High-profile Oakland attorney John Burris suspended

Oakland attorney John L. Burris [#69888], well-known for handling high-profile cases, was suspended from practicing law for 30 days by the California Supreme Court. Burris, 51, stipulated to misconduct which included sending mailers to disaster victims without calling them advertisements, bouncing a check, commingling personal and client funds, and allowing the statute of limitations to expire before filing lawsuits in two cases. The suspension took effect Sept. 21. Burris also was placed on one year of probation and was ordered to take the MPRE within one year.

Burris admitted that in the summer of 1992, his office sent mailers to victims of three disasters in Louisiana, Minnesota and Richmond, Calif.

At the time, associates in his office suggested that he expand his practice by representing plaintiffs in such cases.

The packets included contingency fee agreements and client questionnaires requesting information about minors in the family.

None of the material in the mailings was marked as an "advertisement," "newsletter" or similar designation, as required by advertising regulations spelled out in the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Burris communicated with potential clients "in a way that tended to confuse the public," bar documents state.

He also violated the rules by failing to indicate that the communication "was seeking professional employment in which the significant motive was pecuniary gain."

Burris' violations of the advertising rules stemmed primarily from his failure to properly supervise his employees, according to the stipulation.

He has taken training both for himself and his staff and now supervises his staff more closely in handling mass disaster cases.

In addition to the advertising problems, Burris bounced a check for $8,651 to another attorney representing a former client with whom Burris had a fee dispute. The check was resubmitted several times without being honored before Burris paid the full amount with a cashier's check.

He also "recklessly failed to perform legal services with competence" in two other client matters.

In the first, he was retained to represent a client who was involved in an automobile accident. He did not file a complaint within the required time. He did not tell his client until 15 months after the statute of limitations had run that the filing period had lapsed, and then settled with her but did not advise her to seek independent legal advice.

In the second matter, Burris failed to file a lawsuit in a train derailment case and again settled with his clients without advising them to seek outside counsel.

He also stipulated that he commingled his funds with those of his clients.

Burris' problems mark the first time he has been disciplined since his admission to the bar in 1976. His clients were not harmed significantly and he has recognized his wrongdoing by taking steps to change the materials he mails to potential clients and to stop the commingling of funds. Door-to-door distribution of handouts was discontinued in 1993.

The stipulation notes that Burris does extensive pro bono legal and community work and has received numerous awards, including a proclamation of June 23, 1994, as "John Burris Day" in Oakland.

Prior to opening his law firm in 1985, Burris had no management experience. He was a prosecutor in Illinois and Alameda County before becoming a partner in a small firm.

As his practice grew, "his law office management drifted out of control," according to bar papers. "His (discipline) problems for the most part stem from a failure to supervise staff or the failure to properly manage the office."