When Bob Hemley joined Gravel & Shea 45 years ago, he took over the practice of the firm’s sole litigator, who was leaving to become a law professor. Then Gravel Shea & Wright, the firm primarily handled commercial transactions.
Hemley was coming from three and a half years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, so he had significant criminal trial experience. Civil litigation was a different matter. “In those days I didn’t have anything independently coming to me,” he says. “I just did all of the litigation that was generated by the other lawyers at the firm.”
As Hemley gathered more experience, he began to create a name for himself. “I tried lots of cases in Vermont,” he says. “And I had the opportunity to become pretty quickly well-established — sort of a big fish in a small pond. It took me about five years to develop a reputation that resulted in cases coming directly to me from referrals from other lawyers.”
Hemley was a hard worker and committed to success, but he had another big advantage: resources. “There were no limitations placed on me in terms of what I could do to get a case ready,” says Hemley, and it’s something he’s grateful for. “I had unconditional financial support from my partners, who without hesitation invested in what I am sure at times looked like Quixotic adventures.”
Their support was well placed. Hemley’s track record spoke for itself. “I’m pleased to have been able to help so many people, especially in cases that were regarded by my adversaries as ‘unwinnable,’” he says. In Browning-Ferris Indus. of Vermont, Inc. v. Kelco Disposal, Inc., he turned a “loser” antitrust case into what was then the largest jury verdict in the history of Vermont. In Strack, v Krag, a medical malpractice case that many thought couldn’t be won, he achieved a verdict over $1 million — in 1980. In Kenney v Thomas Electric, he was able to prove that a spark jumped 30 feet from a hanging light fixture, over a knee wall in a living room to cause a fatal fire. The defense theory was that the fire started because an electric cord was crimped by a sofa placed at what was the indisputable origin of the fire.
Though Hemley built a reputation as one of the best plaintiff’s attorneys in Vermont, that wasn’t his only focus. “I’ve been fortunate to have helped many who were unjustly accused, including individuals, banks, and Fortune 500 companies,” he says. Along with others at Gravel & Shea, he has participated on teams that have succeeded in challenging the Constitutionality of state laws. Plus, he says, “I have been very fortunate to have represented most of the Vermont media on First Amendment matters.” In fact, he was awarded the Matthew Lyon Award by the Vermont Press Association for lifetime achievement in First Amendment work.
Plus, he had the opportunity to learn from great attorneys. “Stewart McConaughy was probably the smartest and best lawyer I’ve ever been exposed to,” says Hemley. Charlie Shea taught him what it looks like to be endlessly dedicated to your clients. Clark Gravel showed him that there’s more to legal practice than spending hours with your nose in a legal text. “He could get more done by picking up the phone than you could spending a week in the library,” says Hemley. “He was extraordinary.”
Over four decades later, it’s a word that many would use to describe Hemley. “It’s been my experience that you can have really great trial lawyers who are good appellate lawyers. You can have great appellate lawyers who are okay trial lawyers. But you seldom meet someone who excels as both a trial lawyer and an appellate lawyer,” says Bob O’Neill, a Gravel & Shea partner who retired from the firm several years ago. “And that is, without a doubt, Bob Hemley.”
O’Neill’s first experience with Hemley was as adversaries in a hotly contested mail fraud case. O’Neill was working as a federal prosecutor. “We walked away with great respect for each other’s trial abilities and a fondness for each other that never died,” O’Neill says. On Hemley’s suggestion, he joined Gravel & Shea a few years later.
Hemley is quick to point out that his success isn’t the result of some innate talent. “I think I succeeded because I worked hard, not because I’m smarter than anyone else but because I worked harder than anyone else,” says Hemley.
“He is always the most prepared person in the room, no matter what,” says Navah Spero, a litigation partner at the firm. “He has all the trial attorney skills — he can read the courtroom, he’s quick on his feet, he’s incredibly smart. But he’s also more prepared than everyone. He’s one of the most diligent, hard working people I’ve ever worked with.”
Paralegal Liz Mench has worked with Hemley for 35 years, since she joined the firm in 1986. Working with him on countless medical malpractice cases has taught her to be a more assertive advocate for the firm’s clients. “I wouldn’t just accept it now if a witness tells me something or I get a report that doesn’t make sense. He really taught me to pursue information until you get to the bottom of it.”
After 45 years, Hemley is still one of the best trial attorneys in the state. And the one-person litigation department he started in is now nine lawyers strong. While Hemley has been enjoying a little extra leisure time outside the office— reading, playing golf, and hiking (Snake Mountain in Addison County is his current favorite), thankfully for Vermont, he’s not planning to put away his legal pad yet.