‘Equal Justice’ Chip Nunley ’81 received the Lewis F. Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award from the Virginia State Bar.
Lonnie D. Nunley III “Chip” ’81 received the 2022 Lewis F. Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award from the Virginia State Bar. Nunley has served as the chair for Hunton Andrews Kurth’s pro bono program for six years and led the delivery of more than 60,000 pro bono hours by the firm’s Richmond lawyers. He personally has provided more than 5,000 hours to pro bono clients over the past decade. Additionally, Nunley has been the partner in charge of the firm’s George H. Hettrick Church Hill pro bono office since 2015.
Most of Nunley’s pro bono work involves representing tenants in housing disputes. “It’s usually a David vs. Goliath situation because landlords usually have representation and tenants can’t afford a lawyer,” he said.
One of his early cases involved a single mother with three children living without heat in a duplex apartment. She mentioned that the children were waking up groggy and complaining of headaches. “I brought in a Richmond housing inspector to check out the house,” Nunley said. “The vent for the gas water heater just went into the false ceiling. I went after the landlord pretty hard during the cross-examination — these people could have died — but he showed no remorse.”
It’s a fairly typical response. “What’s going on in Richmond is not dissimilar to what’s happening in a lot of cities in the country,” explained Nunley. “Surprisingly, some of the most lucrative rentals from a landlord’s perspective tend to be in the really low-end housing markets and are owned by out-of-state corporate entities, usually limited liability corporations. They spend little or nothing on maintenance because there is a lot of turnover. For them, it’s just a financial decision — what’s the minimum we can spend to avoid condemnation. But with the chronic national affordable housing shortage, for many tenants, it’s a choice between substandard housing or living in a shelter, in their car or under a bridge.”
Complicating matters are instances where properties are condemned, pushing already stressed households into homelessness. “When you have water literally running down the wall through the fuse box, the inspector has no choice but to condemn the property and evict people. We try to get relief through the courts before a condemnation occurs, or to see compensation when it does.”
He noted, “It’s bad enough for an adult to live in these conditions, but when there are kids involved you wonder what is their chance of success in the future? I think people don’t understand what it must be like to go to school and come home to intermittent hot water, no air conditioning in the summer, no heat in the winter and no place to do homework or to sleep comfortably.”
Nunley, who practices product liability and mass tort litigation, energy regulation, and retail and consumer products litigation, knew from a young age that he wanted to be a lawyer. When he was in elementary school, his mother took him to a murder trial. “The young man on trial had broken into the house to steal a coin collection, and the owner wasn’t supposed to be there. But he was, and the young guy panicked and killed him. It was an awful situation all the way around. My mom said something that really stuck with me forever: ‘When you strip it all away, he is some mother’s son.’ That’s a sentiment that’s stayed with me throughout my life.”
After attending law school at the University of Virginia and clerking for a federal District Court judge, Nunley joined Hunton Andrews Kurth, where there was already a solid W&L alumni presence. One alum who predated Nunley at the firm was Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell ’29, 31L. “There was an aura about him as a practicing lawyer,” said Nunley. “He represented some of the biggest corporations and, as head of Richmond School Board, led the Richmond public schools through integration, which was a very difficult assignment.”
Powell, whom Nunley describes as “a centrist voice of wisdom and reason,” created the Legal Services Corporation while president of the American Bar Association, “giving birth to legal aid as we know it in this country today.” He added, “When Powell was asked to speak about the importance of legal aid, he said: ‘Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the façade of the Supreme Court. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. … It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.’ ”
After receiving his pro bono award from the Virginia State Bar’s Standing Committee on Access to Legal Services at the Virginia Pro Bono Conference on Oct. 19, the assembled crowd gave Nunley a standing ovation. But for Nunley “the real heroes in our profession are legal aid lawyers. They sacrifice so much to do the work they do. They ensure that for many, many Americans, equal justice is not merely a caption on the façade.”
More About Chip
Nunley is a member of the Virginia Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, has served on the board of the Legal Aid Justice Center and as chair of the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society board. He has served as chair of the Virginia State Bar’s Access to Legal Services Committee and as a member of the State Bar’s Professionalism Committee and Carrico Professionalism Faculty. He is a current member of Bar Council for the Virginia State Bar and of the Board of Governors of the Virginia Bar Association. Nunley is a long-standing member of the faculty of the National Trial Advocacy College.
For W&L, Nunley has served as the alumni member of the Athletic Committee (during which time he and former Athletic Director Mike Walsh formed the Generals Club), served for over 25 years as a class agent and reunion chair for the Class of 1981, and chaired the university’s Annual Fund from 2012 to 2015.