Attorney at Law Magazine Palm Beach Publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Burnadette Norris-Weeks to discuss her career and her proudest accomplishment.
AALM: When did you decide to become a lawyer and why? What drove you to this career?
Norris-Weeks: Without fully realizing it at the time, I wanted to become a lawyer because the mother of a childhood friend was a lawyer. I remember always feeling a sense of empowerment whenever I had an opportunity to be around Ms. Pearl Crosby Smith, the only black woman lawyer practicing law in Cocoa, Florida, in the mid-70s. She was someone who had her own sense of style, her own law practice and was a woman who was well-respected in the community. I enjoyed visiting my friend at their home, but especially enjoyed visiting Ms. Smith’s law office after school on occasion. It was not until years later than I made the connection between the influence that Ms. Smith had on my eventual career choice.
AALM: What do you find rewarding about being an attorney? What do you find challenging about your practice? How do you overcome those challenges?
Norris-Weeks: The beauty of the law profession is that every day is an opportunity to solve a problem or help someone improve their life. Whether it is helping someone recover damages for injuries received in an automobile accident or writing language for an ordinance that will help to improve an entire community, lawyers help people. It is rewarding to secure a positive outcome for a client, especially when the stakes are high. The challenge that I have is finding balance. In law school, we are told that the law is like a jealous mistress that requires a long and constant courtship. I’ve found this analogy to be true. At times, it is a struggle to balance a personal life with a busy professional career where every case is important to someone.
AALM: What was the beginning of your career like? How has it evolved over the years?
Norris-Weeks: Fortunately, I am handling the same type of matters that I’ve handled for the past 27 years. I was fortunate to start my career with a boutique Tallahassee law firm that represented governmental entities, corporations, and handled serious personal injury matters. This is almost identical to the type of work that my firm handles now. In terms of size, I started my own firm in the late ’90s and for many years, I was afraid to grow beyond two or three attorneys. I had an unwarranted fear that with more people there would be more headaches. I discovered, however, that the opposite is true. Growth has allowed my firm to fully service clients and has freed me up to be laser focused when necessary. We have a great team of professionals and I love to come to work each day.
AALM: How welcoming do you think the South Florida legal community is to women practitioners? How do you personally try to help women following in your career path?
Norris-Weeks: With a more diverse South Florida population, it appears that the South Florida community has become more welcoming to women and to women of color. When I moved to South Florida in the mid-90s, the area was very much a boy’s network. The boys shared with other boys and if you joined integrated bar or community organizations, the time spent building relationships did not necessarily translate into business referrals. Things have changed a bit.
More importantly, however, I’ve discovered that it is sometimes necessary to create your own networks. Specifically, networks that will support and foster the development of female professionals. My passion happens to be a not-for-profit organization that I co-founded called the Women of Color Empowerment Institute Inc. The organization offers a professional mentorship program where more seasoned professionals are paired with younger professionals for a year. Through the institute, I’ve been a mentor for several young lawyers and other professionals. It is important to me that I share important lessons learned to better the next generation.
AALM: How are you involved in the legal community and the local community?
Norris-Weeks: I am the immediate past chair of the 17th Judicial Circuit’s bar leadership committee. I am serving a second term on the Broward County Charter Review Commission where I chair the affordable housing and public safety committee. I serve on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity of Broward County. I am a past national chair of the American Bar Association’s litigation section’s minority trial lawyer committee.
AALM: How do you balance your home life and work life?
Norris-Weeks: I often have the conversation of balance with friends who are also busy professionals used to juggling many projects at one time. Over time, I’ve discovered there is no such thing as work/life balance. There is only an understanding that you will need to focus on what is most important at any given time. Whether it is work, family, friends, volunteer work or my work with the Women of Color Empowerment Institute, I focus on the demands of that day and shuffle the remaining items to another day. I’ve finally learned that it is fine to delegate because nobody can do it all. It’s important to be surrounded by good people and not place unrealistic demands on yourself. Rather, I do whatever I am doing at any given time to the best of my ability.
AALM: What accomplishment are you most proud of achieving?
Norris-Weeks: In my earlier days of practicing law, one of the firm partners would always say, “You are only as good as your last win.” That saying stuck with me over the years and as a result, I always remember the last win as a proud achievement. I’ve been involved in impactful cases over the years.
Recently, a federal court judge ruled in favor of my client in a precedent setting case that would have had nationwide implications if lost. The court concluded that my client, the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, implemented a general program that complied with the National Voter Registration Act. It was a hard-fought case that made national news on more than one occasion. In the elections business nobody remembers when you get things right, only when a mistake is made, no matter how slight. Running an election in a large county has a lot of moving parts and people who do this work are true public servants. I was proud to work with my client, Dr. Brenda Snipes, and her staff to deliver a win for Florida voters. Losing this case could have meant that voters could have been arbitrarily removed from a voters list. This was a great win and my law firm looks forward to litigating other meaningful cases.
AALM: Tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to learn.
Norris-Weeks: The beach is my favorite place on earth. I live for holidays when I go to the ocean to swim. If it’s a holiday and my work is done, you’ll find me in a chair by the sea.