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Stephen Burbank spends most of his days explaining the intricacies of civil procedure and complex litigation to some of the nation’s brightest law students. So he was puzzled when one of his charges sent an e-mail last week to inform the University of Pennsylvania Law School professor that he had made a dent in the pop culture lexicon. “One of my students said I was officially a pop icon because my name was mentioned on [ESPN's] SportsCenter,” said Burbank, who was vacationing in Southern California at the time. “I had no clue what he was talking about initially, but then I put two and two together and eventually the lawyers got in touch with me.” In this case, two plus two equaled 81 — the jersey number All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens wore for eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and will now don for the Philadelphia Eagles. Burbank serves as special master for the NFL, arbitrating disputes between the league and the player’s union over issues emanating from the 1993 collective bargaining agreement. Burbank had not been assigned a case since assuming that role in 2002. So it was ironic that his first call to duty involved the team located in the city where he has lived and worked for the past 28 years. He said his fellow Philadelphians were not shy in offering advice before Monday’s hearing. “I think I received something like 143 e-mails in one day and [around 50] phone calls a day,” Burbank said. “They were mostly from passionate fans who wanted to tell me why I should rule in favor of their team. The phone calls would start off with, ‘Is this Stephen?’ And then they would go on to tell me why I should send ‘T.O.’ to their team. And because I answer my own phone, I couldn’t wait to leave for the day. “But I think the most bizarre call I received was on my answering machine at home from someone who identified themselves as a lawyer from South Jersey who went on to tell me what the case was really about and how I should rule. Needless to say, I erased the message right away.” All of the legal tips were for naught as the league and Owens reached a settlement before Burbank was scheduled to render his ruling. The controversy revolved around whether Owens gave the 49ers required notice of his intent to void the final two years of his contract. The NFL management council ruled that Owens gave his notice too late because his agent, David Joseph, failed to file paperwork by the Feb. 21 deadline. Joseph thought he had until March 2 to file. Owens was traded to the Baltimore Ravens for a second-round pick in next month’s NFL draft but refused to report for a physical examination, saying that he should be declared a free agent and that he wanted to sign with the Eagles. Burbank heard evidence from both the league and the player’s association on Monday, and sources have stated that the nature of the cases laid out led the parties involved to reach a settlement before the professor could offer his verdict. The 49ers traded Owens to the Eagles for defensive end Brandon Whiting, while the Ravens got their second-round pick back and an additional fifth-round pick from the Eagles for their trouble. Though Burbank played no official role in the ultimate outcome, it hasn’t stopped Eagles fans from expressing their thanks “for giving us T.O.” Burbank estimates that he has received about 90 e-mails a day from fans this week. Despite their gratitude, Burbank is not an Eagles fan. In fact, despite his status as special master, he’s not even a football fan — though he did receive tickets to the past two Super Bowls, much to the delight of one of his brothers, who is a diehard fan of the New England Patriots. Burbank grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., in the 1950s, and like most New Yorkers of that era, baseball was the sport of choice. His team was the Yankees, and his fondest sports memories include watching from the stands as Hall of Fame centerfielder Mickey Mantle slugged home runs from both sides of the plate in the same game “without using steroids.” After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1973, Burbank clerked for two judges — the latter one being U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger. He then spent five years as general counsel at Penn Law before moving over full time to the professor ranks. He now serves as the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice, teaching three classes — including a civil procedure class for first-year students where he is known for his fast-paced Socratic teaching methods. He also teaches complex litigation and international civil litigation to second- and third-year students. “He has a reputation as being tough with his first-year class with his use of the Socratic method but then not being as intense with his classes for second- and third-year students,” said Dechert associate Brian Hirsch, who had Burbank as a professor before graduating Penn Law in 2000. “He’s incredibly bright and extremely accessible. Whenever we had a question on law review that concerned civil procedure or complex litigation, he was always there to help.” Dechert litigation department chairman Robert C. Heim has used Burbank as a consultant in complex cases for the past seven years. “He’s a brilliant lawyer who’s very quick to get to the heart of the problem,” Heim said. “If he doesn’t know the answer he will also tell you what the answer might be, regardless of whether he thinks you have it right or wrong.” Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin partner Michael Lieberman was also a Burbank student at Penn Law. He said he still keeps in touch with his former professor, whom he described as an “incredibly bright man who explains things with great clarity while also managing to be thought-provoking and challenging.” “I was a little worried that the lunatic Philadelphia fans would cause him some problems if his ruling was not favorable to the Eagles,” Lieberman said. “But he’s so intellectually honest that I knew he’d get it right.” Burbank is not sure why officials from the league and player’s association selected him to serve as special master. U.S. District Judge Lawrence Doty, who oversees the collective bargaining agreement and would hear any appeals of decisions from the special master, confirmed his appointment. Burbank speculated that league officials probably were familiar with his work over the past 15 years in arbitrating and mediating complex asbestos insurance claims. “Regardless, it’s a great job,” Burbank said. “It took up a lot of my time last week, but that was only for a few days. The cases are interesting, and they actually pay me.” Burbank is taking a mid-sabbatical research leave this semester and is working on three separate articles for legal journals. He will serve as a visiting professor at Harvard Law next fall before returning to Penn Law in the spring. Heim, who describes himself as a formerly crazed but still avid Eagles fan, said he has resisted temptation in discussing the Owens matter with Burbank. “I know better,” Heim said. “He’s a lawyer’s lawyer and doesn’t suffer fools easily. His love of the law was going to triumph over any affection for a sports team. So I was hoping the hearing would work out the right way, and the Eagles would wind up with Owens. But I knew the case would be decided on its legal merits, because that is just the way Steve is.”

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