Real Realty

Attorney Denise Burke O’Brien Preserves The Burke Legal Legacy

Denise Burke O’Brien and Edward Burke, Sr. Independent/Ty Wenzel

Since the 1970s, Burke & Sullivan, PLLC has been the go-to law practice for all things real estate. Located in the historic Village of Southampton and serving clients in the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, and Shelter Island, the firm specializes in real estate transactions and land-use related issues.

The Independent caught up with Denise Burke O’Brien, daughter of Edward Burke, Sr., a retired judge and real estate attorney on the East End, to elaborate on the family legacy and what to know for those looking to sell or buy their dream Hamptons home.

You specialize in real estate law. How did you find your niche?

I grew up in Sag Harbor, and back in the 1970s and ’80s, when land was plentiful, my dad, Edward Burke Sr., began purchasing many acres of vacant land in Noyac as well as a number of improved parcels. As a result thereof, my interest in real estate was piqued at an early age.

He has since developed all of his properties, and I can assure you that our legal background in both real estate and land use has been essential in navigating our way through the tedious development process.

The Burke family has been rooted on the East End since 1935 and the law practice since the ’70s. How does your family history help your clientele?

My roots run very deep in Sag Harbor, and this has definitely served to help my law practice establish a solid foundation and a large client base. Many of my childhood friends and customers of our family restaurant, the Salty Dog (opened in 1972), have sought my legal advice and expertise over the years.

In addition to my immediate family, I have a large number of extended family members who still reside in Sag Harbor, so this also has afforded me the opportunity to create a solid network for my business.

On average, how many real estate transactions does Burke & Sullivan handle?

My law firm averages between 170 and 185 real estate closings per year. We handle deals as high as $50 million and as low as $300,000. We also handle numerous land-use transactions.

You left your post as deputy town attorney for the Town of Hempstead to join your father as a partner with Burke & Sullivan. Why did you make this jump?

I began working as a deputy town attorney in 1989 and I returned to Sag Harbor in 1994.

It was always an ambition of mine to join my father’s law firm. I also wanted to raise my family in the same beautiful community that I grew up in. As fate would have it, I was due with my first child in May 1994, so I decided to return to my hometown and “kill two birds with one stone.”

It has been a very rewarding experience to have been able to do both, and now, in addition to being a partner at Burke & Sullivan, I am the proud mother of Nolan and Gavin, who are both at St. John’s law school, and Fallon, who is in her third year at the University of Miami. My family’s legal legacy continues!

You specialize in zoning, in particular. Can you tell us how this has evolved since you joined the firm?

I served on the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals for 11 years, and both the knowledge and hands-on experience that I gained there equipped me with the tools needed to address and tackle myriad difficult issues that many real estate and land-use matters present.

While my associate, Timothy McCulley, Esq. has been our firm’s land-use “guru” for many years, my tenure on the ZBA has been very beneficial in continuing to build up the land-use component of our practice.

What were your responsibilities when you served as a chairwoman of the Southampton Town Architectural Review Board from 1996 to 2004?

As the chair of the architectural review board, I was the spokesperson and liaison for the board, monitoring an applicant’s and any opposing individual’s testimony, and maintaining order throughout the hearing.

As a member of said board, my responsibilities included reviewing architectural plans and drawings, making site visits, and meeting with applicants and/or their agents when necessary.

How has your experience helped you overcome East End real estate obstacles?

Most real estate deals out here in the Hamptons are encumbered by significant problems and obstacles. We live in an area that has seen tremendous growth in the past 25 years. Unless a buyer, seller, or builder is made aware of the issues that may lie with a property, the real estate market would be saturated with transactions that are stymied with stumbling blocks that could take many months to resolve.

As a local resident and attorney, I know what questions to ask and what red flags to look for at the outset of a deal so I can ferret out the issues immediately and ensure that the process goes much more smoothly and swiftly.

My experience as a real estate attorney, combined with my years as a town employee, has provided me with a keen understanding of the workings of the various departments of our local municipalities so that I can gather pertinent information, which ultimately leads to timely solutions.

Your father was a New York State court of claims judge and assigned to the Supreme Court bench in Riverhead as well as being a longtime town justice. What is it like working for him?

Besides being an accomplished, well known and highly respected judge and attorney, my father is an incredibly caring, generous, and loyal man. He has tireless energy and he can be found working seven days a week, 365 days a year. He is dedicated to his family, friends, employees, and clients, and often goes above and beyond the call of duty for all of them.

He never ceases to amaze me, and my two brothers and I would not be where we are today without his influence, support, and guidance. I truly enjoy working with my mentor. His personality fills a room, and with a twinkle in his eye and a story to share, he continues to “hold court” wherever he goes — even though he retired from his 22 years on bench more than three years ago.

Your brother Joseph is also a partner in the firm, specializing in town codes, securing permits for non-profits and much more. How did you each find your niche?

My brother Joseph started his law career as an assistant town attorney in the Town of Southampton. He worked with various departments within the town and developed a strong interest in land use and the permitting process in the building department. He is currently a member of the architectural review board, which continues to enhance his experience as a real estate attorney.

My brother Edward is also a local attorney with a very successful law practice in Sag Harbor. He began his career as an assistant district attorney in Suffolk County where he focused his sights on criminal law, which he continues to specialize in today.

Real estate 101: At what point does a homeowner need to find a lawyer? What is the process after retaining you as their attorney?

Whether you are purchasing or selling a house, it is imperative that you consult with and retain an attorney as soon as the offer is accepted. Depending on whether I am representing a seller or a purchaser, my role varies significantly throughout the whole contract to closing process. Regardless, however, of which side I am working with, I guide my clients accordingly and take great pride in the reputation that I’ve built as a “hand holder” and an attorney who is always reachable and responsive.

If you weren’t an attorney, what would you have pursued?

I am definitely a “people person” and it has always been a passion of mine to help people. I am a good communicator, so if I wasn’t an attorney, I could definitely see myself pursuing a career as a teacher.

You’re dog people! We saw the tribute to your late family dog, Roscoe, on the firm’s website. Can you tell us what his role was in the office?

Roscoe, my brother Joseph’s infamous French bulldog, rarely missed a day at the office. He was our firm’s mascot who greeted everyone that walked through the door with a friendly welcome. People who frequented our office would bring him special treats and he could often be found lying under the conference table at closings waiting for a snack.

When you’re not helping clients close on their Hamptons dream home, what do you do for fun?

I love spending quality time with my three kids, my extended family and friends. I enjoy going to the beach, traveling, cooking, dining out, reading books, watching Netflix, walking my dogs, and jogging.

To reach Denise Burke O’Brien, call 631-283-4111 or visit