By Rob Driscoll
Business Edge Media
Achieving partnership at the largest law firm on the planet is something that many strive for and very few achieve. Once that goal is accomplished, the golden handcuffs keep you in that position for the rest of your career.
Except for Kevin Burron.
The Winnipeg structural engineer turned Calgary-based construction lawyer served his last day with Dentons on Jan. 31, having resigned to work under his own name.
I caught up with Mr. Burron earlier this month and fired 20 Questions at him in an effort to find out why on earth he would make such a move.
- How would you describe your years as a structural engineer?
Those years were enjoyable and valuable. I had the good fortune to be able to gain a lot of experience both in engineering design and in the actual process of construction of both buildings and major civil structures. I started out working for PCL Construction and completed my engineering career at Stantec Consulting, both major international firms that were founded in Canada and headquartered in Alberta. At PCL, I had hands-on experience working on construction sites as a field engineer, and I learned how a wide variety of different types of structures are built, from bridges to schools to hotels. It was fun work, although it took me to some pretty remote places in northern Manitoba at times. That experience was invaluable to my later years as a structural engineer at Stantec, where I primarily designed highway and railway bridges. The design process needs to take construction considerations into account—it is possible to design an un-buildable bridge. Over all, I found engineering rewarding in the sense that at the end of the design process there was a concrete result to show for it, so to speak.
- What prompted the switch from such a concrete career to becoming a lawyer?
As an engineering consultant, I had begun to be quite involved with preparing tender documents for various projects. That combined with a continuing education course that I took on law for engineers got me interested in the law. I began to read more and more about law in general, to the point where I decided that I wanted to get a law degree and make a career out of it.
- What attracted you to litigation?
When I started law school I wasn’t interested in litigation at all. I didn’t like public speaking. But the more I was exposed to litigation in law school, the more I liked it. I was fascinated with just about all areas of law, and litigation presented an opportunity to work regularly with a variety of different types of legal issues. Litigation continually presents different and challenging legal problems, and the lawyer has to quickly become well versed with whatever the legal issues of the case are. I find the process of learning the facts of a case and developing legal strategies and arguments to help solve clients’ legal problems quite rewarding. And I quickly got over my hang-up with public speaking. Trials and hearings are the best part of the process for me. Making a good argument in court is like seeing the bridge built after the long design process.
- Do you feel that most judges give your clients a fair shake?
Yes I do. Judges have a very difficult job, and I believe that all of them strive to reach a just outcome based on correct legal principles in every case. We are fortunate in this country to have an independent judiciary that in my opinion has not become politicized as it has elsewhere. Judges are human and sometimes make mistakes, but our system allows the opportunity for correction of errors through the appellate courts. Of course, the party who loses a case is often understandably upset about it, but that doesn’t make the result unfair. A lot often depends on how the case is presented and argued by the lawyers involved. Judges can only decide cases based on the evidence and legal arguments presented to them. If the case isn’t developed properly, the client may lose even though in a perfect world they should have won. That isn’t the judge’s fault.
- Is there such thing as a typical day in your chosen field of expertise, construction law?
I suppose there is a typical day as far as the daily routine goes, but when it comes to the actual work I am doing, there is something new all the time. Construction projects are full of uncertainties and risk, and I sometimes find it surprising after 12 years of practising in this field how often I get a call from a client with a legal issue relating to a construction project that is just a bit different from something I’ve seen before. That keeps things interesting for me as I work with the client to try to best protect their interests and try to solve the problem with minimal disruption to the ongoing construction process and the working relationship between the parties.
- Does your engineering background give you an advantage in construction-related litigation?
I believe that it does. The learning curve on any given issue is far less steep because even if it is an issue that is outside of my field of structural engineering, I still speak the language of engineering and construction and have an understanding of how the design and construction processes work. Having done this type of work myself for many years allows me to very quickly understand the situation presented and identify the key issues of a given case. Clients can describe a construction issue and have confidence that I know what they are talking about. It also helps me to come up with suggestions for resolving the problem before it becomes a major dispute and thereby help clients to avoid litigation.
- Have you ever pretended to drop a microphone, done a fist pump, or danced a jig after a particularly good closing argument?
No. Although I have wanted to . . . well, maybe not the dance-a-jig thing.
- You just did something very unconventional, resigning from being a partner at Dentons, the largest law firm on the planet. What the heck are you thinking?
I am thinking about how I can better deliver legal services to clients. Dentons is a great firm and they are doing a lot of innovative things in the legal world. But, ultimately, I believe that clients are less concerned about what firm their lawyer works for than their relationship with the individual lawyer with whom they are working. I decided to leave the firm because I wanted to have the freedom to tailor legal solutions to best suit any particular client’s needs. I think that, like most other services, clients should be able to understand at the outset what the cost will be for various deliverables provided by the lawyer. So I’m trying to do things a bit differently that way; to bring more clarity to the process for clients. I want clients to be able to make strategy decisions based on the merit of taking a particular step in the process, not based on how much more it might cost. Finally I think that I will be able to devote more time to working on clients’ legal issues and thereby provide them with a higher level of service.
- In the court of public opinion and in my personal experience (except when represented by you), lawyers are often more interested in maximizing billable hours than providing good service. Are the provincial law society bodies doing enough to protect the integrity of the industry?
There are unethical people in every line of work and, unfortunately, there are some bad apples in the legal realm. I have no doubt that this is the exception rather than the rule. Lawyers are disciplined or disbarred for unacceptable behaviour, and I believe that the law societies in each province are doing their best to hold those in our profession accountable. Actually, billings in general are not a law society regulatory issue. It is true that lawyers sometimes get focused on billable hours, but at the same time clients are beginning to ask for alternative fee arrangements. The more clients begin to do this, the more the profession is having to respond and ensure that clients perceive that they are receiving the appropriate level of value for money.
- What more could be done to ensure that lawyers live up to the code of conduct for which they all take an oath?
As is the case with the medical world, I think a second opinion is often a good idea. If you believe that your lawyer is acting unprofessionally or not representing you appropriately, seek another lawyer’s opinion. I have a lot of respect for my peers, and I think that most would be glad to offer a second opinion without having to throw anyone under a bus.
- Do you like the TV series Suits? Is the show a decent portrayal of the legal world?
Suits is one of my favorite shows, but it has no basis in reality. That’s what makes it good of course. I would love to be able to file a lawsuit for a client and then be in court for a trial the next day. I would also like to be as perpetually well-dressed as Harvey Specter. It can’t happen in real life.
- I have met your lovely family – wife Jenn and four daughters Jillian, 19, twins Brooke and Jordan, 16, and Lauren, 14. Lawyers have a tendency toward workaholism. How is your work/life balance these days?
Life is always a balancing act, and it is important to make time for family otherwise I find everything suffers, including the level of service my clients receive. Representing my clients to the best of my abilities is a top priority, but I am also good about putting away the laptop and the phone when I am with my family in the evenings and weekends. To me, the key is good communication — both with family and with clients. I think it is important to be upfront with clients about realistic timelines. As long as everyone is clear about expectations, things tend to go fairly smoothly.
- As a big Winnipeg Jets fan and season ticket holder, what has it been like to see the team disappear from the NHL in 1996, then, after returning to the league in 2011, quickly become a Stanley Cup contender?
Having been without an NHL team in my hometown for 10 years, it was actually nice to move to Calgary in 2006 and finally have an NHL team to cheer for. Calgary is my home now, and the Flames were my adopted team. But it was really exciting to see the Jets return. I now have two home teams to support. When I was in Winnipeg over Christmas, I went to see the Flames play the Jets. Of course I was cheering for Winnipeg, but when Calgary beat them I couldn’t be too disappointed. It’s kind of a win-win situation. Winnipeg’s playoff run last season was really exciting, and this season is shaping up to be fantastic, with both teams currently topping their divisions.
- I have seen you play the organ and piano at your Lutheran church in southeast Calgary. What do the church and music mean to you?
It is my way of contributing something to the community. Music is a talent that I am fortunate to have, and I know it is much appreciated by those in attendance. To the extent I can make a difference that way I am happy to do it.
- You are involved with my company CourtWizard in which we offer affordable, high-level legal support to self-litigating individuals and entrepreneurs who are not in position to retain a high-priced lawyer. Besides cost savings, how do people benefit from working with CourtWizard?
Access to justice is a serious concern these days. Many people who want to work with lawyers either can’t afford to, or have been working with a lawyer but have exhausted their resources and are forced to continue on their own. CourtWizard is a concept that I am really excited about. I like the thought of providing support to people who would otherwise not be able to afford strong legal representation. The legal system is very complex, and I enjoy helping people navigate the system without directing an undue portion of their assets toward legal costs.
- What is the most challenging aspect of being a lawyer?
Having to have an intimate grasp of all of the facts and nuances of a situation that I had nothing to do with when it happened.
- What is the most gratifying aspect of your legal career?
When I am able to help a client achieve a resolution to their legal problem that they are satisfied with. Often the result is a compromise to some extent, but getting the problem to a resolution the client can be happy with, rather than having litigation drag on indefinitely, is a big part of a lawyer’s job in my opinion.
- What is your upcoming “Inside the Legal Mind” speaking tour all about?
Most Canadians do not have time to do the research required to understand the nuances of our justice system. I will be partnering with local lawyers in various Canadian cities to hold events that help people understand important subtleties in the legal world. You will definitely want to attend an event if you are self-represented but there will also be helpful information for those who are working with other lawyers or are simply curious about the inner workings of the legal system.
- What are a few tips that self-litigants should keep in mind as they navigate the justice system?
Take the emotion out of your legal documents, offer your opposition a respectful exit that is fair to both sides before going to trial, which is usually very expensive for both sides, and do your homework on etiquette and prepare a game plan before entering the courtroom. And take notes!