Jacob Burns, LL.B. '24, Hon. LL.D. ’70
Jacob Burns in 1967
The George Washington University Law School is proud to honor Jacob Burns (1902-1993) of Manhattan, a lawyer, artist, and philanthropist. He was an alumnus and generous benefactor whose name graces our library building, our clinical programs, and their director, a multitude of scholarships, and our most important moot court competition, among other things.
Born in the Ukraine on 15 February 1902, Burns came to the United States with his family when he was 11. Upon his graduation from the District's Central High School in 1921, he was offered a four-year scholarship to study at the Corcoran School of Art, but he felt he should go to law school. He worked full-time during the day to finance his studies and received his LL.B. in 1924 from what is now The George Washington University Law School. He was admitted to the District of Columbia bar the same year.
In 1929, he left Washington and later made New York his home, joining his two brothers in a business venture that eventually became the U.S. Vitamin and Pharmaceutical Corporation. He was chairman when the company merged with Revlon in 1966 and then served as a director of Revlon for 20 years. He was admitted to the Bar of the State of New York in 1932, beginning his career in corporate law, estates, and trusts.
In 1970, Burns received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from GW. He served on the GW Board of Trustees from 1971 to 1977, when he became an honorary trustee. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the GW Law Association in 1975 and, in 1983, an Alumni Achievement Award from the GW University Alumni Association.
Dr. Rosalie Burns stands in front of the self-portrait of her father, Jacob Burns, LLB ’24, Hon. LLD ’70. Aside from his successful law career, Jacob Burns was also an accomplished portrait and still life painter.
Over a period of years, Burns provided generous support to the Law School in several forms. The Jacob Burns Law Library was dedicated in 1967, and the Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinics were founded in 1971. That same year, the lecture hall in Stockton Hall was named "The Sally Shenkman Lecture Hall" in memory of Jacob Burns' deceased daughter. The Jacob Burns Moot Court of Lerner Hall was dedicated in January 1984.
The Jacob Burns Fellows Program was established in 1983, providing an annual award to the five highest achieving applicants to the Law School. The Jacob Burns Merit Scholarship, established in 1988 by Burns and the Jacob Burns Foundation, supports substantial grants annually to first-year J.D. candidates without regard to financial need in order to attract our nation's most promising legal scholars.
In 1974, the Jacob Burns-Van Vleck Moot Court Award was established, "honoring a Trustee of the University whose lifetime of broad visioned philanthropy has contributed significantly to the expanding boundaries of knowledge." The award also honors William C. Van Vleck, B.A. '08, LL.B. '11, a longtime Law School professor who served GW Law as dean for 24 years until 1948.
Jacob Burns supported the University as well. The H.B. Burns Memorial Building of the GW Medical Center is named for his late brother. He also gave significant gifts to other GW projects: the Charles E. Smith Center for Athletics, Walter G. Ross Hall and the Kayser, Oppenheim, and Alpert Fellowships.
At the time of his death, Burns was chairman emeritus of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. He was active in a wide range of cultural and civic activities in New York, among them the Metropolitan Opera Association. For many years, he was vice chairman of the Committee on Character and Fitness of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court, a committee which investigates and passes on applicants for admission to the Bar of the State of New York.
In the 1930s, Burns met, by chance, the British portraitist Gerald L. Brockhurst. He arranged to study with him and became a portrait painter himself, producing many likenesses of family members and close friends. He also became a painter of still lifes. A self-portrait by Jacob Burns hangs in GW Law's Jacob Burns Law Library.
Barry Shenkman, grandson of Jacob Burns, LL.B. '24, LL.D. '70 and president of the Jacob Burns Foundation, visited the Law School with his family in spring 2010.
The citation from the honorary degree GW University bestowed upon him on June 7, 1970, reads:
Graduate of the Law School of The George Washington University, "with distinction," you have served the University with exceptional devotion, contagious enthusiasm and unequivocal loyalty. As a lawyer you have contributed significantly in the State and City of New York to the uplifting and maintenance of the legal profession at the highest level of ethical principles and moral precepts. You have with scholarly decorum fearlessly advocated the principle of "equal justice under the law." As a highly respected successful corporate executive you have made a lasting contribution to the economic and social development of our country; and in the building of mighty corporations, you have never lost sight of the fact that businesses exist to serve people. For your selfless contributions to the public good, to the University and to the country, The George Washington University confers upon you the degree of Doctor of Laws.
Jacob Burns' family continues his legacy of generous involvement with the Law School. His daughter, Rosalie Burns is a member of the GW Law Board of Advisors. Barry Shenkman, Jacob Burns' grandson, is the president of the Jacob Burns Foundation, a nonprofit family foundation, established in 1959, that focuses primarily on the arts, legal education, legal ethics and Jewish philanthropic causes in the U.S.