Originally published in Business Digest, August 1997

An Environment for Law

by Julia Lynam

Lawyers Mike Burak and Jon Anderson have gathered a group of colleagues together in Burlington to build a law firm with a wide range of expertise and a reputation for bringing together the two sides of an issue.

They established their firm, now known as Burak Anderson & Melloni, on St. Paul Street in 1989 and they recently became the first occupants of the new Gateway office block on Battery Street, having moved in on Feb. 18.

The firm does business with a variety of clients both corporate and individual, from banks to property developers to utility companies, and a variety of issues, from the legal ramifications of importing European antiques to the complexities of siting telecommunications towers. The five members of the firm have individual areas of expertise, including utility regulation, environmental issues, real estate law, immigration and financial law. The overiding theme, stressed by founding member Mike Burak, is a consensual approach to law. "There's a 180-degree difference in the way that we practice law here from the work I was doing in New York City before I moved to Vermont," says the 51-year-old marathon runner. "That was wholly adversarial; here we're trying to achieve consensus."

He cites their work with the Vermont Electric Cooperative, a small utility company that recently declared bankruptcy largely due to unfortunate investments in the past, as a prime example. "We've represented VEC for perhaps 10 years now," he says, "through what's probably the biggest bankruptcy the state has ever seen. The plan we produced for them was a consensual plan, and it received enthusiastic approval from the Public Service Board of Vermont just a couple of weeks ago." Indeed, the PSB referred to the plan as "creative, elegantly simple ... just and reasonable."

[photo] (From left) Thomas Melloni, whose name was recently added to the firm's name, Burak Anderson & Melloni PLC, specializes in financial law, while David Hyman is building a high-tech law practice. Founding member Michael Burak stresses a consensual approach to the law. Photo: Jeff Clarke.

VEC President Bob Northrop concurs: "Burak, Anderson and Melloni do a great job of getting people together," he says. "That's one of the reasons VEC enjoys a good relationship with the Public Service Department in Vermont.

"They did a great deal of ingenious legal work to extricate us from power sales contracts that affected a large number of customers. They saved a lot of money for our rate payers and were extremely effective and very creative in dealing with the regulatory agencies in Vermont."

Their non-adversarial approach was important in several ways, Northrop continues. "For example, we originally filed a lawsuit with Seabrook (nuclear power plant) because we felt we had grounds. But at the same time, our lawyers opened the door for negotiation so we were able to reach a settlement without litigation. In the bankruptcy, too, instead of fighting the federal government we readily acceded to the judge's request to work out a consensual order -- largely due to Burak, Anderson and Melloni."

The firm's work with VEC typifies its team approach: "Putting the bankruptcy plan together meant we had to move it through the courts and the administrative agencies and deal with the financial aspects such as bonding issues," says Anderson. "We're also going to have to look at every piece of real estate owned by VEC."

Anderson, 44, is the firm's real estate expert. In addition, his engineering background -- he earned a chemical engineering degree at Worcester Polytech before going to Yale Law School -- is invaluable in analyzing environmental site assessments, where he is able to help clients fully understand the implications of engineers' reports.

"We're a good team," Anderson says, "Because we bring so many different perspectives -- we all have strengths that we bring to the firm."

The third member, Thomas Melloni, specializes in financial law. His work with local banks includes commercial loan transactions and real estate deals, and he takes care of the financial work on the firm's major projects. A native of New York City, Melloni, 38, graduated from UVM and Fordham Law School, subsequently working for Richard Nixon's old Wall Street law firm. He and his wife, Julia, moved to Burlington in 1989 after Burak persuaded him he could "live in a great environment and still have a quality law practice."

Burak, too, preferred Vermont to the Big Apple. Born in England but raised in Winooski, he graduated from UVM and Harvard Law School, then worked as a corporate lawyer in New York City for several years. "But I missed Vermont more when I was in New York than I missed New York when I was in Vermont," he recalls. "I just didn't like the city environment so I considered every place in the country and then took a job as general counsel to the Public Service Board in Montpelier." In 1989 he set up his law firm, inviting Anderson to join him.

Member Brian Sullivan had visited Vermont just once before his Rutland-born wife, Lori, an occupational therapist, persuaded him to make the move. "We mid- westerners don't vacation in the East," he says. He had ventured east for a time, however, to Harvard Law School. Sullivan is deeply involved in environmental law, advising clients on issues around hazardous waste and contamination, and editing Burak Anderson & Melloni's Vermont Environmental Law Forum, a newsletter covering relevant developments at state and federal levels. He also specializes in immigration law, an interest dating from voluntary work undertaken with his first law firm in Chicago. "When they hear I'm practicing immigration law in Vermont, people expect me to be dealing mostly with Canadians, but that's not the case at all," he says. Sullivan's clients come from Peru, France, and even China.

The fifth member of the firm, David Hyman, grew up in Brooklyn. "I've been a commercial litigator and worked in bankruptcy and foreclosure," he says. "But at present I'm developing a high-tech law practice.

"There are a lot of small high-tech companies in this area, often started by people who have been laid off from larger concerns like IBM. I represent customers who are putting together software or hardware and need an attorney familiar with high-tech law to deal with the ins and outs of licensing contracts, royalties, or perhaps misappropriation of trade secrets. My goal is to represent these companies through the whole process from starting up in a garage, to going public."

Hyman finds the firm's team approach can come as a surprise to clients. "We're not just a bunch of lawyers who happen to work in the same office. Because we're a law firm, if my client needs some advice in a field where one of my colleagues is better able to help, I can just take my client to him. We believe in teamwork and to some extent we have to educate our clients that when you hire a lawyer you hire a law firm -- this is not widely realized in Vermont. Lawyers themselves, in this state, are also realizing that it's better to operate as a firm than as a sole practitioner trying to do everything by yourself."

The diverse expertise of the members is currently being applied to the sometimes sticky problems of siting telecommunications towers for a mobile phone network. The client is Bell Atlantic.

"We can manage the legal work for them across the board," says Anderson. "At any one time we are working on about 40 different sites in Vermont. Each siting is unique; these are usually very remote sites and we have many questions to ask. Does access exist? Are there survey issues? Who owns the land? Have we identified the land correctly -- does the description really match the piece of land we think we have?

"We assess the site, looking at environmental issues. Sometimes we find transformers for FAA beacons that were placed on these sites, often remote mountain tops, 40 years ago. These may contain toxic chemicals such as PCBs, so they have to be checked carefully for leakage and contamination." Talking about such projects, Anderson lapses into the pronoun "we," identifying himself with the client. This is typical of his approach: "I'm willing to compromise on almost anything except client service," he declares. "That rises to the level of a religious observation and I begin to think in terms of me being the client."

This kind of dedication shows up in his non- professional life, too. Anderson, who with his wife, Betsy, a former Vermont tax commissioner, runs a bed and breakfast in Montpelier, is founder and chairman of the Montpelier Travel Information Council, dedicated to promoting the attractions of the area. "When I was growing up in Vermont there was a perception that this was a poor state and was always going to be a poor state," he says. "But I think we have a chance to alter that -- and that there are wonderful opportunities ahead for us."