In the Footsteps of Big Grandma

Thomas Hurney Jr.’s thriving practice is part of a family legal tradition

Published in 2012 West Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine — July 2012

As one of the top attorneys in West Virginia, you’d think Thomas J. Hurney Jr. might have a few things to say about himself. He’s got plenty to say about his firm, his clients, his family and his friends in the legal community. But himself? Crickets. “Oh, you want me to brag?” he says, laughing. “I can brag all day long on other people. I’d be delighted to.”

Most prominently is Lorraine Wall Hurney, Hurney’s grandmother on his father’s side. “We call her ‘Big Grandma,’” Hurney says of the woman whose law degree he has hanging on his office wall in a bigger, nicer frame than he keeps his own in.

When Hurney’s grandfather Thomas died in 1935, Lorraine had little choice but to provide for her three children. So to law school she went, earning her degree in 1938. After passing the Bar in 1940, she went to work for the Immigration and Naturalization Service as the first female member of the general counsel staff in Washington, D.C.

Twenty years later, she served as district director of the Southeast region of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Philadelphia. She was the first woman in the position, which, at the time, was the highest-salaried civil service position held by a woman. Before her death in 1969, she’d take one more big promotion with the Service in 1965, which sent her to Chicago to oversee the then second-largest district in the nation. She also appeared in two immigration cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“You know, I always knew my grandma was different than my friends', that she was a lawyer and a woman with a different career path,” he says. “But I never really understood the significance of just what she did. She was just Big Grandma. It wasn’t until law school that it really sank in: she was raising three kids on her own in the 1930s, going to law school at night and working.”

Hurney has taken a few of her lessons to heart. First: Work harder, especially for those who follow. “She said once in an article, ‘Unless I do particularly well on this job, another woman might not get a similar appointment,’” says Hurney, who makes a point to work with young lawyers at Jackson Kelly, where he is the leader of the firm’s health care and finance group. “I’ve tried to take one of the young lawyers to every case I’ve tried in the last 10 years.” He also appreciates his grandmother’s manner with colleagues and opposing counsel. “There was never any yelling,” he says. “She was a hoot and certainly not shy, but she didn’t yell and fight.”

While Lorraine stuck with immigration law, Hurney’s practice is varied. “The last five years I’ve tried cases for a coal company, a couple Clean Water Act cases with partners in the environmental group. And this year, I've had a medical professional liability trial and a number of appellate cases as part of the team that argued to maintain the constitutionality of our cap on noneconomic damages,” he says. “That was pretty neat.”

“Neat” may be the most Hurney will allow himself, but the June 2011 decision in MacDonald v. City Hospital was a huge win for health care providers in West Virginia. At issue was the constitutionality of the limitation on noneconomic loss in the Medical Professional Liability Act. Thanks in part to Hurney’s work on the case, West Virginia doctors cannot be sued for more than $500,000 for pain and suffering in cases with death or permanent catastrophic injuries. “If you look at that opinion, the findings are in the trend of cases in state high courts that have recognized the legislative power to [uphold caps],” Hurney says. “I think it put West Virginia in the mainstream.”

His family’s legal legacy continues to grow. Hurney’s wife, Julia, is also a lawyer, and their daughter, Grace, will start law school in the fall of 2012. “She hasn’t made a final decision on where yet,” he says, although his alma mater, University of Dayton, is in the mix.

Hurney’s about to eclipse the length of Lorraine’s 29-year federal law career and he’s got no plans to stop working anytime soon. In the words of Lorraine upon taking her post in Philadelphia, “I’m here, and I’m going to stay. So you might as well get used to it.”

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