By Sheila Pursglove
Pet project: Attorney spearheads Michigan Humane Society
Beverly Hall Burns set her sights on becoming a lawyer from the age of 12. But her career dream almost got kiboshed by—of all people—a Sunday school teacher.
“My teacher—who was a lawyer and trustworthy, after all, since he was my Sunday School teacher!—told me that girls couldn’t be lawyers,” she says. “This was in the early ‘60s. So I believed him and became a newspaper reporter and editor instead.”
Burns worked 8 years for The Lansing State Journal directly out of her undergrad work at Michigan State University.
“During that time I had the opportunity to write wedding stories—which is what girl reporters had to do in 1967—and then after I made enough noise I became a police, city hall and education reporter; then I was the editor of the daily feature section—my all-time favorite job—and finally, the city editor, which prepared me very nicely for the pressures of being a lawyer!
“Years later I had the chance to revisit that question—whether I could be a lawyer. I decided I could probably do that, went off to the University of Michigan, and here I am.”
Here she is indeed.
Burns, an attorney with Miller Canfield, has made the “Best Lawyers in America, Labor and Employment Law” and “Michigan Super Lawyers, Labor & Employment Law” annual lists since 2006, and this year was named by DBusiness Magazine among the “Top Lawyers, Labor and Employment.” In 2008 she was named by Inforum as one of Southeast Michigan’s Most Influential Women Leaders, and in 1997 Crain’s Detroit Business named her one of Detroit’s Most Influential Women.
Small wonder that Burns became a co-founder, with two friends, of a women’s organization called the Eleanor League, that existed in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and was named for little-known baseball player, Eleanor Engle, a secretary in Pennsylvania.
“Eleanor wanted to play professional baseball—I think she played second base. Anyway, she was signed by the Harrisburg Senators in 1952 and played in one practice only,” Burns says.
“Her big league career was cut short because the manager objected to having a woman on the team and Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball at the time, canceled her contract.
“I found out about Eleanor from my sons, who were avid baseball card collectors and came across her card. My two friends and I wanted to start a professional women’s networking group, made up of women who wanted to ‘play in the big leagues’ in their professions—so we thought Eleanor Engle was the right person to honor when we named our group.”
The Eleanor League is only one of a dizzying array of activities Burns has been involved in over the years. She serves on the Professional Advisory Board of the Junior League of Detroit; on the advisory board for CREW, a networking group of professionals in commercial real estate; on the Public Policy Committee of the Grosse Pointe Chamber of Commerce; on the board of the Michigan State University National Alumni Association; and served on the Board of the MSU College of Arts and Letters Alumni Association for six years, two of them as president.
She is a founding member of Pointers Sustained, and serves on its board and outreach council. This grassroots effort finds ways to allow older and/or disabled Grosse Pointers to live with appropriate support and resources, in their own homes and community.
Burns also is working with several nonprofit organizations and Detroit’s “Boom! The New Economy!” on a grant-funded, collaborative project to engage seniors in southeast Michigan’s business community through entrepreneurism, mentoring programs and knowledge transfer.
She has served on the nominating committee of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce; on the Superintendent’s advisory board of Grosse Pointe Public Schools; and on the boards of the Grosse Pointe Historical Society; Michigan Metro Girl Scout Council; Michigan Women’s Foundation; Detroit Economic Club; Detroit Athletic Club; The Greening of Detroit; and Grosse Pointe War Memorial.
She has been a member of the Professional Advisory Committee/Post Acute Services for the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute; an Executive Leadership Team member in the American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” campaign; and served for two decades as an elder in the Grosse Pointe Memorial Church, where she now serves on the church’s Community Outreach Council.
“I think we all have a responsibility to the communities in which we live and work, to contribute to them,” she says. “But I also think that doing community and charitable work completes us as people—it takes us from being isolated individuals to membership in diverse groups that find amazing ways to collaborate to reach important common goals.
“Jane Goodall probably said it best, when she said, ‘We have a choice to use the gift of our lives to make the world a better place.’”
In June, she became chair of the Michigan Humane Society (MHS) where she has served on the board since 2007.
“I became involved several years ago because I believe in its purpose—protecting animals and positively affecting society’s views in order to be more considerate, respectful and compassionate toward all living things,” she says. “I enjoy my work with the Humane Society because, while we’ve achieved great success in improving animals’ lives, we recognize we must always work to get better.
“The Detroit Shelter is more than 80 years old—just last year we received a very generous gift to cover purchase of property to build a new Detroit facility. We’re really excited about that, and in the meantime, the MHS has amazing staff who work every day in the Detroit Shelter as well as in our other shelters, to improve the lives of animals.”
In June, the MHS held a Mutt March in Grosse Pointe Shores, raising money for lifesaving programs that include adoption, cruelty investigation, emergency rescue, reuniting lost animals with their guardians, humane education and legislative advocacy. Regular adoption opportunities are available at the society’s three shelters and certain PetSmart stores in the area. Details are available at www.michiganhumane.org.
Burns and her team are gearing up Mega March for Animals to be held Sunday, Oct. 2 at Hart Plaza in Detroit.
“You’ll see me with my dog Mac,” she says.
She and her family are passionate advocates of rescuing animals.
“We’ve had rescue Airedales—Buddy and Winchester, who were real characters! Our older son and daughter-in-law have two rescue cats—Tootsie and Callie; our younger son and his fiancée have three rescue dogs—Mosa, Phinn and Willa; and my mom has had three rescue dogs—Nikki, Peanut and Chewie.”
Burns, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English from MSU, and her law degree from the University of Michigan, now has more than 30 years’ experience representing and advocating for employers at the negotiating table, in hearings, in board rooms or community gatherings.
She was drawn to Miller Canfield as a second-year law school student when she interviewed for and accepted a position as a summer associate.
“I thought then, and still believe, that Miller Canfield is a place that welcomes people with different interests and different backgrounds. I, for example, was an ex-newspaper reporter and editor and 33 years old . . . and female. By mid-’70s standards, that was pretty diverse,” she says.
She has negotiated labor agreements with unions ranging from the Steelworkers to the American Federation of Teachers and from the Teamsters to the Service Employees International Union.
She has acquired a niche specialty in special education and has represented schools from the Individual Educational Program meetings to litigation in federal court. She helps school districts create cost-saving student-teacher ratios in labor agreements, has assisted them in resolving special education disputes, and in addressing student discipline and expulsion issues, and helped school districts with thorny challenges related to sex offenders, sex scandals, employee theft and threats to safety.
Burns, who hails from Vandercook Lake outside Jackson, got a taste of the labor/management relationship when she was a newspaper reporter and editor.
“I thought it was exciting and was fortunate when I joined Miller Canfield in 1979 to be able to practice in the area,” she says. “I’ve never regretted it for a moment—and working in the school law area is an added bonus that came to me because Miller Canfield had, and has, a preeminent school law practice in Michigan. My school law clients, and their staffs, make this practice area challenging, fun and rewarding for me.”
Author of many articles and papers on labor law and school law, most recently she co-authored “Key Employment Law Issues for Companies in 2010,” for Financier Worldwide. She has also testified in the U. S. House of Representatives, before the Committee on Educational and Economic Opportunity, and the Committee on Education and Labor.
“In both cases, what I remember most vividly was the physical setup that made any witness feel like a Lilliputian,” she says. “Witnesses were seated at small tables in straight-backed chairs, far below the House members whose huge leather chairs were way above us. Sort of like sitting in a hole and trying to be dignified and credible at the same time . . .”
Burns—whose family comprises husband Ben, son Ben, daughter-in-law Laura, and infant grandson BJ; and son James and his fiancée Beth—enjoys fitness, reading, cooking, travel, and gardening.
“In terms of what I like about living and working here—I have an amazing family, I work for a great law firm and for first-rate clients, and I do that in a city that is both gritty and gorgeous. What’s not to like?”