True Conviction

Like much of the law it practices, this firm considers itself a family

by Phyl Newbeck

murdoch_hughesIn January, Michelle A. Tarnelli joined Frank J. Twarog, Kurt M. Hughes, and James W. Murdoch as a partner in their Burlington law firm, now called Murdoch Hughes Twarog & Tarnelli, Attorneys at Law PC.

It’s time to change the letterheads and the sign on the door. This January, Michelle Tarnelli joined James Murdoch, Kurt Hughes, and Frank Twarog as a partner in the Burlington-based law firm that now bears their four names. Tarnelli joins an eclectic group who liken themselves to a family. “We don’t really call ourselves a firm,” Murdoch says.

The term “family” is actually an apt one for the barristers, as all members of the firm concentrate in divorce and family law. Murdoch, Twarog, and associate Samantha Lednicky also concentrate in state and federal criminal defense, and Hughes and Tarnelli also concentrate in adoption law and assisted reproductive technology law. In addition, Tarnelli focuses on the firm’s appellate practice in divorce and family and adoption law, and Lednicky also concentrates in landlord/tenant matters.

James Murdoch lived all across New England and attended high school on Long Island, New York. After majoring in American history with a minor in fine arts at Middlebury College, he entered Boston University School of Law. At a Christmas party in Middlebury, Murdoch complained to a local trial lawyer named Jack Conley that he wasn’t enjoying law school, so Conley introduced him to the man he described as the second-best trial lawyer in the state (Conley, himself, was considered the best). That man, Joseph S. Wool, told Murdoch to get a haircut and offered him a clerkship. Murdoch graduated in 1968 and worked with Wool until the firm reorganized in 1992.

Next to join the office was Kurt Hughes, who grew up in New Jersey. Hughes assumed he would be a scientist, he says, until one day in the chemistry lab at Colgate University, when his professor walked up behind him and began to laugh, leading Hughes to change his major to English. He saw fellow English majors going to work for insurance companies and, deciding against that course of action, headed to Vermont Law School where he graduated in 1984.

Hughes started his career in the Chittenden County prosecutor’s office, but one day Wool barged into his office and invited him to join the firm. Hughes had already tried 45 cases in a year and a half when he was recruited to switch from the prosecutorial side of the table to the defense.

Twarog grew up outside of Boston and graduated from The University of Vermont in 1995 four credits short of a triple major in English, history, and psychology. He spent four years in Westford “playing with Land Rovers” as an off-road driving school instructor and international sales representative. Although able to identify car parts (including year of manufacture) while blindfolded, he felt he wasn’t really contributing to society, so he enrolled at Suffolk University Law School. An internship at Shelter Legal Services working with homeless veterans helped reinforce his decision to practice law.

In 2000, Twarog sent out 50 cold letters to law firms offering his services free of charge. Murdoch and Hughes were the only ones who responded. “We just wanted to know what kind of a name Twarog was,” Murdoch says with a smile. Twarog interned with the firm that year and joined it as an associate in 2002.

He skipped his last law school exam in favor of a Red Sox game but says the following week was when he grew up. “My son was born on Thursday, law school graduation was Friday, and I purchased my first home on Tuesday.”

The new partner, Michelle Tarnelli, grew up in Utica, New York, and graduated from Fordham University in 2005 with a journalism major and business minor. Finding her work in advertising and public relations for a national company based in Pittsburgh unfulfilling, she returned to Utica where she became the marketing director for a nonprofit. Looking for work that would be even more rewarding, she enrolled at Vermont Law School, graduating in 2012, when she joined the firm as an associate. She had met Hughes through the school’s semester-in-practice program connecting students with alumni.

The firm’s workload has changed greatly since Murdoch started practicing 50 years ago. “In my younger days I did a lot of criminal defense work,” he recalls. “There were some heavy-duty trials.” He’s found that the number of clients who are able to pay for defense lawyers is dwindling, leading the firm to spend more and more time on family law, but he has no complaints about that. “I enjoy trying to help people solve their problems,” he says.

Hughes remembers the day he got a call from Susan Fowler, a lawyer who had a thriving practice in adoption law. She had been elected probate judge and wanted someone to take over her practice.

“I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty contested divorces,” Hughes recalls, “and the idea of putting families together instead of taking them apart appealed to me.” Since then, he has been admitted to the invitation-only Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys and is a frequent speaker at conferences.

Reproductive technology law constitutes 40 percent of Hughes’s work. His side business, the Vermont Surrogacy Network, provides local matches for those unable to conceive. It was his work in adoption law that made the firm so attractive to Tarnelli, who has immersed herself in that field.

Susan Fowler, now with the Trust Company of Vermont, has never regretted her decision to turn her law practice over to Hughes. “I didn’t know him well,” she says, “but we had been on the opposite side of cases. He’s been phenomenal.” Fowler speaks highly of Twarog and Murdoch as well, noting that when you work in an area of law that is fraught with emotion, it’s nice to know you’re dealing with people who care. “They fight for their clients but they are good human beings, and it’s pleasant to have them on the other side,” she says. “They’re the kind of guys you’d like to hook your siblings up with.”

Twarog is the firm’s outlier since his primary work is in the field of criminal defense with a specialty in DUI cases. “Once a client calls, you have to think on your feet from the moment you meet them, which is often at 2 a.m.,” he says. “You’re with these people through what is often the hardest part of their lives. Most have never been even pulled over before and they are humiliated and disappointed with themselves and sometimes in need of treatment.”

All four are in agreement that they consider themselves first and foremost trial lawyers. “It gets the juices raging,” Murdoch says of their trial work. “You’re dealing with people who are in pain and you need to have synergy and karma in the office to make it work.”

Twarog likens the office to a MASH triage unit. “You can’t have just one doctor; you need the full support of all,” he says. “Someone may come in when their child is at risk of being taken away and you need to act. You might get a call about a second-degree murder charge at 3 p.m. on a Friday. There is nothing metered and predicted about our days.”

Another thing the four lawyers pride themselves on is not being cut-throat. “We work in collaborative ways,” says Hughes. “Our job gives us the opportunity to get to the root of the problem and represent clients as best we can without getting nasty in the process. When people come in asking for a shark, we don’t take them.”

Twarog notes that the firm will also decline to represent people who are fighting over meaningless pieces of property, with Murdoch’s recalling a couple who spent so much time arguing over some geraniums that the flowers died before the case was completed. “We’re not afraid to tell our clients if they’re being unreasonable,” Twarog says.

That unwillingness to be nasty has paid off. Retired judge Edward Cashman doesn’t think Murdoch ever lost a trial in his courtroom. “His trial work was pretty phenomenal,” he says. “He could establish excellent rapport with jurors. He’s a hard guy not to like.”

Cashman never had the opportunity to preside over a case with Tarnelli, but he had similar comments about Hughes and Twarog. “There’s no sign of arrogance among any of them,” Cashman says. “They are very effective communicators and very persuasive without being pushy or overbearing.”

All four partners have significant others and full lives outside the office. Murdoch and his wife, Alice, an artist, live in Charlotte and have two grown sons. Hughes lives in Hinesburg with his wife, Corinne Johannson, who teaches English to new Americans with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. He has a 24-year-old son. Hughes’s biggest hobby is scuba diving, which he does both in Vermont and on annual dive vacations.

Twarog and his wife, Lee, a second-grade teacher, have a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. A good portion of his spare time is taken up by civic work in Hinesburg where he serves as town moderator, trustee, and chair of the recreation committee.

Tarnelli and her partner, DJ Hellerman, a museum curator, live in Winooski, which has helped with the culture shock of leaving the diverse locales where she previously lived for a fairly homogeneous state. Trained in classical ballet, she is spending her spare time in Pilates classes with the goal of getting back to her craft after a back injury.

The partners may not all practice in the same field, but they all have a stake in the firm’s success. “It works because there is no proprietary interest,” says Murdoch. “We all get along and help each other out. We’re not in our own little silos.” The four get together for lunch every Tuesday to talk about their cases. “Four heads and four perspectives,” says Tarnelli.

It’s not easy to find time to get everyone together because their days and hours are dictated by court schedules but they make it work. “It’s still fun most of the time,” Murdoch says. “Part of being a team is that there is always someone here to help.” •