Beth Burke practices products liability, mass tort, and pharmaceutical litigation with Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook & Brickman, LLC in South Carolina. Below, she shares some valuable advice for attorneys looking to get started in mass tort litigation as well as the benefits in becoming involved in local and state trial lawyer associations. She also shares some advice all practicing lawyers need to hear at least once in their lives– on how to sustain a healthy balance between work and life.
Lawyer Minds: Beth, tell me a little bit about your practice.
Beth Burke: I practice products liability and pharmaceutical litigation in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina with Richardson, Patrick, Westbrook & Brickman, LLC. My biggest case that I’m working right now are the combat arms earplugs cases.
Lawyer Minds: How did you start doing plaintiff mass tort work?
Beth Burke: I started out as a law clerk for Ken Suggs in Columbia, South Carolina. Ken is past president of AAJ (American Association for Justice). He has spent most of his career doing complex personal injury cases, products liability, and business litigation. While I was his law clerk we handled the Dow Corning breast implant cases and Fen-Phen cases, both of which were recalled while I was in law school.Those were the first mass tort cases that I ever handled. And I loved it. I loved the science, I loved the medicine, and I loved the law.
After law school, I clerked for a judge and then went back to work for Ken and continued working on product liability cases, both mass tort cases and stand-alone, single event cases. I also handled medical malpractice cases, car wrecks, and premises liability cases. That’s what I’ve continued to do in my career even until now with Richardson Patrick. I love the mass tort work but I also like the single event work as well. It keeps me connected with the South Carolina bar more so than the mass tort work.
Lawyer Minds: It seems like, from an outside perspective, plaintiff mass torts can be a pretty insular club. What would you recommend if someone is interested in getting into plaintiff mass torts? How should they go about it?
Beth Burke: I think a good place to start is always with AAJ education and litigation groups. Pay attention to the news. Pay attention to drug recalls. Pay attention to stories about people who’ve had adverse events related to drugs. If something looks interesting to you, read the published medical literature. Look at the adverse event reports submitted to the FDA.
As far as a mass tort that’s already in process, you’ve got to market for the cases. You would mine your regular referral sources such as lawyers in your community that you share work with and who share work with you. You would mine your existing client base. If you have the budget for it and the inclination, and your staff is adequate, you would do internet, social media, or TV advertising. You can also look to outside vendors to help you with your intakes, medical record retrieval, and even discovery.
The thing about mass torts is it can work financially on a small scale and it can also work financially on a large scale. It’s about what you’re set up to handle as far as staffing and as far as what do you want to do as a lawyer. Do you want to practice all over the country or do you want to practice in the state where you live? Generally, for this kind of a practice to be successful, it’s a national practice.
Lawyer Minds: Some lawyers look at mass torts and think, if I file my cases, they get transferred in the MDL and then I sit around and wait for everybody else to do the work. Has that been your experience?
Beth Burke: Certainly, depending on the size of the MDL and whether or not you’re in leadership, that can happen to cases. You can get bogged down in an MDL. But I think a mistake lawyers can make from a malpractice standpoint, as well as from a financial standpoint, is not staying involved in the case and not staying engaged. Even if you plan to “park” your cases in front of the MDL, you need to, at a minimum, read the case management orders.
You need to know the science so that you can properly vet your cases. If you don’t understand the causation, the general causation, and the specific causation, you’re not going to know whether or not the cases you’ve accepted are going to ultimately be cases that you could take to trial or that would even have any settlement value.
I don’t think you can effectively and efficiently be a mass tort lawyer if your goal is to collect cases and just let them sit and wait for the money to rain down on you. By the time you spend the money on the staff and the medical records working up your cases, if you don’t know what you’ve got, you’re not going to get your money back and you’re not going to make any money.
Lawyer Minds: How would someone who’s not in leadership stay up to date on the causation issues and knowing what the proper screening criteria would be?
Beth Burke: You have to do your own homework. You need to read the literature yourself, but you also need to reach out to leadership. If you’re in an MDL, you’re going to be paying an assessment at the end of the case, and leadership is going to provide you with information to help you. They’re going to guide you. You should be able to sign a protective order and have access to work product and a trial package. Read the depositions of plaintiff and defense experts.
You should seek information from leadership about the kinds of cases the lawyers in leadership are taking. What does their client base look like? What is the injury at issue in the MDL? What preexisting conditions do the clients have or don’t they have? How long did they take the drug? What’s the minimum exposure required for causation? Understand precisely the kinds of injuries that the MDL lawyers who are doing the discovery are doing discovery on. Not every injury that a drug causes may be what is at issue in the MDL.
Lawyer Minds: You’ve got a national practice and you have a large volume of cases. How do you keep a good work-life balance?
Beth Burke: It’s hard sometimes, but most of the time, I’ve been able to do it. I’m very lucky to have one very good child. I’m laughing as I say that. My husband is also a lawyer, which is incredibly helpful to both of us. I support him professionally when he needs it and he certainly does the same for me. We understand sometimes there are things that go on at your office that are more important than what’s going on at home. Sometimes things at home are more important. We step up and help each other out. We have a pretty democratic sharing of the household duties. If you do the cooking, you don’t do the cleaning around our house.
I think it also helps that I enjoy the work so much. I mean, not every day practicing law is a bed of roses. We all know that’s true, whether you do mass torts or real estate closings.
It’s a hard way to make a living. But if you can keep your sense of humor and your perspective it is much easier to enjoy your work and enjoy your clients.
I am also fortunate to have really good staff. I have paralegals who are ethical, intelligent, and hardworking. That goes a long way towards keeping me sane. If things are running well at the office, things are more likely to run well at home, too.
Lawyer Minds: You’re a past president of the Southern Trial Lawyers Association. I’ve interviewed a lot of people about AAJ and the State Trial Lawyers Associations. Tell us how Southern Trial Lawyers differs from AAJ and why someone should be involved in Southern Trial Lawyers.
Beth Burke: I love the Southern Trial Lawyers Association (STLA) but my first love is AAJ. If it weren’t for AAJ, we wouldn’t even have STLA. They are our parent organization and everyone needs to support AAJ. Southern Trial Lawyers is different from AAJ in a lot of ways. Foremost, it’s much smaller. For that reason, I know a larger percentage of the members of STLA than I do with AAJ. STLA feels a lot like family. The tone and pace of our conventions and our meetings is a little different from AAJ’s because we are smaller and we’re not a political organization.
Politics is handled at the national level by AAJ and state level by our TLAs. STLA is strictly about fellowship, friendships, and top quality CLE. I think it’s nice for trial lawyers and for anybody, especially nowadays, to get a break from politics. There’s no political fundraisers at our meetings. There’s no requests for supporting a candidate. We heed our grandmothers’ advice and avoid discussing politics at all, which is a really nice breath of fresh air. What unites us as an organization is our commitment to our clients, our communities, and our profession STLA is an extremely supportive organization, socially and professionally.
We’d like to thank Beth for agreeing to interview with Lawyer Minds and for her insight on mass tort litigation.
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