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Lunch with Mimi: McQuaide Blasko's Sean Burke on the Law Firm’s Legacy and the Role Staffers Play in the Life of the Community

by on May 30, 2019 4:30 AM

As president and managing director at McQuaide Blasko since July 2018, Sean Burke manages and oversees the delivery of multidisciplinary legal services for four offices within Central Pennsylvania. Based in the firm’s Blair County office, Burke represents closely held business entities with a focus on mergers, acquisitions, and land development. His primary specialty is in agricultural businesses, including farmers, cooperative associations, agricultural lenders, and agricultural equipment manufacturers. In addition, Burke provides counsel to business owners in succession and estate planning matters.

Born and raised in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, Burke joined McQuaide Blasko in 2005. He graduated cum laude from St. Vincent College in Latrobe with a Bachelor of Science degree in political science and economics in 2002. He earned his Juris Doctorate degree in 2005 from Washington University in St. Louis.

Burke currently serves as vice president on the Hollidaysburg Borough Council and his wife, Laura, is running for Blair County commissioner. Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Burke at Federal Taphouse in State College to discuss McQuaide Blasko’s legacy in providing legal expertise in Centre, Blair, and Dauphin counties, meeting the evolving needs of their clients and the community.

Mimi: Welcome! You happen to be part of an organization with an unbelievable legacy. The founders of what is now McQuaide Blasko were prominent citizens in mostly Bellefonte in the beginning, the county seat. Love and Wilkinson were the names as far back as I can remember. And of course, I knew Roy Wilkinson very well. He handled a lot of issues for us in the early years of our business, and of course, was a great influence at Penn State, particularly during the Eisenhower presidency of Penn State. So, it is an organization that has had close ties in Centre County and Penn State for a long time. And now, it has branches in Blair County and in Hershey.

Sean: And in Williamsport.

Mimi: So, as a young new leader of the group, what made you do it?

Sean: I enjoy being out in front of things, and so I've always wanted to be leading our firm. I had been on the management committee before becoming managing shareholder. And having been in the branch office, there are leadership or management opportunities that present themselves probably a little bit more quickly than they would at a larger plant.

Mimi: Of course, they give you a different perspective as well.

Sean: They certainly do. We are fortunate in our branch offices to have the best of both worlds where you have that large law firm feel because of capabilities, facilities, and the breadth and depth of talent.

Mimi: And a reputation along the way.

Sean: Certainly. Having that available, but then having the small office feel, and the cats are perpetually away, so the mice may play in a branch office. That's been a nice juxtaposition for us. And it's allowed us to capitalize on providing sophisticated services and also providing that hometown feel and being rooted in the community. You're able to get sophisticated legal services from the law firm of the person who's coaching your son or daughter in soccer. There's a certain level of accountability and shared morals that our clients and business partners find to be desirable.

Mimi: It's my observation also that you take an active role in the community, that you're not all law and no play.

Sean: That's true. We encourage our attorneys to get involved in leadership programs that the counties provide, whether it be through Leadership Blair County or Leadership Centre County. Most McQuaide Blasko attorneys are a past president of a Rotary Club.

Mimi: They’re every place. I can't help but comment on the fact that whether it's the Center for the Performing Arts or in the nonprofit world, your attorneys volunteer time and money which is important to sustaining a great number of these charitable efforts.

Sean: We’ve been very fortunate to be able to commit time, talent, and treasure to charities of choice., Having a larger law firm gives us a lot of choices.It isn’t the cause de jour of the managing shareholder.Rather, we support the causes that are important to our attorneys and to our staff. We have very low turnover. Our staff is active in the community, whether it be through Habitat [for Humanity], Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Wheels for Heroes. It isn't just our attorneys that are showing up swinging a hammer. The commitment to community service is cultural. I don't know if it's in the water at McQuaide Blasko, but it's certainly something that is very expected. So, it is certainly not something that we've changed or enhanced over the last year, but just continued.

Mimi: I believe that your firm has been recognized for having recognized the value of adding women to your staff. I believe you have done a remarkable job of having some balance in your partners.

Sean: Thank you. I'm glad you asked about that. That's probably one of the things that we're proudest of is the number of female shareholders that we have. Both of our practice group chairs are females. And the majority of our partners right now are females.

Mimi: Do you think that's helped you have a greater perspective on that whole picture?

Sean: Well, I know better than to give my privileged response to that. I will say that we are enhanced by a diversity of viewpoints. And it has allowed us to attract and develop talented individuals and to maintain important relationships over time.

Mimi: Do you wish to name the ones that are head of the practice?

Sean: Absolutely. Chena Glenn-Hart is the chair of our litigation practice group and Cristin Long is the chair of our business practice group. I'm very proud of them both. And I know everybody else is as well. We've had some great role models for female attorneys in our firm with Janine Gismondi and Pam Ruest, and Katie Oliver as well. Two of them are on the bench.

Mimi: Well, we now have what I call a balanced court for the first time in the history of Centre County. Maybe there will be some day when all four of them will be female. Do you think that will ever happen?

Sean: I think so.

Mimi: In today's political world, there is a lot of attorneying that at least makes this person sit back and occasionally wonder what in the world is going on. Do you have any feeling that way when you see some of the horror of what’s occurring in our country?

Sean: It's a shame that so many of our politicians are lawyers, because they get a seam, or a loose thread to pull, and they can't help themselves. It's by nature, by training, that people sit there and jump on a word. No lawyer asks a question without a reason for asking the question. And so, no lawyer answers a question without assuming that the person [asking] the question had a motive for asking the question. When you see these politicians ask and answer questions, it's this dance that’s not interesting.

Mimi: As a firm with a great reputation, do you take every case that comes to you?

Sean: No. My mentor, Tom Reese  from Blair County, told me very early on that your reputation isn’t based on who you represent, but who you don't represent. I think it holds true that you've got to be judicious in the matters that you take. When you live by the billable hour, so to speak, it can be difficult to turn down work. But we have to understand the culture of the firm, the areas that you're competent to practice in, and not take on those types of matters that you wish you hadn’t. It takes a lot of foresight, some experience, and probably some trial and error before you realize it.

Mimi: How effective is MidPenn Legal Services, which I believe is designed to help the people who can't otherwise afford good counsel? And is there anything we need to do to protect the underdog, who can't afford legal counsel, to be able to have proper counseling?

Sean: The folks at MidPenn are tremendous. The ones that I've worked with, primarily Diana Ingersoll, is an excellent attorney. And they're certainly not doing it for the money or the accolades. It seems like they're doing it for the call of justice that you've heard about. They’re very competent and they do good work for the right reason. They are understaffed and underfunded.

They have to do so many different things. And the real weakness is that they only end up doing these crisis-management type of engagements where you're being kicked out of your house, foreclosed upon or evicted, you've got a family law issue, or been fired from your job. And so, there aren’t opportunities for MidPenn Legal Services attorneys to provide low-income folks with transactional services, like corporate setup, business formations, or estate planning, wills, etc. And so, those needs go unserved, largely because there just aren't enough people and resources.

Mimi: It just reminds you of the problem in all categorical areas for the have-nots in a society that has. And the older we get, at least the older I get, I look on the picture and it's very sad.

Sean: Yes, there is a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that says, “We all do better when we all do better.” I often think about that quote whenever I'm reminded of how in a society of plenty, there's still those that go without.

Mimi: I can match you with another Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “A woman is like a tea bag. She doesn't know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” Her words have been a huge inspiration to me in my lifetime. You're quite a family man. You have four children not very far apart. How do you handle everything?

Sean: I see my kids each morning and get them ready for school. And then I try to be home right after work to get that time with them. If it's important, you need to prioritize it. I'm extraordinarily fortunate that my spouse isn't working currently. She takes the laboring oar as it comes to childcare currently. My parents are both alive and well and live locally. They help take care of our kids. And also, my sister and brother live locally, they have larger families and they take care of our kids, their kids take care of our kids. It takes a village.

Mimi: It sure does. In the future, do you see anything that would change the way the legal system works? Because it's a different world today than it was even a year ago.

Sean: I think the real change will be in automation and the mechanization of certain legal processes and services. And we're already seeing that in areas of real estate settlement and estate settlement. There's a lot more do-it-yourself going on. And that will continue.

Mimi: There are even some lawyers online, selling their service in a particular area.

Sean: I think that's the biggest change people will see. I don't know that the way that it works in the courthouse is going to change. I think that's just so grooved. If you like it, it's historic and traditional. If you don't like it, it's a rut. The way that is delivered I don't think is going to change. You might see more specialization in in the courts.

Mimi: As a buyer of those services, I can't imagine not seeing, hearing, and touching – not in a literal sense – but I don't see that going away. I think there's too much involved. But then I'm a whole lot older and not tuned in to see how far this long-distance help goes.

Sean: I would like to think that there will always be a place for the counselor at law to give advice in person. But there are certainly areas that feel like they are under siege.

Mimi: Anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to talk about?

Mimi: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our exchange.

Sean: As have I. Thank you.


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