Written by The Business Journal Staff
Leigh W. Burnside
Dowling Aaron Incorporated
Shareholder/Chairperson, Trust & Estate Litigation Department
What we do:
We are a full-service law firm with offices in Fresno, Visalia, and Bakersfield. We were established in 1977 and have been serving the Central Valley for 35 years.
Stanford University, B.A. 1994
Santa Clara University School of Law, J.D. 1997
Children, Madeleine and Alex
What made you want to become an attorney, Leigh?
Several of my family members are attorneys and so I became interested in the law at a young age. I was intrigued by the academic study of the law and applying the legal principles I learned in school to the daily realities of individual clients.
What are your specialties, Leigh?
I focus on trusts and estates that involve difficulties from the perspective of the fiduciary or the heirs. These difficulties range from challenges over the validity of the estate planning documents to the manner in which the estate or trust is being administered and distributed. For example, a trustee or executor may need assistance fending off a challenge from a disgruntled heir or, conversely, a beneficiary may have concerns that an executor or trustee is not administering the estate in the manner required by the governing documents or the law. It’s a unique practice area that encompasses a variety of issues, both legal and factual.
How did you come to be chair of Dowling Aaron’s Trust and Litigation Department, Leigh?
I have been very fortunate to be a member of this firm for nearly 15 years and have worked almost exclusively in the Trust & Estate Litigation Department for approximately 12 of those years. I think my strengths include my ability to stay organized, on top of deadlines and to plan ahead, and to help the other members of the department do the same. Becoming the chair was therefore a natural fit.
In regards to estate planning, in what ways do family relationships complicate the process and how do you work through that, Leigh?
Family relationships are what drive my practice. Too often, people presume that everyone in the family will get along after an individual has died. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Family relationships also tend to intensify a dispute because the parties are dealing with not only the loss of a loved one but with feelings of betrayal or anger when a family member whom they once trusted is now sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom.
Do you find yourself working more in the area of transactional law or the litigation side? Is one more difficult than the other, Leigh?
I work primarily on the litigation side. Transactional and litigation practices each pose its own unique difficulties. I find that litigation fits my personality better. I like being in the courtroom and arguing on behalf of my clients. I also enjoy the process of persuasive writing and advocacy.
What do you like most about your job, Leigh?
What makes my job fun and interesting is my interactions with the people that I work with—my co-workers, clients, other attorneys and judges. I also like that each case has its own set of unique facts and personalities. Some time ago, I worked on a case where we represented co-trustees who were defending a challenge by one of the decedent’s sons. The son believed that his father’s estate plan, which benefited a number of animal rights organizations instead of his four children, was invalid because the father had allegedly believed that he was a vampire and needed to leave his money to animal organizations in order to save his soul from eternal damnation. Our clients prevailed in the litigation, but it was very interesting. I learned quite a bit about Dracula.
What are some challenges in your specialty and how do you overcome them, Leigh?
The single most difficult challenge is the level of emotion involved in a family dispute. These types of cases often include siblings arguing with each other, resurrected childhood grievances, and a lot of hurt feelings. These emotions can easily cloud a party’s view of the case and when that happens, part of my job is to try and help mend the broken family relationship or, if that is not possible, to try and re-direct the client’s focus to the practical issues.
How has technology changed the legal profession since you became a lawyer in 1997, Leigh?
When I first started practicing law, we had a DOS operating system at the office and no Internet. However, as helpful as technology has become in making everything much faster and more efficient, that also means that people now want tasks completed instantaneously and expect to be able to reach you at all hours. That can make the work-life balance difficult to maintain at times.
What three words best describe you?
Patient, hard-working, and dedicated.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
I spent a summer making sandwiches at a Subway restaurant near my home. My hands smelled like onions for three months. The toughest lesson that I learned was that the customer is always right, even when he’s not.
What are your roots in the San Joaquin Valley, Leigh?
My family moved here from the Bay Area when I was six years old. I graduated from Bullard High School, went away to school and then moved back to Fresno after law school.
What do you do in your spare time, Leigh?
Soccer, soccer and more soccer. I grew up playing soccer and have coached both competitive and recreational soccer teams since 1997. I’m currently the president of one of the largest local competitive soccer clubs, Central California Soccer Alliance, and have been a member of the Board of Directors of the Fig Garden Youth Soccer League for several years.