A Quiet Legal Giant: LAW’s Robert Burdick
As director of the Civil Litigation & Justice Program for more than 40 years, Burdick touched thousands of lives
Robert Burdick (LAW’72), a School of Law clinical professor who directed the Civil Litigation & Justice Program for more than 40 years, died on June 18, 2020. He was 73.
A dedicated teacher, mentor, attorney, and friend, Burdick touched the lives of thousands of people, from his students and colleagues to the many clients helped by the Civil Litigation & Justice Program. His careful guidance of the clinical programs, long tenure on the JD admissions committee, and support for numerous initiatives for alumni have had an enormous influence on the LAW community.
David Seipp, a LAW professor who served with Burdick on the admissions committee, recalls his “compassionate concern for every applicant and his particular advocacy for applicants who had volunteered for public interest and access to justice projects.”
“He was a humble, quiet giant among us,” Seipp adds.
Under Burdick’s leadership, the Civil Litigation & Justice Program became a model of clinical legal education. He consolidated its efforts from a series of outposts spread throughout the city to its downtown headquarters in the offices of Greater Boston Legal Services, and grew its practice areas to encompass employment, housing, and disability law, as well as a dedicated clinic to address access to justice issues. Through the clinical program, he helped impoverished, mentally ill, and disabled clients avoid eviction, obtain disability benefits, and keep themselves and their children safe from family violence.
What I learned from Bob was that there is nothing more important than my obligation to protect and advocate for my client. That really has meant everything to me and to who I have become as a lawyer.
He was always ready to help students and colleagues with personal issues or to work through roadblocks related to teaching or professional responsibility. “That’s just who he was. He was the most supportive person,” says Connie Browne, a LAW clinical associate professor in the Civil Litigation & Justice Program. “His clinical teaching, in the field and in the classroom, was just incredible. Bob always approached his teaching and advocacy with caring, innovation, and thoughtfulness. He was our professor and advisor and mentor as much as he was for the students.”
As a LAW student, Burdick reoriented his coursework so he could spend as much time as possible serving the clients of the Legal Aid Program, the predecessor of the Civil Litigation & Justice Program. After graduating, he worked for several years at Greater Boston Legal Services, then joined LAW as a clinical instructor. He was asked to serve as acting director in 1977, and to lead the program permanently in 1979.
During his career, Burdick helped improve the rights of the marginalized in several areas of law. He led significant litigation in a number of civil law cases involving antidiscrimination, tenants’ rights, and insurance company claims settlement practices. Exemplary cases include Rogers v. Dept. of Mental Health, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court established the right of committed mental patients to refuse antipsychotic medication.
Nancy Shilepsky (LAW’77,’78), a partner in the employment litigation group at Sherin and Lodgen, credits Burdick with helping her find her path in the law. “What I learned from Bob was that there is nothing more important than my obligation to protect and advocate for my client,” Shilepsky says. “That really has meant everything to me and to who I have become as a lawyer. I found a calling through Bob’s inspiration. He was an amazing lawyer, an amazing person, and in my life, an amazing mentor.”