When he was 12, Emile H. Banks was arrested for handgun possession and spent a restless night in jail.
“I had to sleep with a bunch of criminals,” Banks remembers. “I knew one thing: I was never going to end up in that place again.”
He continues: “I grew up in the inner city of Chicago and I didn’t think I’d make it to 20. Most of the friends I grew up with in my block are dead from gunshots. To be 47 is a blessing. I’ve been on playgrounds where gunshots broke out and people scattered. I’ve had a gun held to my head.”
What put Banks in jail began with a simple game of pool at a friend’s house. When members of the Vice Lords gang dropped by, a confrontation broke out on the porch and Banks rushed to protect a friend. Banks remembers, “I came up and stood behind him and they said, ‘Who is he, your bodyguard?’ All of a sudden a fist came flying at me and I just started swinging. They backed up. It was a domino effect and they swung off the porch. I didn’t even hit them.”
He decided to scare the boys a few days later by flashing his mother’s .22 handgun. His mother rarely allowed him to run around the unsafe neighborhood, but the next day she asked him to buy a loaf of bread and Banks saw his opportunity. He brought the gun to a market frequented by the Vice Lords and bumped into a gang member from the party. Words were exchanged. Another gang member mentioned he had a .45. “The .22 caliber … was in my coat pocket with my hand on it,” he remembers. “I never brandished it.” But someone must have called the cops because when he walked away from the market, they pulled up and arrested him.
As Banks finishes this story — with his distraught mother retrieving him from the police station and the local priest vouching for his good behavior in front of the judge — tears well up in his eyes.
Banks resembles a linebacker and is rarely seen in anything but a suit. He specializes in medical malpractice, insurance defense and personal injury cases, and his 20-employee firm, Emile Banks & Associates, began in 1999 with just two secretaries and a paralegal. As associate pastor at Christian Faith Fellowship Church, he takes great joy in writing his own sermons. His wife, Cathy Banks, is also an associate pastor and chief finance officer for the church, managing a $6 million budget. They have two daughters and a son.
His two careers have some commonalities. “It’s all about persuasion,” Banks says. “When you’re on the pulpit and ministering the word of God, you’re telling people it’s true and applicable to their lives. When I’m in court, I’m persuading the jury that it’s my story, and a story they should accept.”
Banks never tells jurors that he is also a pastor — “I want them to judge the case based on merit,” he says — but last year his two careers came together when he was asked to work with Milwaukee’s inner-city churches and Wisconsin Citizen Action on a case alleging that ethnic minorities were being charged 26 percent financing on new-car loans — as opposed to under 10 percent for white people.
“Many members of the church expressed that they basically got hijacked,” says Banks.
“We chose Emile Banks because of his impeccable reputation,” says Larry Fehring, an attorney with Habush Habush & Rottier, who hired Banks on the case. The two have known each other since practicing together during the 1980s at Kasdorf, Lewis & Swietlik.
“He really wears three hats,” Fehring continues. “[He’s] an accomplished businessman, an accomplished lawyer and an accomplished minister. People immediately like him when they meet him because he’s so friendly. But behind that is a very astute leader.”
The case was successfully settled on behalf of Banks’ clients and Wisconsin Citizen Action.
Another pivotal case for Banks involved a single mother who attended his church. Accused by a large corporation of not filing the appropriate paperwork and owing money to them, she did not qualify for legal aid. So Banks chose to represent her pro bono and won.
“She was tearful, crying, and said she did not know what she would have done [without our help],” says Banks. “Lawyers are expensive, and many of us want to do pro bono work, but the pressures of making profits for the corporation get in the way.”
It was this desire to take on more pro bono work that led Banks to start his own firm.
“It actually ended up being the greatest decision in my career,” he says. It allows him to take on many clients for free or at reduced rates.
“Emile could have taken the easy way,” says Fehring. “He could be an in-house attorney for a large corporation, to flesh out their diversity. Instead, he decided to start his own firm.”
Banks prays before the start of each trial. “I never want to walk out of a courtroom feeling … that I have prevented someone from obtaining something they had rightfully coming,” Banks says. “I never argue a position I don’t truly believe in. I have been in a position [where] clients have asked me to say things to help their case. If it’s not a fact, I will not say it, no matter what the client says or threatens to do.”
Recently one of Banks’ clients asked him to present new evidence that was skewed. “I just told him, ‘Well, you’re going to have to fire me.’ It turned out he did not fire me.”
“He’s a genuine guy,” say Rob Lauer, a partner at Kasdorf, Lewis & Swietlik, who plays basketball with Banks. “He’s grounded ethically and morally.”
That ethical and moral grounding began early. As a child at St. Matthew’s in Chicago, Banks discovered his fellow altar boys stealing money from the church. “I was aghast, thinking, ‘How can anyone touch God’s money?’” Banks recalls. Banks even considered studying to become a priest, but by the time high school rolled around that dream had been replaced by more earthly activities: partying and playing basketball.
It wasn’t until his junior year at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, where he was studying to become a psychologist, that Banks considered becoming a lawyer. “The [anthropology] teacher and I used to get into these philosophical arguments,” says Banks. “Some of the time I would stick around after class and she and I would debate different political stuff. She said, ‘You should be a lawyer. You sound like a lawyer. You would not believe the power lawyers have in society.’
“That impressed me a lot — the power and versatility of a juris doctorate degree,” says Banks.
Attending law school at Ohio Northern University in the early 1980s, Banks wandered back onto a religious path. “I was still faithful to God, thought about Him a lot, prayed a lot,” but he admits he wasn’t faithful in attending services. Then a priest near campus gave sermons that, according to Banks, “kept me in a place where I wanted to do what is right.” He also jokingly credits law school for his mild conversion: “Law school will do that to you: make you turn to God in a minute.”
In 1989, now a lawyer in Milwaukee, Banks was browsing through praise music at Something More, a Christian bookstore in West Allis, when a customer asked him for a particular type of praise music. After telling the man he didn’t work at the store, the two struck up a conversation. At this particular time Banks and his wife were still commuting to Chicago for Sunday church, but the commute, as Banks puts it, was “getting old real fast.” He’d heard about a minister in town, Darrell Hines, who was starting up a church, and so he asked the man about him.
“I’m who you’re looking for,” the man replied.
Two Sundays later the Bankses attended Hines’ new church. “There were just five or six people in the pews but he preached as if the place was packed,” Banks remembers. Today the church has grown to include 6,000 members.
For five years Banks set up the sound system on Sunday mornings before becoming the church’s associate pastor in 1994. In 1996, Hines put Banks in charge of building a new 60,000-square-foot meeting place. A year later, Banks supervised the construction of a school connected to the Darrell L. Hines Academy, which is among a short list of schools in Milwaukee’s charter-school program.
“He’s a very, very talented person and very committed to the ministry,” Hines says about Banks. “As far as having a person of character, I couldn’t have had a better choice.”
Kristina Momon, the receptionist at Emile Banks & Associates, can’t seem to get away from her boss. She also attends his church. “He’s the same at work and church,” she says. “He’s very concerned about his employees.”
“When you work as a lawyer,” Banks says, “and also have pastoral duties, you’re always reminded how strong you have to be, and make sure you represent Christ in everything you do.”
Banks’ latest project is managing the construction of a sister church on an 80,000-square-foot plot of land on Milwaukee’s Northwest side that was purchased for $2.4 million. The Bill Gates Foundation gave $200,000 toward the project that, when completed, will include a private high school for youth between the ages of 14 and 18. “It will train them how to be masons, electricians, and also have a medical facility for the uninsured, and a family psychologist,” says Banks.
A 900-seat performance-arts space is in the blueprints, as is a roller-skating rink and gymnasium.
Banks has faith that the school will turn out young adults who are driven and passionate about what they do. That’s the key. Because Banks remembers what it was like to be 12 years old, alone and scared, stuck in a Chicago jail cell. That night he wanted a better life— and he got it.