you’re always one blink away from death.”
He got a reminder six years later when his brother, 13 months older and apparently in fine health, died of a heart attack at age 49. This was the brother with whom he had fought his way down the street. This was the brother who toughed it out alongside him in the children’s home. This was the brother who lived in Pittsburgh and saw Jim often.
“That really jolted him,” says Patty, a former Jazzercise instructor who runs and walks with her husband several times a week. His brother’s death apparently was partially responsible for another traumatic event: Three weeks later, while arguing in Summit County Common Pleas Court, Burdon approached Judge John Reece, apologized and said he was feeling miserable. He was taken to the judge’s chambers, then rushed to a hospital with chest pains. Doctors determined it was not a heart attack, and Burdon eventually was able to write it off as a combination of stress and overwork.
Then, as if he needed another reminder of his own mortality, five years ago his family doctor informed him that he had bone cancer. Burdon did not have cancer, as it turned out, but rather an extremely rare bone disease that is benign. For more than a week, though, he believed the end was near.
Perhaps these continual jabs to the psyche have helped prevent Burdon from getting too carried away with his own importance, from becoming Akron’s version of the snooty, self-indulgent Arnie Becker on television’s L.A. Law.
Snooty? Hey, this guy used to play softball in Barberton, then go pound down some beers with the guys at Sam’s Corner Bar. Says one St. Vincent-St. Mary parent who lives in a blue-collar Akron neighborhood: “They never, never made us feel uncomfortable. They don’t have an ‘air’ about them.”
Away from the office, says the parent (who did not want to be identified), “most of the time he is in sweat pants and T-shirts.” But when style is required, Burdon can certainly kick into overdrive.
Richard McBane, who covered the courts for the Beacon Journal from 1978 to 1990, says that, in addition to being extremely well-prepared and having a tremendous grasp of the likely fate of his customer, Burdon’s success is “partly a matter of style, as it is with any good trial lawyer. (It’s) that ability to sell themselves in the courtroom in a way that helps their clients.”
A former prosecutor once told another Beacon Journal reporter that the only way for an opposing lawyer to counteract Burdon’s charm was to “stand between him and the jury to block out the sun.”
Burdon makes no attempt to downplay that aspect of his job. “If you don’t have a personality that generates confidence or honesty and dignity and all the other things the people want in a lawyer, I think it does affect the outcome of the case.” Is it a major factor in every case?
“Sometimes the facts are so clear-cut it doesn’t make any difference who the co-pilot is for the defendant. But on close cases, it always makes a difference. Credibility is established a lot by personality. I mean, you can be a bald-faced liar but be a very personable, articulate, good-looking person and you will convince people that you’re not. It plays a big role. It really does.”
What troubles Burdon more about his profession is the constant mixing of law and politics. “I would like to find a way where the judiciary would rule not on what’s expected, but on what the law demands.” He says the justice system would have us believe that case law dictates a trial’s outcome. But in high-profile cases, he claims, judges and prosecutors — beholden to voters for their jobs — tend to bow to public opinion. They make up their mind about what they want to do and then try to find wording to justify it.
He has seen both sides of the equation, having served as an assistant county prosecutor under Judge Barbuto. Attorneys, Burdon claims, are “supposed to be able to look at precedent and be able to project what’s going to happen to a client because of the facts they’ve brought to the office. You can’t always do that. If a case makes the front page of the newspaper, all the normal rules are off.”
Those problems are not evident in federal courts, he says, “because you have lifetime appointments and the judge doesn’t have to make a ruling with one eye on the electorate and the other eye on the Beacon Journal to see how his ruling is going to be perceived.”
Burdon also thinks we must find a way to provide better lawyers for poor defendants charged with capital crimes. “I don’t think that inexperienced lawyers should practice (by) defending people’s lives,” he says. “We use that as a training ground for inexperienced lawyers by appointing them to cases.” Not that there’s any shortage of lawyers, mind you.
Burdon is well aware that lawyering has become the object of widespread public contempt. He, too, thinks there are way too many lawyers.
“When you have too many lawyers, then you have the tendency to take and to argue bad cases, because you’re sharing one pool of (legitimate) cases with a lot more people.”
If Burdon seems like a guy who is always in control, it is only because he works at it. A fire smolders below the surface. That’s one reason he would never defend himself in court: Too much emotion. And emotion is the enemy of the defense lawyer.
Burdon’s courtroom cool is a carefully constructed facade. He talks about the celebrated 1984 trial of child-killer Robert Buell, in which, Burdon says, a witness was lying. Instead of methodically boxing that witness into an inescapable corner, he started to rush his questioning because he was so angry. When Burdon later saw himself doing that on the TV news, he was horrified, and vowed never to let it happen again.
Most lawyers never get to watch an instant replay of their work. Most lawyers never read a rehash of their arguments on the front page of a newspaper. Heck, a lot of lawyers never set foot in a courtroom. All the added attention makes his job exciting, but it also brings additional stress to what is already a grueling job.
Not that Burdon isn’t well-compensated.
“I think he’s reasonable (considering) the kind of work he puts into it,” says his client. ” … If he were in a big city, he would probably command four or five times as much.” Burdon says his fee (he declines to discuss numbers) is determined by more than what the market will bear. “Experiences tell you what kind of effort (will be required) in terms of research, preparation, investigation.” He has been known to lower his fee for less-well-off clients, and even to take some cases for free. “But sometimes I charge a lot, there’s no doubt about that. And I charge a lot because I can see what I’m going to have to do, and it’s going to virtually remove me from the practice of law to devote time and energy to that case.”
Ideally, Burdon would resolve every client’s situation outside of a courtroom. Sometimes his reputation helps him do that. Other times, it backfires: Some opponents relish the chance to take on an attorney with Burdon’s profile, figuring they have little to lose and a lot to gain by beating him.
Burdon’s definition of victory may surprise you.
“Winning and losing in law isn’t the verdict,” he says. “It’s whether you get the result that you intended when you first came in.” Ask Burdon how much longer he wants to keep slugging it out and he jokes, “Maybe another week or so.” Ask him his concept of the perfect day and he says, “Lying in the sun with my wife in the Bahamas. We’ve been down there like four times. I absolutely love it.”
But you have to wonder how long he could lie around doing nothing.
His attractive brick house, relatively modest by big-money standards, is perpetually buzzing with activity. The children and their friends romp in and out. The phone rings every five minutes. The dog yaps. It’s happy chaos.
We’re talking about a guy who won’t even take the time to play golf. A rich, athletic lawyer who doesn’t golf? Surely that violates some sort of legal code of conduct.
“I just don’t have the time to do it, so I never got started,” he says.
Clearly, he would rather devote that time to his family and his community.
Even after he retires, Burdon will stay right here. And it’s not hard to figure out why.
Before he got to Akron, Akron Lawyer never had any real roots. Today, his roots run wide and deep. And he’s not about to disturb them.
Finally, Akron Lawyer belongs.
Reprinted with the permission of Bob Dyer.