Beverly Burke: Breaking Down Barriers
When Beverly Burke graduated from George Washington University’s National Law Center in 1978, she faced a legal profession that closed doors in the face of a woman attorney of color. But none of the lawyers who declined to interview her 25 years ago could imagine that Burke would work her way through those barriers to become general counsel of Washington WGL Holdings, Inc.
“Starting out, there appeared to be certain barriers to my obtaining positions in the legal profession,” Burke said. “Many people of color ultimately learn that often rules are more harshly applied to certain groups. For example, my law school had a judicial law clerk committee that bestowed the school’s official blessing on students they deemed worthy. I had not heard of any minorities who successfully made the cut. Therefore, I applied directly to several judges, and was hired by the outstanding African- American female jurist, the Honorable Norma Holloway Johnson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, a relationship I cherish to this day. Thus, while certain doors were closed to me, others opened.”
Ironically, she later served on the Columbia Courts Gender Bias Task Force.
“I was part of a large committee that studied every aspect of how women participated in the court system — from juries, to litigants, to practicing lawyers and judges. It led to many revelations about the treatment of women in the judicial process and biases that were prevalent,” Burke said.
That was 15 years ago, and she readily acknowledges much greater sensitivity toward diversity today.
“Many inroads have been made and people are more careful about how they deal with the differences among people,” Burke said.
Burke grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, and after she graduated from Brown University in Rhode Island, she was uncertain of her future. Although she was interested in her brother’s experiences in law school, Burke thought she needed experience in the workforce, landing a position with the Chase Bank in New York.
“I didn’t have the luxury of attending law school right out of college, simply because it seemed like an alternative to uncertainty,” Burke said. “I put myself on a two-year plan — if near the end of two years, I still was interested in law school, I would go.”
For 12 years, Burke worked in the Office of the Corporation Counsel for the District of Columbia in the areas of civil litigation and appellate advocacy. In 1992, she joined Washington Gas, a subsidiary of Washington WGL Holdings, Inc., where she supervises 39 employees.
“I started out in litigation,” she said, “which allowed me to learn most aspects of the company’s operations. My experiences were broadened and eventually, I was tapped to succeed to the position of general counsel.”
Burke’s responsibilities include legal matters involving labor, employment, litigation, contracts, corporate work, and regulatory work — working with regulatory bodies in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, as well as the federal government. Yet despite all of her professional accomplishments, she feels her greatest accomplishment has been raising two fine sons, one who has already followed in her footsteps to Brown University.
“I have enjoyed being a mother to them more than I ever could have imagined,” Burke said. “I also think that with a supportive husband, I have been able to strike the balance between home and profession. I really enjoy my work.”
Tom Calarco is a freelance writer from Schenectady, N.Y. He is the Author of The Underground Railroad Conductor, which is available for purchase online at www.travelsthruhistory.com/books.htm, and the newly-published The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region.
From the May/June 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®