Alum Richard Burbidge shares his path to trial law and youth restorative justice

May 08, 2024 | Alumni

by Lindsay Wilcox

Suzanne, left, and Richard Burbidge, a white woman with short dark-brown hair and older white man with grey hair standing on a ship with the ocean in the backgroundThis article originally appeared in the winter 2024 issue of  Res Gestae.

When Richard Burbidge graduated from Utah Law in 1972, he was excited to begin practicing with a large defense firm in Los Angeles, California, hoping to develop the skills he needed to become a trial lawyer.

“Within about six months of passing the bar and starting work at the firm, I found myself second-seating a complex commercial trial in federal court. That was exciting in and of itself, but it was made more so by the fact that the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon Papers trial was across the hall and the Smothers Brothers v. CBS trial was upstairs,” Burbidge recalls. “I felt like a kid in a candy store.”

Though Burbidge found the experience invaluable, he says it soon became clear that the firm and his mentor were not going offer him the experience and guidance he sought. He recalled his time working as a clerk in Las Vegas the summer between his junior and senior years of law school with two lawyers who had branched out on their own but retained, as co-counsel, the Las Vegas firm.

“That experience left a lasting impression. The two lawyers knew what they were doing, worked collegially, and with virtually no interference from the bureaucracy that attended the large firm in Los Angeles. I began to realize that the ‘big firm’ experience was not what I wanted,” Burbidge says.

Returning to Salt Lake City

After a few years of work in Los Angeles, Burbidge began looking for a position in a plaintiff antitrust law firm, an interest he credits to late Utah Law Professor John Flynn. A law school classmate convinced him to return to Salt Lake City to practice, where he worked for a couple years with attorneys Dan Berman and Richard Giauque before starting his own trial law firm with Steve Mitchell in 1977.

“We operated for the next several decades on the basis of a handshake. Our firm tried a lot of cases, had a lot of success, and I truly knew I had found my role in the practice of law,” Burbidge says. “The most rewarding part of our careers was taking very complex cases, representing folks who had suffered severe physical injury or had been taken advantage of commercially. There is simply nothing more rewarding than taking complex cases against big firms, in which you are offered zero, and bringing in large jury verdicts that change the lives of your clients. In one particular series of back-to-back trials, our team tried six or seven cases to verdict (with no offers of settlement) and recovered over $65 million for our clients.”

Because Burbidge had experience working for a large law firm, he says he did not want his new firm to become one.

“Our goal was to stay small and effective, take on all comers, and play in the big leagues. We accomplished that in spades and have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, a very successful practice,” he says.

When the late John Morris, University of Utah vice president and general counsel, invited Burbidge to serve as an adjunct professor in the College of Law’s trial advocacy program, he jumped at the chance.

“While I expected my law school involvement would end with my graduation, happily it did not. Not only did I have fun, but we really did some good for young, talented law students who wanted to be trial lawyers,” Burbidge says. “The program took them through every facet of the trial process, culminating in a simulated jury trial. It has continued to this day and greatly enhances the law school experience.”

Spreading the word about youth restorative justice

Burbidge met and married his wife, Suzanne, a few years after starting his Salt Lake City practice, and he and Suzanne fell in love with the International Academy of Trial Lawyers. In 2016, Burbidge became president and Suzanne became first lady of the academy, which he says afforded them important opportunities to learn about and contribute to the community. During an academy meeting in Deer Valley, Burbidge’s friend, Eva Marszewski, gave a presentation about a youth restorative justice program she had organized in Toronto.

“Eva’s speech laid out a private program by which she enlisted volunteers from the community to provide an alternative pathway for juveniles who had run afoul of the law. Eva had discovered that by interceding for kids early and putting them in a community context in which they could take responsibility for their conduct, see the error of their ways, and make amends to the society, those kids’ lives could be turned around without the scar and stigma of a criminal conviction,” Burbidge recalls. “As Eva spoke, I turned to Geralyn Dreyfous, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who happened to also be presenting at the meeting. I asked, ‘Isn’t this a film?’ Geralyn replied, ‘Yes, it is, and you need to make it.‘”

These words of encouragement, along with Eva’s speech, had a great impact on Burbidge and Suzanne, who decided to serve as executive producers of a youth restorative justice documentary about a program in King County, Washington. They worked with Dreyfous, New York producer Mikaela Beardsley, and San Francisco filmmaker Eric Metzgar—along with restorative justice luminaries in Seattle—to produce A Once and Future Peace.

“The film premiered in Toronto at the Hot Docs Film Festival and in New York at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, winning ‘Best Documentary’ at the Global Non-Violent International Film Festival and ‘Spotlight on Inspiration Documentary Award’ at the St. Louis International Film Festival,” Burbidge says. “We have licensed portions of the film in the U.S. for use by the National Center on Restorative Justice. To our great joy, we have seen the film inspire a number of programs, including in Ventura County, California, and now in Salt Lake County. We will start a youth restorative justice program this year with Sim Gill, the Salt Lake County district attorney. Suzanne and I have become devoted to the cause and hope it will be one of the most significant contributions we make to our community and our society at large.”

Growing a supportive family and law practice

Though Burbidge has many career highlights he says were humbling—being inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers, the American Board of Trial Advocates, the International Society of Barristers, and the International Academy of Trial Lawyers—he also makes time for his large family and currently practices with son Beau at Burbidge Mitchell.

“Suzanne had three amazing young boys, with whom I immediately bonded. Sue and I had two more boys and adopted a boy, and a girl, and a foster son,” Burbidge says. “Suzanne, to my great fortune, was an amazing mother and also eagerly supported my legal practice. In instances where I had long trials, I made sure that [my family was] part of it, explained what I was doing, and inspired them to participate vicariously in the trial of the case. It is interesting, because even now they will remind me of cases that we tried and with respect to which I had told them stories.”

Burbidge continues to support the S.J. Quinney College of Law as a donor (most recently sponsoring the Great Salt Lake Project) and as a mentor.

“We had the good fortune of hiring a young law student from the S.J. Quinney College of Law, Carolyn LeDuc. She turned out to be a brilliant clerk, associate, and now a partner. We have recruited two very talented lawyers from the S.J. Quinney College of Law, Mike Henderson and Clancey Henderson,” Burbidge says. “Together with our support staff, these lawyers make up the strongest team Suzanne and I have ever been a part of. In just the last two years, we have recovered more than $60 million for our clients.”

Despite colleagues frequently reminding Burbidge that he has been practicing law for a while (more than 50 years), he says he has “no ambition to give up my ambitions.”

“Recently, I received the honor of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Utah State Bar. In that acceptance speech, I made it clear that the career accomplishments were not about me. They were about the incredible partners, associates, and staff with whom I have worked,” Burbidge expresses. “While it is true that I have worked hard, at the end of the day, I must look back and say I have been very fortunate, both personally and professionally. I was fortunate to study at the University of Utah law school, to be exposed to some of the finest law professors that occupied that space, to have enjoyed active practice in California and Utah with some of the best lawyers that practice in this country, and to do what I love with people I really care about.”