Sometimes with the law comes celebrity. Oakland attorney John Burris has gained a measure of fame as a television commentator on legal matters.

But he also acquired a reputation as "Oakland's Johnnie Cochran."

"I was Johnnie Cochran of the north and he was John Burris of the south," Burris said. "This was when I finished the Rodney King case and before (Cochran) became famous."

Cochran became nationally famous by defending O.J. Simpson in his criminal trial. Cochran gained gaining Simpson's acquittal with his memorable glove line to the jury: If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

Burris built a name for himself by representing King, San Francisco police Chief Earl Sanders in the "Fajitagate" case, actor Delroy Lindo, and three professional athletes — baseball's Barry Bonds, basketball's Gary Payton and football's Keyshawn Johnson. Burris was also involved in the Oakland Police Department "Riders" case.

While Cochran was defending Simpson, Burris commented regularly on the case on Channel 2. Burris has continued offering legal insights on local TV.

Burris and Cochran were close friends, and friends of a feather, until Cochran died in 2005. The two met in 1997 and referred cases to each other.

"He was like a big brother to me," said Burris, 62. "He told me, 'John, you need to do what I'm doing, prosecuting these police cases.' In many ways, that's how I got going. We talked often and did cases together."

Burris has a strong social conscience, offering legal guidance to the disadvantaged and the abused.

"It's a high-risk business," he said.


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"You either win and get paid or you lose and you don't get paid.

"Look, I could make a lot more money doing other stuff, but I really want to improve the quality of life."

Burris comes from a family with the very same values.

"My family always helped people," he said. "After the (six) children left home, my parents became foster parents."

Burris' parents met after migrating from Oklahoma to Vallejo during World War II. The father worked in the shipyards. John was their first child.

The parents' schooling ended in high school, but they wanted college educations for their children. Four of the six earned degrees, one a Ph.D.

John was tested early academically, earning high scores. He and a sister integrated an all-white Vallejo grade school, and did well in the classroom.

"I developed self-confidence early," he said.

After being transferred to a predominantly African-American elementary school, he first felt "the ravages of discrimination." The black school, he discovered, lacked the same academic advantages as the white school.

"I was kind of wondering what was going on here," he said of his first social lesson. "I was an observant person."

He persevered and graduated from Vallejo High School before earning an accounting degree from Golden Gate University.

After college, Burris worked for a CPA firm during the Civil Rights Movement. Watching TV, he was stunned by the way Southern police beat up unarmed blacks. That is also when he began noticing black lawyers.

While getting a master's degree in business at the University of California, Berkeley, Burris was mentored by professor Dow Votaw, who listened to his social concerns and advised him to think of law school.

Burris, at 25, was accepted at Cal's Boalt Hall. He knew the first day of law school that he had made the right career decision.

After Boalt, he joined a prestigious Chicago law firm with a view from the 44th floor.

"I said, 'What am I doing up here? I need to get down on the ground and deal with the people,'" he recalled. "I needed to practice law in ways that would improve the social condition."

Returning to California in 1977, he worked for the district attorney in Alameda County. Two years later, he opened a law firm with Dave Alexander and future Oakland mayor Elihu Harris.

"By then," Burris said. "I was pretty committed to doing social activist work. I've been doing civil rights work ever since, a sense of helping those who otherwise could not help themselves."

Burris, who now has his own practice, is perceived as working alone in battling local civil rights issues. Only that's not true. He named three other local lawyers — Jim Channing, John Scott, Pamela Price — who are devoted to the same social concerns. Channing and Scott are white, Price black.

"We're a small cadre," Burris said, "but there are small bands of lawyers doing the same thing around the country."

Burris has been married twice, has five children and lives in the Oakland hills.

Another misconception: He represents only black clients.

"I have a kaleidoscope of clients — Hispanics, blacks, whites, Asians, you name it," he said. "I feel very happy about the work I do, and people like what I do."

Burris, in dispelling yet another perception, isn't anti-police.

"I don't go willy-nilly, feeling that every police situation is bad," he said. "I'm a fair person in understanding and interpreting the law.

"I'm not dogmatic or judgmental to the point that I'm unwilling to give people a second chance. Just because you've made a mistake doesn't mean you're a bad person. People deserve a second chance in life. I got that from my parents."

Dave Newhouse's columns appear Monday, Thursday and Sunday, usually on the Metro page. Know any Good Neighbors? Phone 510-208-6466 or e-mail dnewhouse@bayareanewsgroup.com.