The Alimond Show

Peter Burnett - Lawyer at Burnett & Williams Personal Injury Lawyers

March 21, 2024 Alimond Studio
The Alimond Show
Peter Burnett - Lawyer at Burnett & Williams Personal Injury Lawyers
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Embark on a powerful journey with us as we explore the heartwarming transformation of a local building into a beacon of hope for a community grappling with the pandemic's challenges. Our conversation with a special guest unveils how an intended bank branch blossomed into a food distribution haven, serving over 300 meals daily, sustained by immense community support and town grants. Witness the outpouring of generosity that propelled this initiative from its modest beginnings to a robust lifeline, offering not just sustenance but a diverse range of services to those in need, and discover the pivotal role of volunteers and small donors in powering this compassionate venture.

Transitioning to a tale of individual triumph, we share the narrative of a coastal Maine native who, after a career detour caused by a presidential hiring freeze, carved an impressive path in personal injury law amidst the dynamic landscape of Loudoun County, Virginia. Listen to how ignoring the skeptics, embracing the burgeoning trend of legal specialization, and nurturing a passion for real estate investment led to his remarkable success. Our guest from Burnett & Williams Personal Injury Lawyers  imparts invaluable insights into seizing opportunities in a rapidly growing community and the spirit of entrepreneurship that flourishes with adaptability.

The episode concludes with a stroll through history and a glance into the future with Peter Burnett, a venerable figure in Leesburg's legal scene. Peter provides a firsthand account of the town's transformation, business evolution, and prognostications on how modern work modalities might reshape our neighborhood landscapes. He leaves us with five profound pieces of advice for leading a more joyful life, emphasizing the power of active kindness, gratitude, and the courage to take the first step in life's crucial moments. Tune in for an enriching conversation that promises to inspire, provoke thought, and perhaps guide you toward a happier existence.

Speaker 1:

So tell me a little bit about the project that you started over there on.

Speaker 2:

That project kind of got an interesting history. I own several buildings in town that I've bought over the years, and that one I bought at the behest of a bank I was doing business with at the time because they wanted more of a sticks and bricks sort of presence and they weren't thrilled with their existing location. So I bought it and started working on plans for the space they said they needed. And no, sooner I bought it, they said, oh, we don't need 6,000 feet, we only need 3,000 feet. And so I was OK, change plans and and then I started looking at it from the perspective of just remodeling the existing building, and so I get a whole set of plans going for that and they said, no, we just decided we don't want to do this. They got a new CEO and what the truth was, he wanted to build a branch in his home county. And so there I was, sitting on this building, I it was. I think this is about like early 2019. And I put it out there for what I knew was going to be the interested market and that was all the fast food places. But they wanted it. You know, they wanted to one, pay as little as possible, have a nonrefundable deposit and they wanted to have, you know, six months to a year to deal with the town, which is a challenge in and of itself sometimes, and I just didn't want to do that. So I just started thinking about how I could do something with it myself.

Speaker 2:

And about that same time the fall of 2019, I had gotten a little bit enamored with these little free food pantries, which followed the little free libraries, and these little free food pantries are all over the country. I mean, I don't know how many thousands of them there are, but it just seemed like a good thing to do and so I built one and I talked to the church over on Edwards Ferry Road and they said I could put it up in the corner of their property. And I started getting folks to contribute and I chased kind of a day a month, you know, take a day and long about that time. Here comes COVID and I was thinking this isn't coming close to what's going to be needed and I started thinking about seeing if I could find a food truck that maybe I could just distribute food, go into neighborhoods and distribute food that way. And I wasn't having much luck with that and I was one day.

Speaker 2:

I was just driving up Market Street and saying, how are we going to do this? And I said, oh, that's right, I've got a building that I've completely gutted. It's got a drive through in the back of it, and I literally went home to the farm, got a sledgehammer, smashed a hole through the bottom of the drive up window where the old drawer used to be, and made of a roller ramp that went down to the second lane. That came through and we were set to be able to have the folk volunteers on the inside wearing masks and separate air and one thing and another, and the folks didn't even have to get out of their cars. So that was really set up well for that efficiency, and I was very naive in terms of the demand.

Speaker 2:

I thought, ok, well, we'll do this, for you know, maybe we'll get 40, 50 lunches a day and tops, and this will go on for a couple of months and everybody be back to normal and I'll start doing something with this building. Well, we were two hours to get to do about 25 lunches the first day. The next day it was 50 and about an hour and a half and it just took off from there and we ended up doing it for 16 months, a little better than 300 meals a day and we also did fresh vegetables. We did pet food.

Speaker 2:

For a while we were doing free haircuts, but we were just looking at all the things that would hit people's cash flow who weren't working and we gave out a fresh carnation to every car that came through to try and boost people's outlook a little bit. The mood and the community really jumped in and helped out because we bought all the meals from local restaurants and we paid them just a little bit above their costs and maybe to help them keep that dishwasher or keep one more employee in the back, and we ended up raising $500,000 to do it. And it was. I had 100 volunteers and it was every single day. We never missed a day the whole time From. We'd start passing out the food at 11.30. And usually we'd have all 300 of those meals out by 12.30, quarter to one.

Speaker 1:

So in terms of like, how did you raise $500,000? Is it a community thing? You put it out there? Was it like foundations or interest?

Speaker 2:

No that was the interesting thing which was really really impressive and rewarding to me Of that, $500,000, $100,000 and $250,000 grants came from the town, which got money from the federal government through the county and it was for that purpose and that was great. The mayor was funny. After we had been going for a little while she came down and she had a picture taken when we hit I don't know 40 or 50,000 lunches or something and she admitted that she thought I was crazy, started that project and I think she really would have thought she was crazy if she'd even imagined she'd be given us $50,000, or a vote and forgiven it to us. But the other 400,000 came in. There were a few really generous gifts of five or $10,000, but a very few. The vast majority of the money came from people giving us $100 or $200, and they just it just every day.

Speaker 2:

just there'd be a few more checks in the mail and it was just really great and we kept people posted. And one of the things that was fun that worked out really well was we made some removable numbers so that we could publish how many lunches we had served to date. And people told us that they just would make a point of driving by there just to see where we were Just to get the update.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, you had to get the update, yeah. And we hit 100,000, had a big celebration with that. That was fun, but we ended up at about 120,000 meals. Oh, the other thing that was super popular diapers. We gave out over a million diapers, Wow, yeah, that was a big deal and I certainly learned a lot about the price of diapers. I won't name names of stores, but some stores that you would think would be a really good deal are 30 cents each, and other stores you'd never even think about going to 15 cents Big difference. So we were looking for bargains as best we could.

Speaker 1:

So what really inspired you? I know that you told me kind of that story of wanting to use this way. So what was it why you?

Speaker 2:

I think I've been in Loudoun County just shy of 50 years now and I just feel like everything I've accomplished has been essentially in this community. I've done some things with Outfits, enrichment and one thing or another and I just credit a lot of my good fortune to the community as a whole and I really think that everybody would do better in business in their own what you might call selfish undertakings if they included in it a commitment to the community as a whole. I think it's its own reward. In doing it. I call it practicing kindness. I think it's its own reward. And people notice and they will often volunteer and when they find out what kind of work I do in one thing or another, some of them call and use my services for this or that. But more than anything it's just driven by giving back. It just makes sense to me.

Speaker 1:

So, in terms of other work that you do, you didn't make any money off of this venture, because it's like give back venture.

Speaker 2:

No, no, no. I gave a lot of money to that one.

Speaker 1:

How do you actually make money in order to like? What does your business look like outside of being able to give back to the community?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, even that's kind of a little bit of a I'm not gonna say surprise, but was some good fortune. But I was planning to become an admiralty and shipping lawyer when I was, because I grew up on the coast of Maine, I love boats, owns and boats and I just thought that would be a very interesting area of the law. And in fact I worked for six months in an internship at the justice department in their admiralty and shipping section when I was in law school and they were ready to hire me or at least the folks in the section were ready to hire me and President Jimmy Carter was in office at the time and just put out some kind of an executive order I'm not clear about that just said no more white males until you've gotten some better diversity going on. So it just completely put a hold on that plan for me. And so I was living here in the county and had planned to commute into the downtown DC and so I scrambled a bit and taught in a paralegal program at the law school I'd gone to, and for a year. But the really good fortune was that where I was living renting a place because we'd bought a place that we were reworking, farm and the next door neighbor of where we were living. His son was Loudoun County's number one juvenile delinquent and he asked me if I could help him out a bit for this and that. And this kid got himself into a lot of trouble and it caused me to help on his case and represented him and we got him some pretty good results.

Speaker 2:

And in the process I got to know folks in the Commonwealth Attorney's Office here in Loudoun as well as a few other lawyers in town. And because I had the flexibility with the teaching schedule, I rented an office over here at 23 North King Street for whopping $100 a month and just to see if I could build a practice. And it went fairly well. Fairly quickly I was told by one of the older, now retired lawyers in town that there's no way that I was going to be able to have a successful practice in Leesburg, one because I didn't grow up in Loudoun County and two because I was a damn Yankee and so I took that advice to heart and ignored it, and so I had a general practice for 10 or 11 years.

Speaker 2:

But as part of that I just got into doing a fair amount of personal injury work and in those days virtually all of the 40 lawyers in Loudoun were general practitioners. There really weren't any specialists. There were a few lawyers that didn't go into the courts and did more office work than courtroom stuff, but most of them had multiple disciplines that they would work in or subject areas, and I just felt like I wanted to do the personal injury work. I'd like the being paid on a contingent fee basis.

Speaker 2:

Keeping track of hours by the 10th of an hour, as any lawyer will tell you, is not much fun. I don't know any of that enjoy it, but they do it because some stuff only works that way. But and I just so in 1988, about 35 years ago, I started Burnett and Williams and we did exclusively personal injury work and we have ever since and the firm's expanded and we really enjoy it. And it's interesting that there are lots of other specialists now. There are family lawyers and tax lawyers and wills and estate lawyers and there's more and more specializing in the law, in part, I think, because it's gotten considerably more complicated over the years. But that's how I got going.

Speaker 1:

And so how did you go from still or the law to or the lawyer to buying different pieces of property here in Lawton?

Speaker 2:

Well, I've always had an interest in real estate. My father was both a banker and a real estate agent during my childhood and so there were opportunities to by properties for different reasons. One I was first looking for a place to live, and, as that turned out, we bought some acreage out near Hamilton that had a really nice old bank barn on it that was in really good shape, and the first thing we did is put some stalls in the bank level, and the second year we lived in a trailer outside of the barn while I put the tool belt on and built a couple bedroom apartment upstairs, yeah and then over time it turned into more, yeah, a lot more.

Speaker 2:

But yeah, my late friend, joe Rittenauer, who is a lawyer here in town, grew up here and invested in a lot of real estate and with varying levels of success over the course of his life. But he said there was only one thing you needed to know about real estate in Loudoun County in the 1980s and that was how to sign your name to a contract. And really, given the growth, when I arrived in the mid-70s, population of Loudoun County is about 40-some thousand people. Now we're at 400-some thousand 10 times that that's insane, isn't it?

Speaker 1:

It?

Speaker 2:

is crazy and it's. You know there's been a fair amount of change but, as you might expect, growth and added population runs up. The real estate keeps the real estate business going. So I bought my office building in 1982. And, interestingly, an older lawyer in town, george Martin, I think he graduated from law school in like 1939. So he was very old and he kind of kicking the dirt and telling me I heard you bought the Joe Francis place. It had been a residence before that and I said yeah, I did.

Speaker 2:

I did, george, and he said oh, you made two mistakes with that, and I knew what mistake number one was gonna be. That was gonna be a pay too much, and that's what every old man says to young men when they do such things. But the other thing that concerned me considerably more was oh, it's gonna ruin your law practice. And I'm sitting there thinking what did I miss? You know, was this place a brothel? Or you know, they torture people in here, or you know what's going on, you know what's the. And I said well, what do you mean, george? And he said well, nobody's gonna go way out there at the edge of town to see a lawyer. So that, well, it gives you a little education on how much Leesburg has changed. You know this building, for example, where the space we're sitting in wasn't here when I came. It was just the ground floor, three bays, telephone company had it and there's their shop and three trucks I basically could take care of.

Speaker 1:

Loudoun County for their funds service needs. I didn't know that.

Speaker 2:

You didn't know that. No, the roof on your tower over here in the corner was a challenge, if you think about it, to put that roof on, and what they came up with was a pretty clever idea. A guy named John Palay I was a terrific roofer and friend of mine put the roof on it. But when it was on the ground and you see there's a steel loop that comes right there at the peak on that thing and you hook it onto a crane, swung it up there set, it, Popped it right on Yep put it on there.

Speaker 1:

Wow. Didn't have to go on it anymore after that I love that you know so much history just about my building.

Speaker 2:

Well, you know, and you probably don't remember truck suppliers when they were across the street where the Mason Enterprise Center was that building and my building, the Wells Fargo building right here, this brick building that was a mechanic shop and sort of lawn and garden equipment place. I bought a chainsaw right there in that lobby almost 50 years ago and yeah, so a lot of it. There was the edge of town and you know, a market station hadn't been built at that time. There was still a chicken coop in my backyard and it just was a much, much smaller town, is that simple? Everything happened right in the downtown, couple of blocks, and really things changed for downtown Leesburg starting in about 1957 when John Ours built the Virginia Village Shopping Center and I think the smartest thing he ever did in terms of establishing that center was he convinced the, I guess, the folks in Richmond to move the liquor store from right down on King Street to down there in his shopping center. So, you know, brought the people Brought the people sure did regularly.

Speaker 1:

How do you feel, seeing like all these changes, like?

Speaker 2:

you know there are pluses and minuses and I think you know a lot of folks will, you know, sort of be negative about all the growth and all the good old days. And one thing, another. And while I'm thinking of it, you know how many Virginians it takes to change the light bulb. Right, tell me, it takes one to change the bulb and two to talk about how great the old one was, you know. And so that plays into that thinking to a certain degree. Oh, I remember when and all the rest. But yeah, you remember when you had to go quite a distance to get certain services where you know one grocery store, essentially one or two clothing stores, you know, just basically a farm town, a farm community with most of those basic services in the middle of town. And that all changed when the shopping center John Ours was the first one. But over time we've got these big bucks all the way surrounding and you can feel a sucking sound of pulling businesses out of but that you know the.

Speaker 2:

The business changed dramatically in downtown Leesburg during the recession of 1990s.

Speaker 2:

That was sort of the end of the clothing stores, the staples type of stores that sold staple products, and it's taken a while, but I think it really has come around to being much more of an entertainment, food and entertainment.

Speaker 2:

This is one of the reasons I think a performing arts center in downtown Leesburg would go a long way and the county built a gigantic building over there and built the garage across the street, and the court systems have grown as you might expect with the population and have put in many millions of dollars worth of buildings. So I think you've got sort of a mixed base of your regular business week, the nine to five money through Friday, which even that's now changing, with folks working from home and the like. But you're seeing that with the legal communities here and the title companies, insurance companies, a lot of that sort of office work. And then you've got a lot of interesting restaurants, a lot more than there used to be, and you've got various kinds of shops that are more in the nature of gift shops doesn't perfectly predict or describe them, but gourmet shops and, you know, wild West design shops. There's a lot of different folks that probably wouldn't have been a particularly good fit 30 years ago.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, no, I agree. So, in terms of looking forward, where do you see our community in 10, 30, 50 years?

Speaker 2:

That's tall order. Let me start with the minutia. You know we're seeing very different way people are using offices these days. You know I've got several office buildings and the larger space users are shrinking considerably, if not closing Wells Fargo who's been next door and attended mine for 15 years. They're terminating their lease this winter and we're not seeing quite the congestion in the parking. I will not buy a building that doesn't have parking because historically it's been so difficult.

Speaker 2:

But I think that I don't know where this office as your primary working space is going to end up. I don't know where it's going to play out. I think we're probably going to see just a much higher level of flexibility, such that there'll be some folks that work exclusively at home. There'll be some folks who don't want to work exclusively at home and want to go to an office and have that separation between their home life and their work life and then there'll be the mixture and we're seeing that. A friend of mine who works for a very large tech company here in Northern Virginia. They hired him because he's been involved in large office building reconstruction and redesign and they're redesigning whole suites for the way people come in and use them, where folks don't have necessarily their own office. They'll share an office but they'll use it Tuesday and Wednesday and somebody else uses it Wednesday and Thursday, et cetera. So we'll see how that plays the growth. It's hard to imagine that there won't be continuing growth pressure.

Speaker 2:

As a farmer, part of that concerns me. I think that we're starting to see a little bit of friction between breweries and wineries and wedding sites and the like and some sort of traditionally agricultural and quiet or sort of neighborhoods. And Loudoun County has more dirt roads than any other county in Virginia, there being over a hundred, and most of them aren't set up for traffic at more than 20 or 25 miles an hour and people just go zipping around. I won't go out on the dirt road that I live on. I wouldn't get on a horse and go out on that road now. It's just too dangerous. But it's hard for me to imagine. That's not following Fairfax, which is 1.2, 1.3 million people, here we are at 400. How is our? Basically it's going to come down to zoning, isn't it? How is the Board of Supervisors, through its zoning laws, going to declare us full or define what full is?

Speaker 1:

Closed yeah.

Speaker 2:

Yeah right, which I mean transportation has to kind of catch up, and we've got environmental issues to be thinking about and hopefully we'll be able to improve on our current circumstance if so many people get in a car alone and driving a great distance to and from work and the like every day and stacked up in traffic, and it would be nice if we could reduce the carbon consumption with a better way to do it.

Speaker 2:

Put it that way my office has recently started a pilot of a four day work week, with our having the offices open five days a week, but we're half staff on Monday and half staff on Friday, and it's been primarily a tremendous success. My employees everybody just really feel much better about their work life balance. People can go and have lunch with their kids at school and get more of the things non-work things done, but it does, at the same time, challenges our productivity level, and so what I ask everybody to do and everybody's jumped in pretty well is to pay really close attention to getting to work on time and not spending any more time as necessary just shooting the breeze around the water and fountain and think about efficient ways of doing things. What is the best way to do this. It makes you sharpen your pencil a little bit about those things and how they're going to go.

Speaker 1:

You have the right people on your team, then, yes, they will definitely like tighten up because they know that that extra day off is like worth it.

Speaker 2:

It's like a bonus. I hope I retire before I have to declare that it's not a success. I don't want to be there and have those words come out of my mouth. I think it will work out and we'll see how it plays with others and some of the studies that were around that I read about it just caught my attention. I thought it was kind of a cool idea.

Speaker 1:

I've had a team member here on my team that sent me a couple of those studies.

Speaker 2:

There you go. I'm familiar with that. Well, if he or she can just show you how their salary is going to be supported in four days, then that's going to be real interesting. That could work.

Speaker 1:

No, it is interesting because I know how important it is to be able to have a healthy balance.

Speaker 2:

What are we here for?

Speaker 1:

That right there? Yeah, exactly, okay. So then, just to wrap this up, how do you personally want your legacy to look like? Or is there anything that you haven't accomplished yet? The mixture of those two.

Speaker 2:

Oh, everything. I have so many different interests, frankly, that I could keep myself busy doing lots of different things, but I'd like to think that before I'm gone, I've left some lasting contribution to the community, which may be in the form of things physical but also could be in hopefully doing a good job raising my two daughters and being a good grandparent, being a good business person, maybe setting an example. To a certain degree, it's part of one of my motivations to be working with a bar doing this film on ethics and professional ism, because we've seen too many lawyers who think what they see on TV is the way you behave in a courtroom. I think our rule of law in this country and in the world is what saves us from all becoming cavemen who are savages.

Speaker 2:

Right, exactly, I know, and there are sacrifices to be made and there are social commitments to it, but I think in the end it becomes very rewarding. That's the name of the game. Right is to live a life that's rewarding and satisfying and enjoyable and healthy and productive, which is easy to say and a little bit harder to do.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, no, that's great. What's your message to the world?

Speaker 2:

I should have brought my. I have these little magnets that I made when we were doing the, and now I'm not going to be able to remember all five of them. First one is practice kindness. One is be grateful. One is enjoy today. Fourth one is avoid regret. The fifth one a lot of people don't always get is go first. What I mean by go first is be a little bit brave and humble as well. Be willing to say you're sorry, Be willing to say I love you, Be willing to take a chance on somebody. I call those five suggestions for a happier life.

Speaker 1:

I love it.

Speaker 2:

Maybe it's good, maybe it isn't, but it's pretty much. For me, at the top is practice, kindness. I think if you're I don't say be kind, I think you want to actively practice being kind, you want to be conscious of it, and it's its own reward. It's terrific. And I think if more people would sort of adopt that attitude and not be worrying about all the harder things in life quite so much and appreciating the good things, they'll find themselves happier people.

Speaker 1:

And you went first. There you go. Thank you so much for being on the show. I appreciate all of your words of wisdom and your inspiration.

Speaker 2:

Well, thank you Appreciate that.

Speaker 1:

That was great.

Community-Driven Project
Practice and Real Estate Investment
Downtown Leesburg Changes and Future Predictions
Five Suggestions for a Happier Life