McBrayer’s road to success in law and politics was paved by work ethic

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As someone with successful careers in both law and politics, it’s almost funny to imagine that when Terry McBrayer (59) returned to his hometown of Greenup, Kentucky, after law school to start his law firm, people didn’t entirely take him seriously.  

“I always wanted to return to practice law. The only problem is that when I returned at age 24, they thought I was still delivering papers and cutting grass,” McBrayer jokes. “I tried every way possible to show that I was a practicing attorney. Even tried to smoke a pipe and it almost killed me.”  

The McBrayer firm that started in Greenup has since grown to the eighth largest firm in the Commonwealth, and it’s one of many accomplishments McBrayer has achieved as an attorney, an elected official and a public servant for the state of Kentucky.  

Before McBrayer knew he wanted to be an attorney or enter the world of politics, he knew he wanted to come to Morehead State University for both its value and its impact on those he knew and respected.  

“I have many personal friends particularly throughout Eastern Kentucky affiliated one way or another with Morehead State,” he said. “As part of a high school graduating class of 21 students, I knew no other school. Most of my teachers had graduated from Morehead State and that was a great influence on me.”  

As a student at MSU, McBrayer was unsure of his career plan or prospects. He said that changed when former MSU instructor Dr. John Lawton came from Boston College to assist Eastern Kentucky kids with their careers. McBrayer and other students formed a debate team that would go on to debate other notable institutions, including Harvard University. Lawton and then-MSU president Dr. Adron Doran directed McBrayer to enroll in the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville (UofL). He even accompanied McBrayer to the school to meet with the university’s president, and McBrayer ended up leaving with a scholarship to the school. After he earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1959, he went on to law school at UofL, graduating in 1963.  

“Without the assistance of Dr. and Mrs. Doran, I would’ve never been able to attend law school,” he said.    

McBrayer’s time at UofL also sparked his interest in politics. It was there he volunteered to help with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential election campaign.  

“All of our political leaders were afraid to be for a Catholic and I was volunteering at the Democratic headquarters. Therefore, I got elevated beyond my capabilities to participate in running the campaign,” he said.   

The interest in politics followed McBrayer back to Greenup when he started his law practice. With no clients, he would go out to meet lots of folks around the county. He decided to run to represent Greenup County in the Kentucky House of Representatives and won the election, serving from 1966 to 1972. While there, he served in the leadership roles of House Speaker Pro Tempore and Majority Floor Leader. In 1995, he was elected chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and has been an active member of the Democratic National Committee for more than 15 years.  

As his career and influence in Kentucky politics grew, so did his law practice. The McBrayer firm now consists of nearly 60 attorneys with offices located in Lexington and Louisville, as well as a government affairs practice in the Frankfort. McBrayer said even when he suffered political defeat when he ran for governor and lost in the 1979 Democratic primary election, it ended up being a win for his practice.  

“I never regretted running for governor as I made many friends in every county in the state. I didn’t burn bridges and I had few enemies,” he said. “It was for those reasons that we began to expand our smaller firm beyond the boundaries of Greenup.”  

Dr. Jay Morgan and Terry McBrayer
MSU President Dr. Jay Morgan pictured with Terry McBrayer, noted Kentucky attorney, lobbyist and politician who donated $100,000 to establish the W. Terry McBrayer Scholarship Fund.

McBrayer later went on to be a founding fellow of the State Capital Group, a network of more than 145 independent law firms in every state capital and countries around the world. Even now, approaching six decades in the field of law, McBrayer is still earning accolades for his contributions. He was named the 2020 “Lawyer of the Year” for Lexington in administrative/regulatory law by The Best Lawyers in America.  

“That simply is the result of 57 years of hard work. Nothing else,” he said. “Hard work, strong ethics and principles override all else.”  

Morehead State recognized McBrayer’s accomplishments first by inducting him into the MSU Alumni Hall of Fame in 1966 and later awarding him an honorary doctorate in 1975. Last year, McBrayer wanted to give something back by donating $100,000 to establish the W. Terry McBrayer Scholarship Fund and MSU announced the creation of the W. Terry McBrayer Presidential Lecture Series in Government and Leadership.  

“I love Morehead State. I owe them so much and wish I could give them even more money than I have,” he said. “Hopefully, the lecture series will be a success. The school does so much for kids that are first-generation graduates.”  

To learn more about MSU’s legal studies program, contact the Department of History, Philosophy, Politics, Global Studies and Legal Studies at hpil@moreheadstate.edu, 606-783-2655 or visit www.moreheadstate.edu/study/legalstudies