Managing partner of civil litigation Aaron Belzer talks about his journey, going from touring with Phish and ski bumming in Crested Butte to going to Law school, clerking on the court of appeals and growing Burnham Law’s civil litigation practice.
Todd Burnham 0:00
Hi, this is Todd Burnham. I am a licensed practicing attorney. But just because you're listening to me doesn't mean that I represent you. This is for informational purposes only if you're good with that, then let's roll.
Chris Braden 0:20
Season One was about how Todd Burnham started Burnham Law in his basement and built it to one of the most prestigious law firms in Colorado by thinking outside of the box and surrounding himself with the best lawyers and staff in the industry. Now during a pandemic Burnham Law is still growing. How you ask? Walk toward the storm and face it head on and you empower the people that help get you there. It's time to execute. It's time to make some lemonade. It's time to burn the ships. This is Deep Bench with Todd Burnham. So this is usually the time where I say what is up Todd, and then he says something back to me. But we're not doing that today. We've got Aaron Belzer, partner of the civil side of Burnham Law. Did I say that wrong? I mean, do I sound dumb saying it like that?
Aaron Belzer 1:13
No, you don't sound dumb. I'm the managing partner of the civil litigation division in the firm. So you are you're right.
Chris Braden 1:19
Okay, so what does the civil litigation side of Burnham Law actually do? What kind of cases do you handle?
Aaron Belzer 1:26
Yeah, so whereas the DR side, the domestic relations side handles family conflicts, things like divorce and child custody, and you know, post decree matters and stuff like that, in the civil litigation group, we do general civil litigation stuff, which is things like contract disputes, breach of contract, property, and real estate disputes. So people who have, you know, conflict over ownership or interests or rights and property. And we also do intentional torts. So things like defamation, abuse of process, negligence, that sort of stuff. We don't do personal injury, which is obviously a separate division within the firm as well.
Chris Braden 2:08
So the civil side of Burnham was actually growing a lot, I guess, one question that I have is during the the pandemic and kind of like the lockdown, or where everyone's kind of staying more at home? Has that increased? Any of your workload has? Or have you seen anything like that?
Aaron Belzer 2:27
Yeah, it's a good question. Um, you know, I think we've stayed busy, which is great. I think, you know, part of that is attributable to the momentum that we have in the division, it's growing pretty quickly. So we're still getting, you know, referrals and new cases throughout this. I think one of the benefits for our practice group for the civil litigation division is that a lot of our work is written motions and briefs and stuff like that. So, you know, with the courts closed, and people are unable to sort of go into courtrooms, I think that's had an effect on plenty of attorneys. And we're sort of fortunate and that a lot of our practice is through written motions and briefs that we obviously file online. So there's less of a sort of requirement that we're frequently in the courtroom. And to the extent that we are in the courtroom, courts have adapted, you know, they're doing the WebEx hearings, which allows me to participate in a hearing from my office in my house. So it's, it's been okay, you know, obviously, the world is kind of falling apart. But in terms of our practice group, you know, things have been okay, we've, we've still been getting cases, and we still been keeping busy for sure.
Chris Braden 3:37
So were you surprised that the courts were able to, like, implement the technology and get everything going? As quick as they have been? I think it took them like a month or maybe two months, but that, but it seems like they've adapted really well.
Aaron Belzer 3:51
It seems like they have and I think, you know, I don't know, if I was surprised when it happened or not. I'm, I'm, you know, sort of antsy, you know, it's, it's 2020. Like, it's not that hard to get people to appear by video. What I think is really interesting is how this will change things moving forward. I had a hearing a couple weeks ago, it was actually in person, but I was talking to the judge after the hearing. And he was saying that, you know, some of these changes might persist. Like it's just a lot more efficient, particularly for clients, when their attorneys can appear at a hearing via WebEx, there's no charge for driving time. You don't have to sort of prepare your stuff in the courtroom. Like I was saying, it's nice for me on my end, because I can just, I'm just in my office, I open on my computer and I attend to hearing I have all my stuff here. I'm sort of prepared. I'm not what do I need to bring with with me to the court and that kind of thing. So I think it's gonna be interesting to see, you know, if and when this all sort of resolves in the world gets back to normal or whatever. How these changes last in the courts.
Chris Braden 4:56
Has any of the judges had to start pulling out the gavel when people weren't meeting their mics are getting feedback and stuff like that. Has that happened?
Aaron Belzer 5:04
Yeah, it's funny you asked. I mean, that's certainly an element that I think everybody's adjusting to and, you know, courts have been pretty forgiving, at least in my, you know, so far relative, it's only been six or seven months, right, in my relatively limited experience. They're figuring it out. I think, you know, attorneys and, and parties are also figuring out, right, I mean, everybody's doing Zoom meetings now. Everybody's doing these things virtually. So there was a learning curve, but uh, judges I think have been pretty cool about it so far. Hey, you know, excuse me, can you mute your mic kind of thing. Nobody's gotten, you know, harshly reprimanded yet. We'll see though, like I said, if that persists, right, judges might get a little bit more chippy in the future with these sorts of virtual hearings.
Chris Braden 5:44
I've been in sales meetings where it's been said 50 times and there's no patience for it anymore.
Aaron Belzer 5:50
Yeah. I imagine we're moving in that direction everywhere.
Chris Braden 5:54
You know, so how long have you been at Burnham Law?
I've been here a little more than four years. Yeah, just over four years.
So what attracted you to Burnham Law? Where are you from? Did you are you from Colorado, kind of tell me a little bit about your background.
Aaron Belzer 6:10
Yeah, I grew up in Minneapolis. I grew up in Uptown Minneapolis, I, you know, went to high school there. I left, you know, right after high school, traveled around the country for a few years, a lot of live music, stuff like that. And then landed in Portland, Oregon, which is where I started college. I finished college at Western State and Colorado, I grew up skiing, I skied my whole life and moved to Crested Butte in my early 20s, to ski and do some competitive skiing. And, you know, it turns out I wasn't one of the best extreme skiers in the world. So I went back to school at Western State got my degree. I worked in advertising for a few years in New York City, and was miserable. Like I hated it. I would be close to tears on Sunday night. So I figured I needed to do something else. And I wasn't sure what that was, you know, I talked to a bunch of people, sort of, you know, Googled here's a list of things that I want out of a job, what should I do Google and law school came back, everybody pretty much advised me not to go to law school. But I figured it was at least a portable degree. And the worst case scenario was that I didn't have to continue working in an advertising job that I didn't like, and I'd get a little smarter, and then I could figure out what I wanted to do. It turns out that I loved law school, I would have stayed in law school forever, man. It was it just was the right fit. I love practicing law. And after law school, I worked initially, at a small plaintiff side civil rights firm doing plaintiff side civil rights and employment discrimination work. I had interned there in law school, really great group of guys, really righteous work. And a little around a year, or maybe a little less than a year after I started there, I got an offer to clerk on the Court of Appeals, which I jumped at. And I clerked on the Court of Appeals for a couple years. And I've known Todd, you know, forever, and he had always kind of been trying to recruit me to come work at Burnham. And, you know, that was that's that was the case during the clerkship as well. And I sort of said to Todd, you know, I've had all this exposure in my clerkship, two different kinds of cases, what, what I want to do is, you know, I thought I was going to be doing civil rights forever. The clerkship, like I said, really exposed me to a lot of different areas of the law, and, you know, civil litigation and trials. And I just loved it. So I said to Todd, you know, I love you, man, I'd love to come work there. But I really want to do civil litigation, I don't want to do family law. And he said, You know, I've been thinking about expanding to more of a full service law firm. And if you want to come and try and start a civil litigation practice, I'll help you get it off the ground. So like I said, that was, you know, a little more than four years ago, the deal was, he said, but until you until you establish a civil litigation practice, you have to do family law. So I did family law, you know, for the first, I don't know, seven, eight months, a year or something like that, as I built up the, you know, the civil practice. It's been a long time since I've done any family law work now. But yeah, I started the civil litigation group there. And it's, it's been great. And as you mentioned a few minutes ago, particularly in the last few years, we got a lot of momentum, we're growing really quickly. You know, we got some great people on the team. And it's been really good. So I feel really fortunate that, you know, I was able to come in and help create, you know, a practice group within this firm and also, at the same time, kind of get to practice the law. I want to practice it's been a real good, a real good fit.
Chris Braden 9:46
Well, it's pretty cool that you were kind of able to implement what you loved and had Todd there to kind of back you. And so that kind of leads me into my next question a couple of weeks ago, all of you got to know email that said changes and, you know, Todd's gonna kind of step away and maybe take a different role. Were you surprised by that when you got that email? Or do you know, that was coming?
Aaron Belzer 10:10
I kind of knew it was coming. I mean, I didn't know, you know, I know, he's gonna send an email that day or anything. But, you know, it's something that Todd's been talking about for a while. And I think, you know, the, the real important piece is having the right people in place who can sort of carry the torch. And, you know, you and I were talking about this, before we started recording, but, boy, I've got some really, really great attorneys in the firm, some really great paralegals and support staff, and all around just a really talented group of people. You know, and in particular, I think the leadership team that we've got in place to group partners is just really smart, a really motivated group and a group of people who have, you know, the best interest of the firm, really at heart, and we're ready to kind of take ownership and continue growing this thing. So, you know, once all those pieces kind of were in place, it was not that surprising to me that Todd sort of chose that time to kind of step away, right. I mean, I think I would assume Todd agrees, because he obviously sort of, you know, made the choice. But I think, you know, we've got the right people here to continue with, you know, continue his vision sort of, and continue running and managing the firm.
Chris Braden 11:22
Well, there's been talk about expanding Burnham Law into other states. And is that exciting for you to be able to just grow that civil part of the firm?
Aaron Belzer 11:35
It really is. Yeah, I mean, it's a really great opportunity. Like I said, I mean, I started the division about four years ago, and it's in a lot of ways is felt like sort of starting my own firm, but with the resources of Burnham behind me. So you know, with a lot less kind of risk. I am excited about expanding, you know, my my practice group, not just within the state of Colorado, but also across the country. I would say the, the thing I am not super excited about is taking the bar exam and other studios, a few states you can't wave into. So I have the California Bar coming up. And then I think the Hawaii Bar not long after that. I'm not thrilled to study for and sit for bar exams. But you know, the rest of it is really exciting to me. Absolutely.
Chris Braden 12:18
Well, I know Todd has mentioned he's going to Hawaii. And it was funny, because I've only been there one time, but I spent about 10 days. If I wasn't married, I probably wouldn't have come home. I gotta be honest with you. I would have just left it all back here in Colorado, and stayed there. So going to Hawaii is not a bad idea.
Aaron Belzer 12:37
I hear that. That's what's one of my favorite places in the world. Man, my wife and I, we love. We've been to Hawaii a couple times. And it's just a magical place. Man. I love Hawaii.
Chris Braden 12:48
It's amazing, right? I mean, we were in Hawaii for 10 days. We stayed at Princeville Hanalei Bay, Thank God my wife, won employee of the year, she's like, smarter than me, too. So we were there. 10 days doing everything. And it was just, it was just an amazing place. It's, you know what I mean? And I feel feel bad for people that haven't, haven't really been there. One thing I wanted to ask you about, because you've been here through a lot of it, Todd's marketing style is kind of in your face, but it makes you think, you know, where like, you know, divorce sucks. Your lawyer shouldn't COVID sucks. Your your lawyer shouldn't things like that. What are your thoughts on how Burnham Law markets itself? Because I, you know, for me, I think it's pretty unique in the marketplace.
Aaron Belzer 13:34
Yeah, I agree. I'm really impressed with the way Burnham markets itself. You know, it's not, it's not necessarily in my wheelhouse. It's not something that I need to spend a lot of time thinking about, or, or dealing with, because I have so much faith and not just Todd, but also Sarah, who does the marketing and communications for the firm. It's different than what, you know, pretty much every other law firm does. But it certainly appears to be very effective. So I like it, you know, as somebody who's running a division and counts on new cases coming in the door. I'm a big fan. And it's great for me, you know, like I said, to not have to worry too much or spend too much time on it. I just sort of place my trust in Todd and Sarah and say, you know, they'll say what do you think about this? And the answer is almost 100% of the time, if you think it's a good idea. I'm on board. I trust you guys. I will say too that with the website. You know, we've been we're adding a couple of new people here. I have a new paralegal starting next week, and we just hired another associate who's going to start in a few weeks. And in the interview process, a lot of the folks have pointed out the website in particular, as being something that really attracted them to the firm, something different. It's not sort of the, you know, standard archaic, you know, mahogany and leather bound books kind of
Chris Braden 14:54
Aaron Belzer 14:56
That's right. That's right. I have many leather bound books. So I think it's cool. I think it's a really innovative approach. It certainly looks to be effective. And it just looks cool. I mean, I love working for a firm, that's kind of cutting edge and innovative on on all fronts and marketing is no exception.
Chris Braden 15:11
Well, I think the first time I stepped into the office, Burnham Law here in Colorado Springs, I was walking around, and I was like, never seen a Dave Matthews Band poster. You know, it was framed, it was nice, don't get me wrong. It's not what I would do hang it up with scotch tape. But I was like, this is really cool. It's different. And I think it sets you guys apart a little bit. And, you know, I interviewed a couple other lawyers. I mean, it's set you up, kind of like, like, you're a badass in a way, you know what I mean? And I think that's really cool on the website. For me, you know, being a marketing guy, really. It's different. Now. It's not a catalog anymore. It's something it's a sales page and some of the little things that they did. So like, when I was getting ready to interview and doing some research on you, you know, just a little things like going to the website and your pictures in black and white. And once I put my cursor over it, it's color. I mean, well thought out things. And I know Todd's really proud of that. One question that I was mandated to ask you, Aaron.
Aaron Belzer 16:16
Chris Braden 16:16
And that is your time with Phish? Let me know about that.
Aaron Belzer 16:21
Yeah. So I alluded to this a few minutes ago, I was intentionally a little bit vague about it. I said that after high school, I traveled for a few years, and we're seeing a lot of live music. So I, you know, I started seeing Phish, I think I saw my first show when I was like 14 or something. By my junior year in high school, I did the whole summer tour after junior year. And then after I graduated from high school, I just hopped on and started following Phish full time, I did that for a few years. You know, it was a really formative experience for me. You know, it was obviously a lot of fun. But all of my close friends all or almost all of my close friends in the world now are folks that I met through Phish and traveled with.
Chris Braden 17:04
So like, it's funny, because I love bands. And I've probably I've followed bands up and down the front range, but I've never have my dad's my wife's giant Boyz II Men fan, so she makes me fly around to go see Boyz II Men, but that's a culture thing. It's a little bit different, like what can you I think that's a great study in dynamics of people when you're doing something like that.
Aaron Belzer 17:32
Absolutely. You know, like I said, it was really formative for me, I do think it's, you know, there's sort of this kind of on the road aspect to it, where you're really sort of, you know, very little responsibilities, you're just kind of traveling around, the only thing you need to do is get to the next show, and you're doing that with, you know, a bunch of other people, you really get to know people well, but you also sort of end up every day at a concert or at the parking lot before the concert, and there are 1000s of people, and it really is an opportunity, I think, to get a sense of how people operate when they let their guard down and who people are and, you know, all of those things. It's, you know, the other piece of it is it was, you know, that's a obviously sort of a kind of a groovy lifestyle. And I think, you know, I try and carry that big heartedness. And that sort of open mindedness to my law practice, you know, again, like it's a, it's an innovative firm, we do things differently, and I just don't want to work or be in an environment every day where I've got to sort of put on a professional facade and pretend to be, you know, more buttoned up than I am, I think that it's been a good sort of blend of being myself and being creative and open minded, and all these things. And, and at the same time, you know, applying the analytical side of that to practicing law.
Chris Braden 18:51
You know, the cool thing about it is, you're a well thought out guy, you're a really smart guy, I'll say it for you. Did that help you kind of understand people being able to just be with so many different kinds of people? Did that help you like in your practice? Now, if you think back on it, to kind of understand people, because we're all different, we all have different buttons. We all think differently. But when you're around that many people in that kind of different people, do you think that helped you kind of understand people in a different way than you would have if you never did that?
Aaron Belzer 19:24
I do. Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of it, you know, like I said, has to do with being around crowds and traveling with people. But you know, the other piece of it is that, you know, traveling with the same group of people for a month or six weeks, day in and day out, you get to develop really deep and meaningful relationships. So it was it was a really good learning experience, like I said, a formative experience. And yeah, it was a great way to sort of learn about people learn about myself, learn about relationships and all that stuff. For sure.
Chris Braden 19:55
I think it's really cool because that kind of fits in what we've been doing this whole time with deep bench because Todd runs the team kind of like a sports franchise. And I learned the same thing, kind of what you're talking about being in locker rooms and being around a bunch of different people, but also kind of having the same goal. So, like, our goal maybe would have been to, to win a game and your goal is to get to the next place, man, it's, it's pretty cool. It's a really similar dynamic. If you look at it that way.
Aaron Belzer 20:25
I agree. You know, I was gonna make that analogy. It's similar to a sports team, you got people from, you know, different backgrounds, different geographies, you know, all kinds of, you know, different people coming together. And, you know, our mission obviously, wasn't to win the game so much as it was, let's get to the show and have a good time. But that sort of, I don't know, melting pot or mix of people is, you know, sharing an experience and sort of sharing a mission, I think is, was a really valuable experience in my life.
Chris Braden 20:52
It's really interesting for me, my parents, they lived up on Green Mountain, which isn't far from Red Rocks. And I've never been to a fish show. But I ended up around red rocks. I think they had two or three shows there. That time, and it was like, really interesting, man. It was like fun for me talking to those people, because they were like, so different than I was I was like, oh, man, I've never done that. I'd love to do that. And that's pretty cool. Man. That's, you know what, that's what I love about Burnham Law. I mean, all of you. The attorneys, paralegals everybody I've met, is so interesting. And there's a level of synergy that you all have together. And you know, what, Aaron, that's hard to come by. I've been with a lot of different companies, the synergy you guys have there. And kind of the one goal and the teamwork is, is really something special.
Aaron Belzer 21:44
I agree, man. And I, you know, I think to Todd's credit, it starts with Todd and I think he and I are really, you know, very much on the same page with this, but it's about creating the kind of place that we want to go work at. I mean, you know, everybody's had jobs they don't like and, you know, certainly even days at a job you do, like you have bad days here and there, right. That's why they pay to show up. But, you know, I think it's been intentional from the jump, that we have a law firm in a culture that is just kind of cool. And that is a place that people want to work. And in particular, you know, we've been talking about this a lot, because we've been interviewing new, you know, for new associates and stuff. But it was a, it's been a really great, and it's an ongoing opportunity for me with the civil litigation group, to really intentionally think about the culture and the work environment, and to create a culture that is founded on doing excellent and, and sophisticated work, but also about creating a workplace that's laid back and where people are, themselves and where people are happy. I believe really firmly that if people are able to come to work and be themselves, and they're happy, you know, they wake up and they're happy to go to work. Those are the kinds of people who tend to take ownership of their work, and their work product tends to be better. So for me, you know, my kind of Core expectations are basically that the work is excellent, the work is exceedingly excellent, it needs to be bar none, we got to put our best foot forward there. After that, you know, you know, communication and reliability, and all of this sort of Core expectations. But after that, I just want people to be themselves and to be happy and to be in a place and create the kind of place where they want to work. So that's been something that's been really important to me, in building this this civil litigation practice. And, you know, I think that was something that I was sort of able to sort of, you know, to piggyback on on Todd's work and creating a culture within the firm as well.
Chris Braden 23:42
Well, Aaron, it was awesome to talk to you good to get to know you a little bit better and man, just keep doing what you do. And this is exciting stuff. The future of Burnham Law, man. There's a lot of a lot of places you can go and I'm sure you'll be there.
Aaron Belzer 23:56
I appreciate that. Yes. Feels like the sky's the limit for sure. Well, thanks for having me on, Chris. I really appreciate it.
Todd Burnham 24:04
Hey, thanks for listening. Make sure you subscribe, and until next time, keep getting better.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai