Attorney chairing state Humane Society board

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By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

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 eight 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.

In 2008, Burns, an attorney with Miller Canfield, 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.

"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 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, 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."

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 . . ."

"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?"

Published: Thu, Aug 25, 2011

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