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Thinking Ahead
Remaining focused on goals vaulted Frank Emory
to professional success and perhaps soon to public office

By Kevin Brafford

Frank Emory dots every “i” and crosses every “t,” and that alone should tell you something since his name contains neither. His dress shirts are starched, his slacks creased and his ties fashionable.

Clothes may not make the man, but they don’t hurt this corporate trial lawyer, a partner in the Charlotte firm of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson. In a profession that feasts on the timid like bees on honey, the 43-year-old Emory is at the top of his game.

“I love what I do,” he says. “Clients bring me facts and say this is my objective, help me reach it. My job is to figure that out and get it straight so that it’s understandable, then help move it through the system in a way that’s helpful to our client and gets them a good result.”

Emory’s charge, of course, is to sway jurors to his line of thinking. He must be smart, warm, convincing and at times, yes, even a bit manipulative. “Managing people’s perceptions is a job unto itself,” he says.

If he sounds like a politician now, just you wait a few years. As a former student body president at Duke University, as a two-time appointee to the state Board of Transportation and a member of the NCCBI Executive Committee, Emory is as comfortable speaking to jurors as he likely would be — or maybe will be — to voters.

“Elected office is an interest of mine,” he says. “One of the things I’m doing now is trying to figure out where I’d plug in.”

The first word that comes to mind: anywhere.

Conventional wisdom has long held that behind most successful, grounded adults are successful, grounded parents. Athalene and Frank Emory Sr. were just that to Frank Jr. and Randy (also a lawyer in Charlotte), brothers separated by about 5 1/2 years.

The Emorys called Wilson home and it’s still that to the oldest son, although he hasn’t lived there for more than 20 years. “There will always be a special place in my heart for Eastern North Carolina,” Emory says. “I’ll always be partial to barbecue, hush puppies and sweet tea.”

His father was an agricultural extension agent until 1969 when he took a job at N.C. State University. His mother taught English and French at a variety of public schools for 42 years. Both are retired, though extremely active, which is how they remember young Frank Jr.

“At a very early age, he became a helpful young man,” says mother Athalene Emery. “He was able to relate to all people, whatever echelon they fell into.”

This was rural North Carolina in the 1960s and people sadly were still largely classified according to color. Moments occasionally were tense. “We were very careful to know what was going on in school at all time,” says Frank Sr. “We wanted him to be exposed to people who were doing well, and we tried to keep both him and Randy in things that helped mold them — 4-H, scouting, church and Sunday school.”

Still, it wasn’t always easy. “When things were blatantly bad at school,” Frank Sr. says, “we tried to teach him to cope. We weren’t activists, necessarily, but we paid attention to what was happening. We’d say, ‘No one can define you. When you look inside and know who you are, you can have a positive attitude regardless of what others think.’ ”

Emory maintained such an attitude, even in his formative years. “I can remember him as a little fellow, sitting on the floor, singing ‘Everybody Loves Me,’” says his father. “He had a very good image of himself all along.”

He still does, although not to the point of being abrasive or arrogant. Ask those who know Emory well about his character traits and “competitive” is quickly followed by “confident.”

“He’s competitive and he likes to win,” says Dr. Clifford Jones, the pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church for the past 18 years. “And he wants others to follow that lead and do well. When you get beyond that professional attorney ­— a real polished veneer — you find a practical, caring person.”

Lisa, his wife of 14 years, sees those sides and more. “We have two sons and he’s a great role model for them,” she says. “He’s a real gentlemen and living proof that chivalry is not dead. He knows when it’s time to have fun and he knows when it’s time to be serious. About my only complaint is when he takes the lint out of the dryer, he doesn’t throw it away.”

Emory learned about life through travels with his father. “We’d walk roads, going to talk to farmers and it’d give you a sense of what life’s about, to see men whose lives had been spent working with their hands and whose whole economic future depended on the weather,” he says. “I was impressed that my father had this knowledge of talking about the science of crops and rotation, fertilization and things like that, and how what he knew made a difference to these guys in their business.”

He learned to understand his father’s business. He also learned a little something about himself. “All honest work is honorable,” he says, “but there are lot of ways to do it. From an early age, I figured out that trying to do something that allows you not to have to do manual labor was a good thing.”

Emory remembers having an interest in law as far back as junior high. Rarely one to shy away from conflict, he liked that the process of law brought debate, then resolution. “I had done of lot of public speaking in 4-H and really enjoyed it,” he says.

An outstanding student at Wilson Fike High School, he had academic scholarship offers from numerous universities and accepted the Angier B. Duke Scholarship. “Duke has a public policy major, which allows you to have a major that includes political science, public policy and some business principles in management,” he says. “Most of the people in my high school were going to Carolina, and I decided I wanted to do something different.”

Emory soaked in every aspect of the college experience. As part of his scholarship experience, he was invited to study in Oxford during the summer between his sophomore and junior years. “You want to talk about your eye-opening experiences, that was it,” he says. “Coming from Wilson and being in London, that was something.”

Eager to enjoy a new part of the world, Emory built in a week of sightseeing in London on the front end of the trip. His father’s secretary, however, had made hotel reservations without considering the six-hour time difference. Emory’s reservation said he was due to arrive on July 5. Trouble was, he wasn’t arriving until the following day, local time. “When I got there, I found out that my room had been canceled,” he says. “It’s the Queen’s Jubilee and there isn’t a room in London to be found. I’m there with eight weeks worth of luggage and nowhere to stay.”

As is his wont, Emory made the best of a bad situation. “I ended up finally finding a room near the airport for like $200 a night — a lot of money in 1977,” he says. “I just decided to have the best time that I could. My dad had given me his credit card and, trust me, I had a really good time. Those mini-bars were great.”

Back home, the inflated credit card bill that would arrive in August wasn’t the topic of conversation. “We tried to be calm on the phone, to let him know that everything would be OK,” says his mother. “That’s what he was looking for from us. But I’ll tell you, we were worried.”

“It’s a funny story now,” says his father, “but it wasn’t funny back then.”

Emory says the rest of his time in Europe was eventful in a good way — and also educational in an unconventional way. “Before I went over there, I was very provincial in how I looked at the world,” he says. “That changed. That was the summer when Elvis died, and it was interesting to read about America in the London Daily Mirror.

“You learn that people see us differently than we see ourselves. I came to appreciate what it means to be an American, even in that short summer. I didn’t kiss the ground when I came home, but I wanted to.”  

In the fall of 1977, Emory was elected student body president. Over the course of the following January to November (his length of office), he met movers and shakers and shared his opinions when asked — and sometimes even when not. “I remember having to make presentations to trustees,” he says, “and that was a big deal. Terry Sanford was the president of Duke at the time and learning from him was an education in itself. He’d say, ‘You’ve got to handle your people, because I can handle my trustees.’ ”

By the time Emory graduated from Duke (with majors in public policy and economics), his career path was clearly headed toward a courtroom. He worked for a law firm that summer and headed straight for law school at the University of North Carolina that fall. Again, he had other opportunities, but a Morehead Law Fellowship from Chapel Hill, with a nudge from his father, was deemed too good to pass up.

“I called home to my father and said I had great news,” Emory recalls, “that Duke’s saying they’ll loan me some money and Carolina’s saying they’ll pay for everything and give me money. I told him I was trying to figure out what to do. He said, ‘Why are we having this conservation? It looks like Carolina’s a good place.’ ”

And so it was. “It’s a great school, but it’s a different feel,” he says. If you’re wondering about his allegiances, they lay clearly to the darker shade of blue. “Without a doubt,” he says. “Always.”

After graduating from UNC, Emory worked as a law clerk for the Hon. Charles Beckton in Raleigh for a year, then moved to Charlotte in August 1983 to join the firm of Ferguson, Stein, Watt, Wallas & Adkins — one founded by noted civil rights advocate Julius L. Chambers, the just-retired chancellor of North Carolina Central University.

He quickly earned the admiration and respect of his peers and within three years was made a partner. He bought a house — better to keep a sparkling new Audi — and contributed regularly on the Queen City’s nightlife.

Life was good. “I had made partner and bought a house and was settled into bachelorhood,” he says. “I was running hard, and it was clear that I wasn’t going to get married anytime soon. In terms of that, I wanted to make sure that I had done a good survey.”

At a friend’s urging, he agreed to meet a woman for ice cream one day after work. It was going to be a short blind date, as “I had a date set up at 7 with a girl I already knew. And the woman that set this 5 o’clock thing up was selling this girl so hard that I was like, man, this is going to be a mercy date.”

It was May 3, 1986, and Frank Emory didn’t keep his second date that night. “In fact, she didn’t even cross my mind, and I never called her back.” That’s because he couldn’t get Lisa Lewis out of his mind. Six months later they were engaged, and the following March they were married.

“I had been on a couple of blind dates that weren’t successful,” says Lisa, a real estate agent. “A good friend was pushing this one with Frank — my mom said, ‘If he’s all that, why doesn’t she want him?’ But he took me to Baskin-Robbins and that’s a good thing because I’m an ice cream connoisseur.

“I’m talkative and I think that probably appealed to him. I’m not as confident as he is, but the things I’m sure of I’m definitely sure of. I told him soon after that I was reeling him in.”

Athalene and Frank Sr. knew it was serious from the get-go. “He brought her home one weekend,” recalls Frank Sr., “and when the boys would bring a girl home, we knew that meant they were really looking at her.”

The whirlwind courtship also caught the Lewises by surprise. “There are six children in my family and I’m the middle child,” Lisa says. “The youngest is not married, but the other four dated their spouses for eight years. My parents were dumbfounded — they didn’t understand why overnight I would marry someone I didn’t know. But I just knew Frank was right for me.”

Robinson, Bradshaw and Hinson won him over in 1990, just about the time that Lisa was giving birth to Frank III. The family bought a home near UNC Charlotte, and a second son, Alexander, soon followed. Appointments and honors regularly flowed Emory’s way, including back-to-back stints on the state Board of Transportation, courtesy of Gov. Jim Hunt, a longtime friend of the family.

Life, good before, was even better now. “It’s like I’ve never left my childhood,” he says. “My life is so full and rich.”

As much as Emory loves his profession, he realizes it’s flawed. “The system is congested, and we have a lot of cases that should never be tried,” he says. “As lawyers, we need to remember that our job is to help clients and not fight one another. And though many people don’t believe it, we need more judges. As our state has grown, the burden on our system has grown.

“We also have to find a way to make it affordable. I couldn’t afford me. You can quickly be to six figures before you get to trial in a major case with a lot at stake. And if people stop having faith in the system, then eventually I’m out of a job.”

Emory realizes the financial burdens that have stymied the state’s transportation system. “There is no one answer, but if I had a blank check, I’d start by doing the necessary maintenance and replacing the bridges,” he says. “The next thing would be to finish the road projects, and I’d finish the intrastate road network. I’d four-lane (Highway) 74 to Wilmington so that the people in the less developed areas of the state would be able to attract the kind of industry that they need.

“Our infrastructure just has not kept up with our population, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Emory isn’t all business — anymore. “I used to work from 8 in the morning until 11 at night,” he says. “I work fewer Saturdays now and no Sundays, unless I have a trial. I have more control over my life now.” He enjoys playing golf with his sons on weekends and says an occasional weightlifting session serves as therapy. He teaches Sunday school at Friendship Missionary.

“One of my goals is to take better care of myself,” he says. “For a man, the first 40 years are pretty much guaranteed. The next 40 are up to you. I want to make those last.”

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