Paying her dues: New director of bar association works way up the ranks of the Genesee Bar

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By Paul Janczewski
Legal News

Tatilia Burroughs knew from an early age that she wanted a career in business administration. As a child, she often had to accompany her divorced mother, Odelia Dunlap, to her job at the Flint Board of Education, where she held a clerical position.

“It always looked so important and busy,” Burroughs said. “Just watching her, I picked up on the office administration, and I loved it.”

Long years passed. Working various jobs, going to school to obtain a degree, forsaking good times with friends and other sacrifices along the way yet always keeping the ultimate goal in mind have finally paid off for Burroughs. The culmination came in June when she was named executive director of the Genesee County Bar Association.

“It was exciting,” Burroughs, 33, of Grand Blanc said of her selection.

Although she has been at the GCBA for 14 years, steadily moving up the ladder, taking over the top spot was a new experience, and one she jumped into immediately.

“On my first day (as executive director), we had a 7:30 a.m. board meeting. But it’s been an exciting month getting used to the culture…(and)…being in charge of the administration of the office.”

Burroughs was born in Flint and graduated from Flint Northwestern High School in 1995. By then, she had already been working in office settings for a few years, following her dream from the days she watched her mother hustle and bustle in the office.

“I always wanted to work in some type of business administration position,” Burroughs said. “Always.”

She credits her mother for serving as her role model.

“She held a standard for us to achieve things we wanted in life, and not to expect a handout,” Burroughs said. “She taught us that you work for it and you achieve it, and that your choices have consequences, good or bad.”

Her mother also practiced what she preached. Dunlap still works for the Board of Education, but plans to retire in August.

While in high school, Burroughs began by working at Flint Community Schools through a job-training program. There, working a few hours after school, she began by answering the telephone and filing. Later in the program, when some of the students went off to work at fast food restaurants, “I stuck with the office work,” she said.

Burroughs was hired by a young attorney, Ramona Roberts, answering phones and furthering her office education while picking up a bit of knowledge of the legal community, which would come in very handy years later. Roberts was elected as a Flint district court judge, so Burroughs, now a senior in high school, began working in a dental office, working the phones once again, and scheduling appointments.

“I’ve always had an office job,” she said.

Burroughs said she made plans to get a degree in business administration because “it came so naturally to me.” Besides working at an office, her mother also organized trips and did other things for her church, and Burroughs soaked all of it in.

Her big break came in 1996, when she was hired by the GCBA. A family friend worked there, and was leaving the job after graduating from college, but encouraged Burroughs to apply for the job.

“I had never heard of the bar association,” she said.

Burroughs had heard of the Lawyer Referral program, which was a function of the GCBA, and soon after being hired was placed in that position.

She also was furthering her education. After short stints at Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint, Burroughs attended Baker College, receiving her associate’s degree in 2001 and her bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2003. After working at the GCBA for several years, a new executive director, Ramona Sain, was hired.

By 2001, Burroughs was working full time at the GCBA. While she had no interest in pursuing a law degree, she loved watching television programs that revolved around the law and was picking up skills on the periphery of law by way of her job.

But her life for a few years revolved around work and school, with a lot of self-discipline.

“Weekends were wonderful, but that was filled with doing homework,” she said. “But I had goals I wanted to accomplish, and I worked toward it. I’d get sidetracked every once in a while, but I’d refocus myself because I wanted that degree.”

“Anyone can be successful in life, but a degree could take me further in a career,” Burroughs said. “And I believed that it would help me get my foot further in the door than those who didn’t have one.”

Once she received her degree, Burroughs decided to stay at the GCBA because of the members she had met, Sain’s tutelage, and her growing knowledge of the business.

“You get into an organization, get familiar with it, and you know how it operates, and what the goal and mission is,” she said. “It’s just a joy to work with the attorneys, and in the legal community.”

Burroughs also enjoyed seeing what the GCBA provides to the community, whether through the free law seminars for citizens, or the annual holiday dinner, or the other ways the association helps those less fortunate.

“It gives you a real sense of helping the community,” she said.

Eventually, Burroughs was named as Sain’s assistant. But after 12 years in the job, Sain left this summer to become Corporate Development Officer for the Flint Cultural Center Corp. It came as a shock to Burroughs.

“It completely caught me off guard,” she said.

Burroughs said she was content in her job and enjoyed working as Sain’s girl Friday. But soon, many people associated with the GCBA began encouraging her to apply for the job as executive director.

“I wrestled with it, and weighed the pros and cons,” she said.

After talking with her husband, Dion Burroughs, on how it may change their lives and affect their home life, he told her he would support her in whatever she chose to do.

That was the final piece of advice she needed to hear. Burroughs finally applied for the position just a few days before the cutoff. Her hiring was greeted by praise.

“We look forward to working with her in maintaining the high quality of our organization, in continuing the many valuable programs offered to our members and in promoting our public service efforts,” said GCBA President Timoth Knecht.

Burroughs, who is known by many as Tina, said Sain may be gone, but she is certainly not forgotten.

“Wow, what can you say about a woman who ran this office so well,” she said. “It’s going to be a pleasure just to carry on what she’s done.”

“She saw where the office was lacking (when she was hired) and she picked things up and ran with it, and helped this office work well,” Burroughs said.

She said Sain has graciously offered to assist her, and Burroughs plans on using that trump card. But at some point, Burroughs said she wants to make the job hers.

“That’s going to be the most challenging part,” she said.

Sain was there for a dozen years, and people get used to things being done in a certain way. But Burroughs said she plans to continue the GCBA’s mission, and work well with the board and its 525 members, and believes that one day she will make her own mark.

One challenge will be seeing the bar through the current economic downturn. Burroughs said the members are very active, giving and caring, even in the worst of times. Her hands will be full in the upcoming year, with seminars to promote, law day activities to fill, and the holiday dinner to plan. In addition, the bar holds mock trials on Law Day, and this year, will hold a program for Constitution Day in September. In February, a group of new attorneys are going to be sworn in at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Burroughs and the board also are considering a few new projects and programs, so there will be little time to dwell on her newness. But she also brings more than a decade of her own knowledge to the bar.

“I didn’t walk in blind,” she said. “I come in with more knowledge than what someone off the street would have come in with, I know the people, have a working relationship with the members and some of our other partners in the community, such as the League of Women Voters. I’ve set up events and built relationships that only could have been built working for the GCBA, and that makes the transition smoother.”

As for her personal life, Burroughs said she just wants to enjoy family life. She and her husband plan on having children soon.

“But I’m very pleased with where I am in life,” she said.

And so is the GCBA.

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