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PRACTICE BUILT ON PRINCIPLES

After 30 Years, Alton Burkhalter Still Can’t Believe He Gets Paid to Do What He Loves

Any attorney who has been opposing counsel facing Alton Burkhalter will attest that mistaking his politeness for weakness is a big mistake. A business litigator for three decades, Burkhalter has tried more than 30 cases before a jury, and has yet to lose a jury verdict. Still, his demeanor is far from that of a cut-throat business litigator. Instead, he prefers to focus on civility, to ensure that he goes to bed and sleeps easy, knowing that he has worked hard, and won cases the right way for his clients.

Indeed, Burkhalter is noticeably affable with an easy laugh, impeccable manners, and a knack for poking fun at himself. In fact, he’s the first to admit that he wasn’t so sure that he “believed he could become an attorney,” he says. Yet he’s been AV Preeminent rated for years, with multiple 7- and 8-figure Jury Trial and Verdict awards along with being named a Super Lawyer each year since 2007. But make no mistake, the success he has achieved as founding partner of Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George, LLP is the result of practicing law on his terms.

SOUTHERN ACCOUNTANT BECOMES A CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY
“Nobody in our family had ever graduated from college, much less attend law school,” says Burkhalter. “I lived in a small town in northwest Louisiana, which was not exactly the best place to think of starting a law career,” he adds candidly. Continuing, he admits to being “sick and tired” of college, and thus finished his Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting in less than 4 years. He went on to pass the CPA exam on his first attempt and began working as an accountant right out of college. “I was excited to be making money as a CPA. I was making more money than I think my dad ever had,” he adds. However, his fascination with Perry Mason had never quite gone away and Burkhalter says that even though he had a good job, he still had the desire to become a lawyer. He just wasn’t so sure he could do it.

All the same, since his wife had family in California and she had attended camp at Pepperdine University when she was younger, Burkhalter looked into their law school. When the materials arrived, he says the stunning images of the chapel, the hills and the Pacific Ocean were all it took for him to apply. A few years later he graduated Magna Cum Laude, and was admitted to the California Bar in 1985.

Soon after, Burkhalter recalls what would become a transformative moment in his career which would shape and guide his business philosophy to this day. “As a young associate, I was reviewing boxes of documents for a real estate partnership dispute. I found a notice my client contended he had never received. I called it to my supervisor’s attention, who told me I knew what to do with it. I went home and discussed it with my wife. I did not want to be involved in a case or in a law firm where we needed to destroy evidence in order to win. So, I decided to confront him, but I told him that I thought he was among the best, if not the best trial lawyer I had ever seen. I could not believe that he felt he could not win the case merely because of this piece of evidence and I suggested some ways that the evidence could be produced and still preserve our case. He looked at me for a long time and told me to produce it. It made the case tough but he won the trial,” Burkhalter says.

From that moment on, Burkhalter knew exactly the type of law he wanted to practice and what kind of attorney he would be. He continued to work tirelessly, trying case after case for the next decade to enormous success. Then, 10 years into his career, it seemed things were spinning out of Burkhalter’s control.
“My partner wanted to retire, and my ex-wife was moving to Texas with my kids. I thought about what I wanted to do, sold everything off, and moved to Sedona, Arizona. I grew a beard, did a lot of mountain biking, hiking, and camping,” he says. Though he didn’t know exactly what the future would hold, he was admitted to the Arizona Bar, and says that he used the yearlong sabbatical to really think about what he wanted for the future.

“I decided I was going to open my own practice, so that I could have control over the clients I worked with. I didn’t want to work for big corporations or insurance companies. I wanted to help clients build and protect their businesses, and I wanted to practice law on my terms,” he says.
Thus he returned to Southern California, a happier, more focused attorney. “I would encourage anyone to take time off if they can. Taking a pause mid-career was great for me. I walked away, and I came back focused, and happy, and I believe it made me a better lawyer.” By 1996, he launched what would eventually grow to become Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George, LLP.

21

PRACTICE BUILT ON PRINCIPLES
When Burkhalter returned to Orange County, he delved right back into the legal community. “I built my book of business with relationship building away from the office, at night and on weekends. I believe that breakfasts and lunches are good ways to maintain existing relationships, but to build relationships you need to do things on a more personal level and that means investing your personal time,” he says.

Moreover, he had decided to stay away from unnecessary animosity with opposing counsel. “I’m not going to deliver an Ex Parte on Friday afternoon. I don’t want to win anything by doing something wrong. I’m not willing to compromise my ethics. As an attorney I can walk into a heavily emotionally charged situation and I can make it worse, or make it better. I can win by trying to hide evidence, or I can face it and resolve it. I’m not willing to compromise my own karma,” he says sincerely.
The decision to practice law on his own terms paid off, and Burkhalter loved his work more than ever. “I love the complexities and challenges of business law, and in representing small businesses, I get to work directly with business owners. It is very gratifying to be able to help them,” he says.
Although 90% of Burkhalter’s practice is litigation, he does a moderate amount of consulting for clients including real estate developers, software developers, retailers, doctors, importers, etc. “If someone has a business, I’ve probably got experience in that industry,” he quips.
To that end, clients who work with Burkhalter know just how valuable his skills are, and thus tend to remain clients for years. Such was the case with Tower Investments, who contacted Burkhalter in 2010 requesting his help in Tennessee.

“My client had just received a bad result in a ‘jury of view’ proceeding. While they had the right to a ‘do-over’ in the form of a de novo jury trial, the real question was, could anybody win their case? They already had a competent legal team consisting of some of the finest lawyers in Tennessee, so I proposed they use me to conduct a mock jury event. I tried the matter, and got a favorable result, so they asked me to try the case for them in court. At issue was how much the city of Nashville was required to pay Tower because they had taken Tower’s land in a condemnation proceeding in order to build a new Convention Center. The City believed the land was worth $14.8 million, which was what my client had paid for it prior to the start of the recession,” he says.
Reminiscent of a John Grisham novel, the case was wrought with twists and turns and nepotism galore, but when all was said and done, the jury deliberated a mere 6 hours before unanimously returning a verdict of $30.4 Million in favor of Burkhalter’s client. Incidentally, Burkhalter was paid hourly in that case, as he is in most of the cases he tries, but he says it didn’t make the victory any less satisfying.

As far as trial talents are concerned, Burkhalter admits to having a near photographic memory when it comes to being able to “pull up the details amongst the minutiae.” He also says that he has a “high confidence that his theory of the case is right,” in the cases he takes, but the primary reason he says he has never lost a trial is simply because “I give each trial my best effort.”

20

A FIRM FOUNDATION FOR THE FUTURE
Today, Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George LLP is widely regarded as one of the most reputable business litigation firms in Southern California. Burkhalter says that growing the firm just for growth’s sake isn’t a priority, but is something that will likely happen organically. “We intend to grow through our existing associates. We are focused on giving them the tools and support they need to grow their books of business,” he says.

However, he does insist that all those who become partners are seasoned in business development. “There are darn good attorneys, but that’s not all that is necessary. They need to be strong in developing business as well. My partners have all built up nice practices, and books of business,” he says.
As for his future in the world of business law and business litigation? Burkhalter says that he intends to continue practicing as long as he can—so that he can go out on top. “I’ve told my partners to watch me and if it looks like I’m starting to lose a step, then it’s time for me to be done,” he jokes. “But as long as I’m continuing to do good work, I will continue providing service. That’s what I do, I’m in the service business.”

Outside of the office, Burkhalter remains a country boy at heart. Residing in an unincorporated area in Orange County, he says that he is outside whenever he is not working. “I have a wood fired pizza oven in my back yard—pizza is my hobby. I also bicycle both road and mountain bike. Later this year I’ll be tackling the 3 State 3 Mountain Challenge in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is a road bike course of 105 miles through Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama,” he says.

Burkhalter also enjoys traveling with his family, whenever possible. “My wife Erika is an accomplished yoga instructor, so I do a lot of yoga and yoga-related travel, including 8 trips to India. We also love food and wine, so many of our trips are to wine regions such as Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux as well as places like South Africa and upstate New York,” he says.
In reflecting on his career over the past 30 years, and thinking about the future, Burkhalter says that “I think you have to follow your passion. I did and I still can’t believe I get paid to do what I love to do.”

19c» EDUCATION

  • Pepperdine University School of Law, Malibu, California
    • Honors: magna cum laude
    • Honors: Ranked Fifth in his Law School Class
  • Northwestern State University, Natchitoches, Louisiana
    • B.S. cum laude
    • Major: Accounting
  • Certified Public Accountant (inactive) licensed in Louisiana

» BAR ADMISSIONS

  • California, 1985
  • Arizona, 1995

» HONORS AND AWARDS

  • AV Preeminent by Martindale-Hubbell
  • Southern California Super Lawyer for Business Litigation, 2007—2015
  • 3 "8 Figure" Jury Trial Awards
  • Multiple additional "7 Figure" Verdicts

Contact:
Alton Burkhalter
Burkhalter Kessler Clement & George, LLP
aburkhalter@bkcglaw.com
www.bkcglaw.com
949-975-7500
2020 Main Street, Suite 600
Irvine, CA 92614

 

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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