Paperless and portable: High-flying Ann Arbor attorney happy to go green


– Photo by Jo Mathis

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

One of the first things Kelly Burris did when she moved into her spacious office at Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione in Ann Arbor was get rid of the printer.

Instead of dealing with paper files, briefs and notes, all data is electronic.

She has secure Web portals for all her clients and keeps all their files on-line so both parties have 24-hour access to all files.

“If I want to remember something, I don’t have to put it on a Post-it note,” said Burris, who was recently named chair of the firm’s Green Technology Group.

Then nodding toward her iPhone, she added: “Siri reminds me.”

Paperless suits Burris’ green streak. And because her work is so contained and portable, it allows her to pursue a longtime passion of flying. In fact, she’s considering flying her Beechcraft 33 Debonair to
Florida for a month, where she won’t miss a beat on the job.

“Why shouldn’t I work down there for the month?” asks Burris, a telecommuting supporter who walks a few blocks to her Main Street office from her condominium in Liberty Lofts. “No problem. I don’t have any papers I’m tied to. I love my gadgets and toys, and it fits in well with this career field.”

Burris is a shareholder with the Ann Arbor office of Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione, one of the largest intellectual property law firms in the U.S.

In 2010, she was one of 20 female attorneys in the state of Michigan to receive a “Women in the Law” award from Michigan Lawyers Weekly, which recognized her success with intellectual property protection for the firm’s international clients, the creation of an electronic filing system that has been implemented in the Ann Arbor office; and her long-time volunteerism and fundraising for Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic and Angel Flight Central.

Last month, she had a blast flying Bob Lutz’s private jet, and hopes to become his wingman more often. How often does she get to fly?

“Not enough,” she said.

Most of her flying is for business, and she thinks nothing of making a 2.5-hour flight to St. Louis to meet with a client.

Whenever she flies, she tries to give a lift to someone going in her direction who is registered with Angel Flight.

Most patients are cancer patients or have a chronic condition and need to get to a facility for medical care, yet are unable to fly commercially.

All patients have a financial need for the service.

Since 2008, Burris has raised more than $65,000 for Angel Flight, largely through her participation in the Air Race Classic, an all-female aviation contest.

She won the Air Race Classic in 2009 and raced again in 2010. In 2009, she won the “Unsung Hero Award” from the State Bar of Michigan for her efforts with Angel Flight.

“Every flight for me is a pleasure flight,” said Burris, who has flown 1,200 solo hours. “It’s just a matter of why I’m going where I’m going.”

Her job involves lots of travel, and her favorite country is Austria, where she loves  hiking and backpacking in the Alps. Her favorite city is Salzburg.

But as much as she loves it there, she’d never move that far from her family in Michigan.

She grew up in Berkley and Howell, and earned her degree in aeronautical engineering from Western Michigan University.

Then she landed a dream job designing airplanes at McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.

“I couldn’t get down there fast enough to work on those jets,” said Burris, who went on to get her master’s degree in materials science and engineering from Washington University.

While working on some new designs for the company, she worked with a patent attorney, and thought: “This is pretty cool.”

Around the same time, President Bill Clinton made defense cuts that adversely affected McDonnell Douglas’ business.

“I thought, `I should probably have a back-up plan,” she said.

She decided to go to St. Louis University Law School at night while working fulltime, thinking she could become a patent attorney involved with new technologies.

She graduated about the time Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas, and work became “not fun.”

“I tried the law thing and it’s been great,” she said. “You can draw a picture of what you want your career to look like, and you can make it happen. As long as you’re taking care of your clients and you’re billing your hours, and helping grow your practice and your colleagues’ practice and you’re really being part of the team, the sky’s the limit. No pun intended.”

On a typical day — if there is one — she wakes up early and works with patent attorneys and clients in Europe for a couple of hours before making the six-minute walk to her office.
Later at night, she’ll work with Asian clients, who are just beginning their days.

She figures she works up to 80 hours a week, which includes billed and not billed hours, networking, trying to bring in more business, attending work-related events, and writing a book, “Design Patent Law.”
“I don’t know why I signed up for that,” she said with a smile, noting the time commitment to the book. But she’s having no second thoughts about helping her firm take alternative energy initiatives, and is eager to identify new ways to go green, such as getting all buildings LEED-certified, and decreasing the number of offices so more employees can work more often from home, reducing their carbon footprint.

“Green technology is not a fad; it’s not going to come and go,” she said.

“I’m always looking for adventures in my career and in my life,” she said. “It’s really cool when you can combine things you love to do with your work, such as how I can take my plane to go visit clients. Now I’ll identify some cool green tech stuff we’re going to get involved in, and try to integrate that in my practice.”

As much as she loves change, she knows she’ll be taking Angel Flights for quite a while.

“It feeds me,” she said. “It feeds my passion, it feeds me energy. You can choose experiences that feed you energy, or you can choose experiences that suck your energy away.”

“I try to choose life experiences that feed me energy.”

At the same time, she steers clear of negative people and those who can’t see outside the box.

Negative people are no fun, she said, because they shut her down and make her less creative.

“I’m 46 years old and my mom and dad gave me a model airplane for Christmas,” she said, holding the boxed gift she has yet to assemble.

And does she love it?

“I do!” she said. “It’s a really cool plane.”