Wind of change
Supercentenarian law firm builds on pro-business foundation
Over its 120 years, Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP has seen — and made — a lot of history.
Since a quartet of ambitious and talented Richmond attorneys joined forces in 1901 to start the law firm of Munford, Hunton, Williams & Anderson, the practice has not only produced an array of legal luminaries, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., but has had a hand in cases that have shaped the fabric of life in Virginia and the nation. With about 900 attorneys — 196 of them in Virginia — and offices in 13 domestic and six overseas locations, Richmond-based Hunton is the state’s second-largest law firm. During each of the past three years, it has posted annual revenues of more than $740 million.
Almost from its beginnings, Hunton has been known as a go-to firm for large business interests. It has represented railroads, real estate entities, banks, utilities and insurance companies and has practices dedicated to litigation, administrative law and transactions.
George C. Howell III, chairman of the firm’s executive committee, says Hunton regularly handles “very large” cases, including litigation for tobacco companies and multibillion-dollar, single-offering transactions. Among the firm’s biggest cases in Virginia was its representation of Henrico County-based Altria Group Inc.’s $62 billion spinoff of Kraft Foods in 2007 and Altria’s $113 billion spinoff of Philip Morris International the following year. In 2020, Hunton advised Philip Morris International on a $2.5 billion debt offering, and this year, the firm represented auto insurer GAINSCO in its $400 million acquisition by State Farm Mutual Auto-mobile Insurance Co.
Hunton “has done a ton of work” in the energy sector, too, Howell says. Richmond-based Fortune 500 utility Dominion Energy Inc., the commonwealth’s largest power company, is one of its oldest clients. Carlos M. Brown, senior vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer for Dominion, says his company and Hunton “go back almost to the firm’s founding.” Over the years, the utility giant and Hunton have worked in tandem as the energy field has grown and evolved, and they continue to do so to “meet the modern needs” of the industry. “Hunton has always been a leader in regard to large utilities,” Brown says.
It also counts among its energy clients Potomac Electric Power Co., Duke Energy Co., Consolidated Edison Inc., American Electric Power Co. Inc. and Energy Transfer LP. In 2020, the firm successfully represented a coalition of oil and gas industry groups before the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups challenging natural gas pipeline permits.
To beef up the firm’s already potent energy sector, the firm (then known as Hunton & Williams) merged in 2018 with Andrews Kurth Kenyon, a Texas-based practice focused on the oil and gas industry, creating Hunton Andrews Kurth. This fall, the firm formed an energy transition team to focus on complex issues such as carbon capture, the decommissioning of aging power facilities, environmental justice and regulatory compliance.
Hunton also continues to expand its practices into technological fields such as cybersecurity and data privacy. Its attorneys offer guidance on issues involving compliance with rapidly evolving U.S. and international data privacy laws and regulations, covering hot technology topics such as artificial intelligence, facial recognition and the prevention and management of cyberattacks and data breaches. The firm represented Yahoo! in the aftermath of a cyber breach that compromised more than 3 billion user accounts and spawned more than 40 class-action lawsuits.
Hunton’s roster of Virginia corporate clients, which includes major companies such as Smithfield Foods Inc., McLean-based Capital One Financial Corp. and Newport News-based Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., has led some wags to say that Hunton is not just part of the establishment, but the establishment itself.
Hunton has a decidedly human side, though, too, evidenced by its longstanding commitment to pro bono work. The firm
encourages its attorneys to consider themselves “citizen lawyers,” equally committed to serving both their clients and the larger community.
In 1991, Hunton became the first law firm in the nation to open an office devoted exclusively to pro bono cases, and, for decades, it consistently has dedicated 3% or more of its billable hours to such cases. All the firm’s lawyers engage in some level of pro bono work.
The firm’s pro bono office in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood handles uncontested divorces, guardianship issues and domestic violence cases for those who cannot afford an attorney. Hunton also has done extensive pro bono work on eviction cases in the Richmond area. The state capital has the second-highest rate of evictions in the country, a situation attributable to Virginia’s “landlord-friendly laws,” says Richmond partner Kimberly C. MacLeod, who chairs the firm’s pro bono leadership committee.
Last year, attorneys at Hunton, which counts Richmond’s city government among its clients, gave pro bono advice to the city concerning an unsuccessful citizen lawsuit that sought to stop the city’s removal of Confederate statues. “We are proud about being on the right side of history,” MacLeod says. “Some would say we were on the wrong side of Brown v. the Board of Education.”
In the early 1950s, Hunton represented Prince Edward County’s school board in its efforts to fight racial desegregation. That case later would become one of five bundled into the Brown lawsuit when it went before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s subsequent ruling that schools must be integrated convulsed Virginia for many years.
The late Lewis F. Powell Jr., Hunton’s most renowned alumnus, was a partner at the firm when it represented the Prince Edward school board, and, although he wasn’t a part of the case, as chairman of the Richmond School Board from 1952 to 1961, he was inescapably involved in the issue. Despite his close friendship with ardent segregationist Virginia U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., Powell later would maintain that he did not condone Byrd’s strategy to close schools rather than integrate them. “I disagreed completely with the Massive Resistance policy. I thought it would destroy the public schools,” Powell later said. Yet, though he had forged close relationships with some of the city’s Black leaders, Powell did not publicly express anti-segregation sentiments at the time.
“Powell was an admirable person, but by today’s standards he would be heavily criticized,” Allen C. Goolsby says of Powell’s silence, which seems so loud now.
Goolsby, a former partner and now a special counsel at the firm, has been with Hunton for 52 years and worked closely with Powell, who was a partner at the practice for a quarter century before President Richard M. Nixon nominated him to a seat on the Supreme Court in 1971. “I have never seen a man who worked so hard and was such a gentleman,” Goolsby says of Powell. “He wrote more thank you notes in a week than I did in my life.”
Goolsby accompanied Powell on the drive from Richmond to Washington, D.C., for Powell’s confirmation hearing. “His modus operandi was always being well prepared,” Goolsby says of his distinguished colleague, but that day, that trait almost backfired on Powell when a rear tire blew out on their
car somewhere along Interstate 95. The car’s trunk was jam-packed with documents chronicling virtually every legal opinion Powell had ever written or said, Goolsby remembers, and the voluminous records had to be removed by the side of the busy highway to get at the jack and the spare. “I’ll never forget worrying about all those papers,” he says.
Powell, the last practicing lawyer to be nominated to the Supreme Court and a former president of the American Bar Association, would be confirmed by the Senate in an 89-1 vote. “The [Senate Judiciary] committee had a variety of strongly held views but a civility that you don’t get today,” Goolsby says.
Shortly before he took his seat on the Supreme Court, while still at Hunton, the justice-to-be wrote what would become known as the Powell Memo. A controversial defense of business written for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the memo is often cited as a foundational document for the neocon movement.
In keeping with that memo, once on the court, Powell generally took a pro-business stance on financial cases, but a decidedly more liberal one on social issues. He strongly affirmed Roe v. Wade in a 1983 opinion, and in a 1978 case about racial quotas at a California medical school, he argued that the university could give weight to race in its admissions decisions but not apply strict quotas.
Similarly, Hunton is proud of its own history of embracing diversity. Among its illustrious alumni are John Charles Thomas, the first Black person to serve on the Supreme Court of Virginia; Cleo Powell, the first Black woman to serve on the court; and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor this year.
Rudene Mercer Haynes is Hunton’s firmwide hiring partner and co-leads the firm’s servicer advance financing practice. The firm first employed a woman lawyer all the way back in 1921, certainly an uncommon hire for the time.
“You don’t need to have a certain pedigree” to work at Hunton, says Haynes, who made The National Black Lawyers Top 100 list this year. “We are a diverse bunch. I know it sounds clichéd, but it is the people who attracted me and have kept me here. They were very welcoming, and I could be my authentic self.”
That welcoming attitude is embedded in Hunton’s DNA, says Howell, who calls the firm’s culture “its greatest strength.” While in many law firms, the expected and accepted attitude is that “you eat what you kill,” at Hunton, he says, collaboration, mutual support, inclusion and teamwork are core beliefs.
Douglas S. Granger, the firm’s Richmond managing partner, concurs, praising the firm’s “collegial atmosphere. We do spend an awful lot of time together, and we share common values,” he says. “The practice of law is a service to society,” he explains, “and nothing can be done as well by one as by a team.”