Q&A with W. Henry Jernigan
Published in 2009 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine on June 22, 2009
W. Henry Jernigan, whose practice focuses on the defense of complex litigation involving corporate disputes and product liability claims, is managing partner of Dinsmore & Shohl’s West Virginia offices. We spoke earlier this year.
What drew you to the law?
I had a close friend whose father was a lawyer and I was impressed by how much stock he placed on integrity. He was always looking for ways to accommodate the interests of, not only his clients, but the people on the other side, so that they could come to a mutual understanding.
Once you started practicing, how did the law differ from what you expected?
It’s much harder work than you realize—certainly before you go to law school and probably while you’re in law school. The issues are more complex. Dealing with people is an art form.
When did this begin to sink in?
While serving as a clerk on the 4th Circuit. Watching the probing questions the judges would ask. It made you understand that you need to dig deeper than you might initially expect. There’s a whole lot of complexity to even simple legal issues.
It’s a constant learning process—that’s one of the more interesting aspects of the law for me. With each new client, and each industry that they represent, I have to learn about their business and the challenges they face. We did a lot of work in Jeep rollover cases and I learned a lot about building a Jeep from the ground up: why they were built the way they were. I’ve done a lot of work in the past for Johns Manville, learning about the historical aspects of why asbestos was used and the medical aspects of what harm it could cause. All of that requires a lot of study and time in order to properly represent your clients.
Why this particular practice area?
My father was with Procter & Gamble and I’ve always tended toward the business side of the practice. With that comes complex litigation of the type that most [businesses] find themselves in these days. A simple products liability case is now a mass tort and a complex litigation issue, whereas 30 years ago it was a single case.
What is your most significant accomplishment in the law?
Starting this office here in West Virginia.
Were you already with Dinsmore?
No, I was formerly with Jackson Kelly. Back in 1974 I clerked for Dinsmore one summer. I decided not to go back to Cincinnati for a couple of reasons. One, my wife is from West Virginia. Two, because of my father’s position with Procter & Gamble, I tended to be introduced as his son everywhere I went. So striking out on my own seemed advantageous—or, at least, the direction I wanted to go.
As it happened, I was local counsel for Brown & Williamson Tobacco. A lawyer I had worked with on some toxic shock cases and other mass cases with Dinsmore, Frank Woodside, was the national counsel. And we spent about eight weeks in trial together in that case in 2001.
Over the course of that, Frank and I began talking about Dinsmore, which was regionalizing at the time—they were in both Ohio and Kentucky—about the prospects in West Virginia. Ultimately that led to my decision to break away and establish an office with them. Which we did on January 1, 2002, with two lawyers, two paralegals and a secretary. Now we’re 53 lawyers in three cities throughout the state.
How did you grow so quickly?
It may not sound too revolutionary, but we reward hard work. We provide the resources for people to expand their practices. We don’t spend a lot of money on frills.
Who do you consider your role model?
The one person I’ve always tried to emulate is the judge I worked for when I got out of school: Judge [H.E.] Widener. He taught me a great deal in that year I was with him, and we remained close after I left. We talked quite a bit. He was just a fine gentleman.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“Listen.” Don’t feel compelled to talk. Your clients have a lot to say. Let them talk. Take your time with them.
You’re a U.S. Civil War buff, is that right?
Even growing up. My parents were both from areas of Tennessee where Civil War battles were fought, I was coming of age at the centennial of the Civil War, and I went to Washington and Lee University—where Robert E. Lee was president after the Civil War. All of that became inculcated.
I find those times extremely interesting—the dedication of the men on both sides, what they endured, what their families endured. To me, it was the defining moment in our country’s history. It’s when we became one country rather than a conglomerate of states.
One country and two Virginias.
That, too, is historically interesting. Living here you find so many people who had families that had, in the southern part of the state, strong loyalties to the South, and in the northern part of the state, strong loyalties to the North. Yet they came together to form a state and develop from there.
Do you have a favorite fictional lawyer?
Probably Atticus Finch. But the one I saw the most growing up was Perry Mason. Looking back, I always find, with great amusement, that Perry never had to look at a law book and always had someone stand up and plead guilty in the back of the courtroom. I’m still waiting for that to happen.