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The Family 2004: Mom, Dad (and Biological Parent)

After going through it himself, James Burnett is now the go-to guy for couples seeking surrogacy help

Published in 2004 Texas Rising Stars magazine

Last fall, Woman’s Day chronicled the odyssey that James Burnett and his wife, Bellienda, traveled on their way to parenthood. Years of infertility woes followed by the anguish of three miscarriages had led them to try surrogacy, considered the last resort of couples hoping to start a family.

The decision bore a happy ending in the form of twin girls, Brie and Bryn, delivered by the Burnetts’ surrogate in November 1999. The couple’s joy multiplied a month later when Bellienda Burnett, showing true Texas grit, persevered to give birth to a boy, Brock. Almost overnight, the proud parents had tripled their fun.

But absent from the magazine profile were details about the bureaucratic migraines the Burnetts endured after choosing surrogacy. Weeks before the twins arrived, the couple learned that the Dallas agency they hired to sort out the legal minutiae had yet to obtain a pre-birth order — a crucial document that would grant them full custody.

James exploded. He called the agency to stop it for lack of action, then vowed to handle the paperwork himself.

Defying the agency — and the hoary adage that the attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client — Burnett bolted to court and persuaded a judge to sign the order. Five years later, as quickly as the thought of his children makes him grin, recalling the agency’s sloth brings a grimace.

“It was a horrible experience,” he says. “It’s traumatic enough going through infertility. You don’t need legal problems on top of it.”

Then again, for other couples mulling surrogacy, his struggles might be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Fueled by his frustration, in 2000 Burnett teamed with a friend who’s a psychotherapist to launch Texas Surrogacy Solutions. The agency’s caseload adds peanuts to the bottom line of Burnett, Trahan & Midlo, a personal-injury firm with offices in Dallas and Houston. Yet given that most of his clients seek recompense for a tragedy inflicted on them or loved ones, surrogacy work offers him a bit of balance: a chance to play a tiny part in the triumph of creating life.

“I don’t really make enough off surrogacy to do it. But making life a little easier for a couple that’s been trying to have a baby for a decade, that’s the biggest reward. And unlike the personalinjury side,” Burnett says with a laugh, “there’s no arguing.”

There’s no disputing his reputation, either. Both the Texas Senate and House passed resolutions last year thanking Burnett for helping legislators craft a law that guarantees married couples full custodial rights of a child born to their surrogate.

So good is the word on Burnett that he finds his expertise in demand well beyond state lines. Couples from as far away as France have retained him. He’s on the short list of lawyers that celebrities dial when unable to produce kids the old-fashioned way. Soon enough, in fact, he’ll have reason to compare screen credits with his A-list clients. A documentary on surrogacy slated to hit theaters this year includes an interview with Burnett.

Most firms would be overjoyed to get as much attention from the press as Burnett’s surrogacy practice has received. The truth is, however, that his personal-injury work fans an even louder buzz. He’s appeared on CBS and Fox News to discuss cases, and Addison Business named him to its top attorney list last year. He also belongs to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a kind of milehigh club for lawyers with verdicts or settlements in the rare air of seven figures.

Oh, and did we mention he owns a title company and resembles
Dave Matthews? 

Burnett’s modesty about his success — “You just try to do what’s right” — typifies what clients and colleagues portray as his low-key, open-eared approach. He earns boffo reviews for his willingness to listen.

“Jim took all the time we needed,” says Dallas resident Carmen Menza, who two years ago underwent a hysterectomy after her uterus ruptured. She and her husband have hired Burnett to steer them through the maze of assisted reproduction. “He gave us peace of mind.”

Wendy Bauer, Burnett’s business partner in Texas Surrogacy Solutions, matches couples with prospective surrogates, who must have a child of their own. She and Burnett sometimes introduce the parties over lunch, and when they mesh, he’s nearly as giddy as they are.

“We’ll be standing in the parking lot after everyone leaves, and he’ll smile and say, ‘Isn’t this great?’” Bauer says. “With Jim, it’s not just ‘Sign here, sign here’ like it might be with other attorneys. He understands exactly what couples are going through. That’s priceless.”

Burnett, 39, traces his yen for the law to his Dallas childhood — he was, in a sense, to the courthouse born. His father, a state judge who later moved to the appellate bench, brought him to work on occasion, “employing” young Jim to fetch files. (The roles have since reversed somewhat, with Joe Burnett now acting as of counsel for his son’s firm.)

Yet Burnett’s early desire to attend law school ran headlong into a stronger urge to earn a buck. Around the time he graduated from high school in 1983, he began selling life insurance policies  door-to-door. He kept knocking on doors and hawking part-time while enrolled at the University of Arkansas for two years, then went full-time into insurance after he quit school and returned to Dallas in 1986.

His career bloomed, and by decade’s end Burnett was writing contracts for Lloyds of London. He also felt as if his brain had turned to Texas chili. Sensing his boredom, Bellienda nudged him to chase his lawyer dreams. So after getting his undergrad degree at Dallas Baptist in 1992, he quit insurance the next year to enter law school at Texas Wesleyan.

Burnett clerked at various firms during school, jobs that enabled him to sample criminal, family and personal-injury law. He was dispirited by, and quickly rejected, the first two. “It’s disheartening to see a rapist go free when you know he did it,” he says of criminal court. As for family law, “It’s too depressing. There’s almost never a happy ending.”

In personal-injury cases, meanwhile, the prospect of righting a wrong intrigued him. He saw similarities to his insurance days, when he could help people rebuild their lives in misfortune’s wake. And though Burnett jokes that he crossed from the dark side when he left his old profession, pitching policies and comforting customers prepped him for the courtroom.

“Really, all I am is a salesman. You can say what you want about attorneys, we’re salesmen. We’re selling a case to a jury or a judge. It’s all about people skills.”

Still, a thin line separates salesman from huckster. Burnett credits his father for teaching him the opposite of the Watergate ethos — don’t follow the money. “This will sound like a cliché, but it’s true: I’ve never done this to get wealthy. But there are a lot of lawyers who do. They charge for every phone call, every copy. It’s why lawyers have such a bad reputation.”

A doctor walked into Burnett’s office a few years ago believing as much. The man’s mother had died after rolling out of bed in a nursing home. The staff, unaware that she had broken her neck in the fall, hoisted her back into bed without checking for injury. Intent on suing, the doctor visited with attorneys about taking the case. All wanted to charge more than he cared to pay; one estimated that expenses alone would top $100,000.

The man sat down and told Burnett he disliked lawyers. Burnett nodded. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “But if you hire me, you have to tell me how you feel about lawyers after all this is over.” He wound up brokering a seven-figure settlement; his expenses totaled $6,000. The resolution changed the doctor’s view of attorneys; however, something apart from money caused him to weep in gratitude.

During negotiations, Burnett demanded that the nursing home, besides paying his client, initiate quarterly safety courses for its employees to prevent similar accidents. When defense lawyers balked, he retorted, “See you in court.” They soon knuckled, and now every three months the home sends the doctor a progress report about its training sessions. The updates reassure him that his mother didn’t die in vain.

Some might insinuate that Burnett — who, for the record, drives a pickup — displays a depth of compassion that hurts his firm. His insistence that nursing homes, medical clinics and other institutions consent to systemic reforms reduces the chance of future mishaps — i.e., future possible paydays for Burnett, Trahan & Midlo. Likewise, his advice to legislators last year aided them in shaping a surrogacy law that’s so easy to grasp, it could be dubbed the Watch How Many Lawyers Get Into This Niche Now Act.

Burnett laughs off the suggestion that he’s bad for his own business. “I’m naive enough to think I can make a difference. I may lose [potential clients], but it’s the right thing to do.”

Not that people recognizing him as a nursing-home reformer or the guy who virtually wrote the law on surrogacy scares them off. Despite cutting his fees every year, Burnett says, profits continue to rise. Yet he charges what amounts to Wal-Mart prices for surrogacy cases, simply out of a wish to assuage a couple’s grief.

“You reach a point with infertility where you either quit because you can’t stand the thought of getting hurt again or you’ll pursue any option. It’s a humbling experience.”

He recounts how a Houston woman, with her surrogate only a month from giving birth, called him up sobbing last year. The agency handling her case had failed to obtain a pre-birth order or set up any court hearings. Burnett shut down his office for the day to arrange a conference call with the woman’s attorney and a Houston judge. Presto — he finished the job that afternoon.

Burnett need only look at his twin daughters to appreciate surrogacy’s wonders. Countering the myth that couples “order” a certain number of babies, he explains that doctors typically implant two or three embryos in hopes that at least one withstands its uterine adventure. When more survive, Burnett says, “It’s another gift.”

As for critics who attack the morality of what they decry as “high-tech fertility,” he offers a blunt riposte. “If people say that it’s God’s will that you don’t have kids, then if you get cancer, don’t do chemo. It’s God’s will that you’re going to die.

“To me, it’s just a ludicrous argument. God gives us the abilities to develop new science. How is that immoral?”

Burnett cautions his clients that loved ones, out of ignorance more than spite, may question their choice of surrogacy. Dallas residents Doug Box and Marla Savant say the warning proved prescient as they awaited the birth of fraternal twins in February. When a friend voiced the inevitable doubt — “Aren’t you afraid the surrogate isn’t going to give up the babies?” — the couple had answers ready.

“The great thing about Jim is he knows what it’s like. He’s been there,” Savant says. “It made a big difference for us.”

Burnett admits he might like to make a still bigger difference one day by entering politics, albeit in pursuit of a non-robed post. “I’d be bored out of my mind if I were a judge, no offense to my dad,” he quips. Instead, he figures he would enjoy the give-and-take of the legislature, a milieu for which he appears well suited. After all, he can already claim one law to his credit — even if he’d be the last guy to do so.

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