She found personal-injury law at just the right moment, and it led to a stunning career
There are some lawyers who first learn the basics of law in law school, others who get a sniff of training as the children of lawyers and still others whose destiny is decided even before they know they want to be lawyers. Monica Burneikis most likely falls into the latter category.
The founder and president of Burneikis Law in Oakland was exposed at a very young age to challenges many individuals faced on a daily basis and understood she could be part of the solution. She set out to do just that – to “help navigate the rules of the road,” as she put it. “And I don’t mean that as a personal injury attorney, but just the laws, the rules of this world,” Burneikis explained. “I didn’t at that point in time understand that I would be getting into plaintiffs’ law or have any idea what type of law I wanted to practice. I just knew that I wanted to be in a position where I could help people navigate through legal challenges.
“Apparently, I argued pretty well too,” she continued. “Funny story. I was grounded at one point, and my mom said that she knew I was going to be a lawyer when I came to her proposing a plea bargain.”
Burneikis, however, had no idea plaintiffs’ personal-injury law would be her calling. When she began practicing in personal injury – an opportunity that came swiftly and by chance about 15 months after she passed the bar – she fell in love with the work. She had found a purpose and a way to fulfill it, she said.
Not only did it happen fast, but it also happened just in time. Burneikis said she had been on the verge of quitting law altogether after learning the nuts and bolts at a defense firm, then taking a job at another firm that did both plaintiffs’ and defense work. At that point in her career, about a year out, she said she was not loving the practice of law, so much so that she was considering leaving. Then she landed a job at Hoge Fenton, Jones & Appel, where one of the attorneys with a 30-year plaintiffs’ personal-injury practice, Barbara Spector, was about to become the mayor of Los Gatos. While she didn’t want to lose her practice, Spector very well couldn’t do both jobs, Burneikis said.
The firm made it clear to Spector it would give her the support she needed, that she could keep her practice while she served as mayor. Burneikis, it turned out, was the “logical person to slide into that role” as her associate.
“So, I started doing plaintiffs’ personal-injury work, and I absolutely loved it,” Burneikis said. “I finally found something that I could wrap my arms around and enjoy. I felt like I was finally on the right side of this (profession), helping people that needed help. These were people that had suffered catastrophic, life-altering injuries and that were fighting with the insurance bureaucracy …. I finally found something that I could say, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ It made me feel good at the end of the day, and I was able to sleep at night, and that’s what kept me in the practice.”
Today, having practiced personal-injury law over the past two decades with Hoge Fenton, then rising to partner during a nearly nine-year stint with Meisel Krensta & Burneikis, she now calls the shots at her own firm. It had been one of her goals to own a firm, and in 2019, she decided to make it a goal to open her own firm by the end of 2020.
In the years leading up to that deadline, Burneikis had become comfortable at Meisel. She had two small children and a mortgage, so picking up and starting over meant taking a big risk, with the potential of having no income for a long while.
At the beginning of 2020, she had a number of cases that were wrapping up, and she wanted to see those cases through. She was envisioning the third quarter of 2020 for the separation and restart.
“Then the COVID-19 hit, and it became clear that this was the time,” she said. “Little did I, or really anyone, know exactly what COVID would mean for our practices. I started negotiating my separation from my partners and laying the groundwork necessary to get my firm off the ground one week to the day after the COVID shutdown began. At first, it was terrifying because my phone stopped ringing.… Imagine having a practice where 80 percent of your case load comes out of something having to do with the roadway, primarily motor vehicle accidents. And nobody was driving.
“To say this was distressing is putting it mildly,” Burneikis continued. “Looking back on it now, the timing could not have been more perfect. For the first time in my entire career, life got quiet. I had no discovery deadlines, trial deadlines, depositions or court appearances, which provided me with the time I needed to accomplish the administrative work necessary to get my new firm running.”
By the time Burneikis Law opened its doors in June 2020, she was ready, she said. People were getting back out into the world, and her phone was ringing again.
Born and raised in San Jose, Burneikis earned her undergraduate degree in political science at San Jose State University then went to Santa Clara University School of Law on scholarship. Having grown up as a competitive dancer, she hedged a bit when trying to decide on a career. While at SJSU, she changed her major three times, starting with political science because her mother was an educator.
“Even though she really fostered my love for dance and allowed me to enjoy that all through my childhood,” Burneikis recalled, “she also taught me ‘your career as a dancer will probably be over by the time you are 13. You really need something that’s going to pay the bills.’ So, I went into college and I was majoring in political science, and then about a year in I decided to follow my heart, and I changed my major to dance. And I did very well.
“But then midway through my junior year, I decided that I needed to do something that was going to help me get into law school, so I switched back to political science,” she continued. “(Dance) was the only other career that I ever considered.”
Burneikis actually had started her legal career before college and even before she graduated from Notre Dame High School in San Jose. When she was 16, she saw a posting for a legal file clerk at a downtown medical-malpractice-defense firm called Sheuerman and Martini. She applied and was hired and worked there on and off all the way through law school, she said. She went from file clerk to receptionist to learning legal secretarial work and doing the billing.
When she started law school, Burneikis became a legal clerk at Sheuerman and Martini and then was offered her first job as an attorney there.
“Even though I really enjoyed it, I didn’t,” she recalled. “I had never tried anything else. And there were parts of defense work that I did not like at all. I did not like the billable hour and did not like how contentious it was. It was incredibly contentious.”
Wins and losses
Hoge Fenton came to the rescue soon thereafter, and today Burneikis is among the top plaintiffs’ personal-injury lawyers. She has tried numerous cases to verdict with several multimillion-dollar results on behalf of her clients.
Incidentally, one of the cases Burneikis marked as most memorable was a disappointing loss in a highly publicized gang rape case in San Jose involving members of the De Anza College baseball team. Burneikis was representing a minor who had attended a party at the San Jose home. All but two of the defendants settled, and the trial for those remaining defendants lasted 11 weeks, she said.
“It was memorable because of the challenges and how long we litigated the case and how long the trial lasted,” Burneikis said. “It was just challenging on so many levels, and my heart goes out for my client. I think that it’s memorable now because of the woman that she has become. We still keep in touch. She is a remarkable young woman and a mother now. It makes me feel very lucky to have been able to represent her, regardless of the outcome of that case.”
Another case Burneikis won’t likely forget involved a woman who severely injured her ankle when she was hit by a vehicle while crossing the street in a residential area of San Francisco. The injury was going to affect her for the rest of her life, Burneikis said, and the defense’s settlement offers were miniscule leading up to trial. The client was an immigrant from China, and Burneikis suspected the insurance company was trying to take advantage of that situation.
“You know, they were offering money and I just during the course of the negotiations I kept hearing … ‘this is a lot of money to your client,’ and I remember thinking, how dare (they) try to undercut the value of her claim by passing judgment on what the value of money to her is,” Burneikis recalled. “So, we took it to trial, and we ended up getting a verdict that was close to five times what the prelitigation offer was. And the majority of that was noneconomic damages. It made me feel wonderful for being able to help my client ensure that she got the care that she was going to need for the rest of her life.”
Lighting the fire
When she’s not working, Burneikis spends much of her free time with her husband and two children, ages 9 and 6. When they have time, they travel, whether it’s short trips or long trips, they enjoy “trying to get out in the world,” she said. Burneikis also spends some of her leisure time staying fit as a runner and an avid Peloton user.
As for her advice to young lawyers or law students, she would tell them to make sure they utilize the time in law school to take advantage of internship and clerkship opportunities and explore as many different areas of the law as possible. It’s the best way to find an ideal career fit.
“In my years of practice, I have known many people who graduated and passed the bar and have left the practice of law for various reasons,” she explained. “And I almost did the same because I had not found that area of the law that lit a fire inside of me. Had I not found plaintiffs’ personal-injury work, I fear I would have left, and I would have missed out on the phenomenal opportunities that I have now to represent those people that have suffered catastrophic, life-altering injuries.
“Who knows what I would have been doing? Burneikis added. “Just get out there and talk to as many different lawyers as possible. And try to get that experience. We’re not taught how to actually practice law in law school, so getting out there and getting the experience, clerking for a judge or working in a civil law firm or working at the DA’s office – whatever the case may be, not only will it give them the practical experience, but it also exposes them to the different types of jobs that are out there, the different types of law that one can be practicing. It will help them identify what is their passion, what’s going to be that area that’s going to light the fire for them.”
Favorite getaway spot: Any tropical beach where I can snorkel
Go-to music or artist: Mumford & Sons
Recommended reading: Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”
Dream job: Performing on Broadway
Word to live by: “No regrets. Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens for the best.”
2024 by the author.
For reprint permission, contact the publisher: www.plaintiffmagazine.com