In Your Court

This light-hearted partnership works

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

collins0613John Collins (center), Kathleen McMahon, and Michael Harris have blended their deep friendship and diverse backgrounds into a well-oiled legal firm, Collins, McMahon & Harris PLLC. Its home is a stately, 1884 Queen Anne–style residence on Burlington’s Main Street.

John Collins, of the Burlington law firm Collins, McMahon & Harris, tells about a moment early in his career when he was up against Bob Rachlin, a founder of Vermont’s largest law firm, Downs Rachlin Martin, in a big case. “He’s got all his paralegals transcribing, against just me. We had a bench conference, went up, and I had an objection. I told the judge what my objection was, Rachlin responded, and the judge said, ‘I agree with Mr. Collins.’ And I said, ‘Really?’” He pauses a moment to chuckle. “Bob Rachlin is a very good lawyer, very gracious, and he complimented me at the end of the trial, which I never forgot.”

Collins has a collection of stories like this, and most of them express, spoken or unspoken, his continual joy at being a lawyer. It’s catching.

“I come from a family of coal miners from Wilkes Barre, Pa., but grew up in New Jersey,” Collins says.” His mother was one of 11 children, his grandfather died of black lung disease, and his grandmother was struck by lightning and killed, leaving his aunt to raise his mother and her siblings. “Most of my relatives were blue collar workers.”

His father was an airplane mechanic in the Marines during World War II. After the war, he earned a master’s degree in physics on the GI Bill from Upsala College and became an electrical engineer and tube designer for RCA. “In the 1960s, integrated circuits were coming out,” says Collins, “and my dad said, ‘That’ll take forever,’ and stuck with tubes.” His dad lost his job the year Collins started college as an economics major at Rutgers with a minor in art history.

This required Collins to take a job sweeping floors and cleaning toilets at Rutgers to help support his studies. He also worked in media services delivering projectors to classrooms, worked construction, and drove for UPS.

Studying law was not even in his imagination until he met a woman from a fairly wealthy family. “Our last year in college, her father said to me, ‘If you have any interest in marrying my daughter, you’ll have to get an MBA or go to law school.’ I said, ‘Really?’

“I have no regrets,” Collins continues, “because his suggestion ended up being a great career. I have to thank him, even though I didn’t marry his daughter.”

He followed his girlfriend to California when she transferred to UCLA. He applied to law schools — “I couldn’t afford USC so I went to Loyola,” he says. “I did better than anticipated and ended up on law review and in the top 10 percent of my class.”

Collins had offers from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York firms approaching $60,000 a year, “but I had skied in Vermont in high school and camped as a Boy Scout in the Adirondacks, so didn’t want to do the big city thing.” He applied to firms in Vermont and New Hampshire and accepted a job at Paul, Frank & Collins paying $20,000.

He laughs. “I think I owed $40,000 in student loans, and my father said, ‘What! Are you crazy?’”

He stayed with Paul, Frank & Collins about five years and was offered a partnership. “It was a great firm and a great learning experience,” he says, “but I wanted to see how working on my own felt.” He had an opportunity to join Paul Sutherland, who had work for UVM, Trinity College, and the Vermont State Colleges, which interested him.

This was in 1987 or ’88, he says. It was a bit risky, because he was newly married with a young baby. “It turned out to be a great move,” he says.

By 1990, the practice was growing, and Sutherland and Collins invited Kathleen McMahon to join them.

McMahon and Collins’ backgrounds couldn’t be more different. “The law is in my blood,” she says. “My grandfather was a judge; my great-uncle, uncle, and father were attorneys. The family joke is that I wanted to follow in my Uncle John’s footsteps. He worked three to four days a week in Syracuse and drove to his lodge in Waitsfield to ski every weekend.”

A Syracuse, N.Y., native, McMahon studied psychology at St. Lawrence University. She was accepted for law school at Syracuse University, where her whole family had studied law. Following graduation in 1981, she worked for a year with a Rochester, N.Y., firm. In 1983, she and her then husband — they married after her first semester of law school — moved to Vermont, which seemed to have all the qualities of her ideal place to live.

“I thought, ‘This is great: I ski, I sail, I hike, I run. We moved up here without jobs.” Eventually, all four of her sisters would move to Vermont, followed by their mother.

McMahon soon accepted an offer from the firm of Perry & Schmucker on Williston Road. “I worked there three years, then I had about three years with Ward & Associates, and then I was here.”

The third partner, Michael Harris, joined the firm in 1993. He and Collins had met at Paul, Frank & Collins when Harris was there on a summer clerkship.

Harris’ trail to Vermont was also laced with a love of the outdoors. Born in Endicott, N.Y., he moved with his family to Katonah, N.Y., in Westchester County, when he was 8. “My dad was an IBM-er,” he says. “We lived there until I started college at age 18, and he got transferred to Atlanta. They’ve been down there ever since.”

Harris had applied to schools in the Northeast, and he chose Middlebury. “I liked the school and the setting — I did a lot of biking and running.”

His major was biology, with “a sort of informal minor in art history,” he says. “I was more of a science and math nerd in high school, but I also appreciate the liberal arts approach of a school like Middlebury.”

After graduating, he moved to Burlington and worked for a while as a retail clerk at what eventually became Climb High, and at Bard Home Decorating. After being turned down in several attempts to land a research job at UVM, he noticed that a college friend interested in planning received a job offer after volunteering for the city of Winooski.

“So I went up to the College of Medicine and said, ‘I’d like to volunteer.’” After three weeks, he was introduced to a researcher who was applying for a grant and hired him as a researcher in the biochemistry department.

Harris worked there two years, but found the work slow-moving and too removed from “people with everyday problems.” Taking advantage of UVM’s tuition benefits, he took 28 credits in various disciplines. A couple of business law courses led him to consider law as a career. “At the same time, I met Laura, the woman who is now my wife,” he says. Of the three partners, he is the only one still married.

They had a three-month honeymoon hiking and biking, during which time the law school returns came in. He chose the University of Wisconsin, “so we finished the bike tour in Madison for law school.” It was between his second and third year that he met Collins.

Upon graduation in 1986, he was offered a job as a law clerk for the late federal Judge Albert Coffrin. In ’87, he was hired as an associate at Paul, Frank & Collins, and a couple of years later, he joined Sutherland, Collins, and McMahon.

“Kathy and Mike became partners pretty quickly,” says Collins. “The thought was to get people you like and trust and can work well with.” McMahon’s practice area is real estate and corporate representation. Harris’s specialty is civil litigation in various areas, plus business transactions, and real estate.

Sutherland moved to Massachusetts in the mid 1990s. By then, the partners had bought the historic, three-story Queen Anne–style building at 308 Main St. in Burlington from the late Bob Eastman, who had practiced there for years. Except for one ground-floor office leased to attorney Leigh Phillips, the firm uses the entire building.

Collins’ enthusiasm for his work is almost palpable as he mentions a case he particularly enjoyed involving the right-of-way to a lighthouse — Vermont’s northernmost — on Windmill Point peninsula in Alburgh. The client was an upstate New York man in his 80s named Lucky Clark and his wife, Claire, who bought the lighthouse in the late 1940s, followed by a second one in Isle La Motte.

“About 40 years ago, a developer came along and wanted to develop that whole peninsula,” says Rob Clark, Lucky’s son. “He said to my dad that he couldn’t go out there unless he wanted to buy a right-of-way.”

In 1974, the Vermont Supreme Court found in the Clarks’ favor, and in 2002, says Clark, “we were the first to relight the lighthouses on the lake.” A year and a half later, the homeowners again challenged the original right-of-way, and the Clarks hired Collins to represent them. The case again reached the Supreme Court, which again found in the Clarks’ favor. “It was 10 days after my dad passed away in 2009 at the age of 92,” says Clark. He never did hear the final outcome of the decision.”

Collins’ practice area includes commercial real estate, permitting, and litigation. “We do a lot of work still for UVM,” he says, “also for clients like Dealer.com, The Essex, and the shopping center out there, and have done work for Phish and the people in the band.”

Francine Bazluke, vice president and general counsel at UVM, met Collins when they both worked at Paul Frank & Collins. “John is almost a utility person for us,” she says. “In addition to real estate–related matters, such as zoning and permits and purchases and leases, he has been involved in work on unusual deals, such as the Colchester Research Park. He’s also extremely adept at dealing with difficult interpersonal situations, for example when we need a calm person with the utmost integrity who could be a peacemaker among factions.”

Collins has a passion for reaching out to those in need. A snowboarder himself (“They call us ‘grays on trays,’” he says with a laugh), he is devoted to the Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports program, which empowers people with disabilities to participate in sports and recreation.

“I also work with kids with cancer, and my kids do, as well. I didn’t grow up with a lot, but I’ve been fortunate, and I want to give back. I worked with a couple of friends who helped get a pediatric clinic set up in Uganda.” This is his modest way of mentioning Touch Uganda, an organization he helped found.

The firm’s 10 employees include a team of paralegals and Tamara Chase, Of Counsel, who practices in the area of family law and mediation. “Jessica Ebert, a lawyer who recently left to work with her husband, Peter Edelmann, at Hammer Fit in Essex, will come back at some point,” says Collins.

The partners have mused over the years about bringing on other partners, but their current arrangement works so well, they’ve resisted. “It’s easy to make decisions together,” says Harris. “We trust and respect each other.”

“We have been together for so long, and we really have had no major issues,” McMahon echoes. “It is fabulous.”