Emch as in Mensch

Al Emch pilots the Jackson Kelly law firm like he did C-130s

Published in 2007 Virginia Super Lawyers — July 2007

Half a planet and several decades removed from his old one-room country schoolhouse, Al Emch flew into the worst part of a storm.

“Our navigator said it was OK, so we flew inadvertently into the clouds—one of those instances where radar can be completely wrong,” says Emch, who was flying C-130s for the West Virginia Air National Guard at the time, but now pilots Jackson Kelly, headquartered in Charleston.

“So a beautiful, bright sunny day became pitch black and a bolt of lightning struck the plane, four feet from the tip of my nose,” Emch recalls almost fondly. St. Elmo’s Fire ripped down the middle of the craft, and the blue-white electric energy surged through and around Emch’s crewmates.

“Scared the hell out of us for a moment,” Emch says. “[But] the only damage to the aircraft was a small hole with a discolored area about the size of a quarter on the radome.”

Proof, if it’s needed, that the pressure of running the oldest and largest multi-state law firm headquartered in West Virginia doesn’t really measure up to the stress of lightning at 20,000 feet over Turkey. Emch, however, has found apt comparisons between the two.

“Flying demands extraordinary discipline and attention to the smallest details,” he says. “Most of the time, piloting an aircraft is a fairly routine exercise, but there are times when the margin of error is very small—in flying we call this ‘hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of terror.’

“As a manager, to an extent as a litigator, you’re like a pilot, looking at your instruments, reacting to your environment, looking at the impact of your decisions, making the proper adjustments based upon the feedback, trying to keep the ship straight and level.”

A pilot also works between the natural and the mechanical, balancing outside cues with what the instruments are telling him, negotiating the skies accordingly. With the same calm temperament, Emch, who turns 60 in September, has long been an advocate for mediation—he helped draft the nation’s first U.S. District Court mediation program in 1987.

“That’s something I’m pretty proud of,” Emch says. “And it comes from the standpoint of what is really important to me, that the law is a noble and honorable profession—not a business, not selling widgets. The key elements, whether you’re a litigator or an executive, are collegiality, respect for parties and representatives, honesty. To be forceful but compassionate.”

Emch’s well-known poise, charm and scholarly demeanor have served him well in the courtroom. Since joining Jackson Kelly in 1977, he has represented businesses in a variety of tort cases. These are usually the bad guys in most courtroom movies—coal companies and the like.

“I’ve been successful in representing clients who occasionally are not very popular, and in doing so have been able to remain cordial and professional with my opposing attorneys and their clients,” says Emch. “Even if your position is adverse to theirs, you walk away feeling you’ve shown the profession in the right light.”

If Emch is self-conscious about anything, it’s his tendency to talk about his work using military terminology. With 23 years in the service, he comes by the habit honestly. “It’s not that I think litigation is war, as many will say,” he explains. “But the principles of military strategy and tactics principles are translatable and applicable and useful.”

Emch really did attend a one-room country schoolhouse, near his father’s farm in Bebee, W.V., and he was at West Virginia University when he took his first flight in a Cherokee 140. He’d always pictured himself in an English professor’s tweed and elbow patches, but felt an obligation to serve his country. “I thought about the Peace Corps,” he says, “but felt the military was an appropriate option.” The ROTC helped pay for college, so Emch went into the Air Force following graduation.

Over the next few years, his love affair with the C-130 Hercules—the gargantuan but nimble transport plane—developed under fire in Vietnam, where he recalls standing at an open paratroop door, armed with a flare gun to ward off shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles over jungle airstrips.

“If I saw a missile—I didn’t—the idea was to shoot the flare and hope the missile would follow that instead of our airplane,” says Emch, who, as a licensed commercial pilot, often flies one of Jackson Kelly’s two Piper Navajo planes.

“I don’t have any scary combat stories, but I’ve had my chilling moments, flying at 100 feet at the base of 8,000-foot-tall mountains, and I’ve been in the middle of a SCUD missile attack during the first Persian Gulf War,” he says.

“There have been some other amazing moments too. Seeing the sunrise over Mount Etna early in the morning, or flying back over the desert after a 22-hour day, invigorated by the stars in a lightless desert. You’re thinking, ‘My God, I didn’t know there were so many stars.’ The whole crew, everybody, is exhausted and we’re sitting up there in the sky looking up at the stars. It’s almost a spiritual experience.”

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