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Karen Burgess' Happy Place

That would be in front of a jury

Photo by Alicia Leigh

Published in 2023 Texas Super Lawyers magazine

By Alison Macor on September 15, 2023


If you happened to be walking the halls of Austin’s federal courthouse last October, you might have heard the chorus to “Luckenbach, Texas” spilling out of Judge Dustin Howell’s federal courtroom.

It wasn’t a recording of Waylon Jennings’ 1977 hit. It was Austin litigator Karen Burgess singing live in front of the jury.

“Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys…”

Burgess has many strengths, but she’s the first to admit vocal prowess isn’t at the top of the list. Still, she needed to sing the song made famous by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and countless other country legends to convey how iconic the name “Luckenbach” is and why her client LTI (Luckenbach Texas Inc.), owners of a historic dance hall and general store in the tiny German town in the Texas Hill Country, had a right to protect its trademark.

“My happy place is to be in front of a jury,” says the 52-year-old Burgess. “And that case was so special for many reasons.”

Ten stories above downtown Austin, Burgess reflects on the Luckenbach case while seated at a long marble and wood table in a conference room at SXSW Center, home to the internationally known festival that helped put Austin on the map. Dressed in a fitted navy blazer, sleeveless blouse and jeans, Burgess gazes out a floor-to-ceiling window toward a two-story building a block south, which Burgess Law has purchased. The SXSW conference room and surrounding offices are temporary quarters. By late spring, once renovations were complete, Burgess Law moved into its new digs, housing Burgess, attorneys Stacy Rogers Sharp and Katie Dolan-Galaviz, and paralegal Eric Boucheron.

The Luckenbach trial wrapped up during a relentless period at the end of 2022 during which the Burgess Law office was juggling two additional multiweek trials. It was COVID backlog. “That’s not usually how my caseload goes,” says Burgess. “It’s a terrible way to live.”

In the Luckenbach case, Burgess argued that defendant Paul Engel, the owner of rental cabins also bearing the Luckenbach name, was taking advantage of and eroding the rights to what “Luckenbach” had come to represent. In the end, not only were Burgess and her team successful in protecting LTI’s “Luckenbach” trademark in that jury trial, but they also settled a related dispute with a developer who wanted to use the Luckenbach name for his new whiskey distillery. The court issued an injunction prohibiting the use.

The case had the feeling of bringing Burgess’ career full circle. “I felt like I was at the kids’ table for so long,” says Burgess. “Now I feel very mid-career. I have more business than I can handle, and I get to try cases with the best lawyers in the country.”

Back when she was still at the kids’ table, in her 20s, Burgess successfully represented Jerry Jeff Walker and his wife and manager, Susan, in a case concerning licensing rights of Walker’s music. “I was completely starstruck,” says Burgess. She never could have imagined that, more than two decades later, she’d be fighting to help the same Luckenbach dancehall where Walker recorded his Viva Terlingua album, never mind singing about Luckenbach in front of a jury.

Burgess sits between statues of key Luckenbach figures Hondo Crouch and Jerry Jeff Walker.

Born in Florida and raised in Waco, Burgess is the oldest child of Wayne Crook, a former Marine, and Jan Knight. Her extended family includes several members of law enforcement, but it was a friend of her mother’s whose career made an impression on Burgess. “She wasn’t a trial lawyer, but she was an attorney, and she was kind of glamorous,” says Burgess. “I assumed that what she did was what I saw on TV.”

At Rice University, she majored in economics, policy studies and Spanish, spent a semester in Chile, and graduated in three years. She deferred a spot at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law for a year to work for a political candidate in Houston. When the candidate lost the election, Burgess arranged a few informational interviews and learned that she could obtain a post-college visa to travel abroad.

With just enough money to buy a plane ticket, she flew to London in November 1992 and found holiday work at the perfume counter of Harrod’s. “It was very, very hard work,” says Burgess. “And I really wanted to be a lawyer.”

She spent her breaks using the nearest pay phone to call about law-related jobs. Within a week, she found a position as a paralegal in the London office of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton. Working alongside just over a dozen attorneys, Burgess focused on debt refinancing for clients such as the country of Kuwait. In the spring of 1993, her world was rocked—literally—by two events. In April, two of her cousins in law enforcement were involved behind the scenes in the deadly siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. While neither of them was injured, the weekslong standoff (and being half a world away) kept Burgess on edge. That same month, the IRA set off a truck bomb one Saturday in the Bishopsgate neighborhood of London, which decimated the building that housed Cleary Gottlieb’s office. “There was no cloud then, so we had to try to recreate all of the work we had done,” she recalls.

At UT in the fall of 1993, she met Brian Burgess, who was enrolled in a combined MBA/JD program. They married in 1995 and graduated a year later. Although Burgess had a job offer at an admiralty firm in Houston, Brian had better offers in Austin, and the couple decided to stay. Trial attorneys David Dunham and Don Taylor had recently left Akin Gump and opened their own firm in the capital city. “I was the third lawyer by that point, and they had several cases going to trial right away,” says Burgess. “I was lucky to get thrown into the deep end.”

Austin attorney and former state Bar president Joe Longley recalls meeting Burgess at that time, when he was opposing counsel in a lawsuit against an insurance company represented by Burgess’ firm. “We were going to have to go to Houston or Galveston to take depositions, and I said, ‘Let’s save some expenses and take my car,’” says Longley. “Karen seemed very suspect of the situation,” since they were on opposite sides, he says. “We were talking back and forth, but it was clear that I was interrupting her study.” Burgess, who was using the drive to prepare, tried to hide her files from him.

More than two decades later, Burgess and Longley have tried several cases together and have become close friends. Burgess considers him a mentor, and Longley admires her way with juries and difficult witnesses. “Juries tend to like her a whole lot, particularly if someone on the other side of the case is being cantankerous,” says Longley. “She’s also very good at cross-examination, putting the witness at ease. If they don’t watch out, they’re going to be confessing to the Kennedy assassination.”

After 15 years at Taylor Dunham, including nine as name partner, Burgess left to form Richardson Burgess with Jim Richardson before founding Burgess Law in 2018.

In 2020 Burgess Law represented Dominion Voting Systems, the Colorado-based manufacturer of voting machines that settled a highly publicized libel case against Fox News this year. In the 2020 case, shortly after the presidential election, Dominion was sued by Texas conspiracy theorists who claimed the company helped to swing the election in President Biden’s favor. “These were coders, they were not politicians. They were being threatened,” says Burgess of the Dominion employees.

Burgess had recently come off a three-week, COVID-era Zoom trial, so the opportunity to go back into the courtroom was, she says, “a joy. On Zoom, all you have is the conflict, you don’t have any of the interpersonal dynamics with the lawyers that help keep things more pleasant. It sucks the community part out of it.”

The Dominion case also raised challenging constitutional questions, which allowed Burgess to use different legal muscles. And instead of removing the case to federal court, Burgess and her team moved for a dismissal on the grounds that the case had no basis in law. “So we kept it in state court and got the earliest hearing we could get, and we just drove it to an early death,” she says. “On the eve of the hearing, the other side gave up.”

Burgess is as quick to acknowledge that not everything always goes right in court. Once, in trial shortly after giving birth to daughter Aubrey, she suffered a nosebleed. She had to rush to the restroom and swap her blood-stained clothes (nursing paraphernalia included) with a female colleague before beginning the case’s voir dire before Judge William Wayne Justice. Another time, she was presenting evidence to the jury when a colleague accidentally whacked her in the head with a poster board display. But Burgess is philosophical about it. “Getting thrown off your game can be such a gift,” she says. “It makes you vulnerable. It makes you human.”

Burgess’ relatability is one of the things that impressed attorney Miranda Morton when they met in 2017. Morton was in her first year of law school at UT and new to Austin. When her assigned mentor fell through, program coordinator Rémi Ratliff, a friend of Burgess’, suggested they meet.

Morton spent a year attending professional networking events with Burgess and getting to know her in and out of the courtroom. “I think the thing I learned from Karen was from watching her interact with her family and interact with the world and seeing that she is not apologetic about her work and her passion for her work,” says Morton. “A lot of times we feel like we need to compartmentalize our lives as women and as mothers. Karen lives her whole life with the same sense of community and passion, so all those aspects overlap in a way that produces stronger relationships, stronger work, and just a more fulfilling life, which has been really inspiring.”

“I love the legal community,” says Burgess, who is involved in organizations such as ABOTA. “You join these groups to enjoy the people, and you’re also on a mission. It’s really important work—making juries efficient, making juries appreciated.”

Burgess is also president-elect of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers, a group of several hundred attorneys from both sides of the bar. “It’s a prestigious group,” says Longley of the invitation-only membership. “It’s a worldwide organization, so Karen’s getting to be a star everywhere.”

Burgess’ star may shine brightest in the courtroom. “Broadus Spivey was a mentor to me, and he used to say that he would try a case for a milkshake,” says Burgess as she looks back on her career. “I probably would try a case for a milkshake, too.” 

Active Learning

When she’s not singing in front of a jury, Karen Burgess can often be found tackling outdoor adventures like skiing off-piste as well as mountain- and road-biking and running. She’s also become a fan of dance classes at her local YMCA, where she hosted daughter Aubrey’s 16th birthday at a Zumba class. These days, Burgess likes to include a throwback photo of tutu-wearing Aubrey and her girlfriends among her presentation slides. “It’s a way to introduce the idea that dance is a tool to learn—to paraphrase University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban—to be where your feet are,” says Burgess. “It helps you get out of your head and into your body, which is a really important skill for trial lawyers.”

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