By Tim Tesconi
Santa Rosa attorney Patrick W. Emery is at the intersection where gentlemanly style meets scholarly substance. He has seamlessly channeled those qualities into a distinguished legal career and a life of community service while being a stalwart champion for agriculture and farm youth.
Emery’s impressive career, spanning five decades, has been punctuated with community building and leadership, ranging from his years on the Sonoma County Fair Board to chairmanship of the Sonoma County Civil Service Commission. Whether in the courtroom or presiding at a fair board meeting, Emery is known for his polish, persuasive arguments and strong convictions. He takes the pursuit of excellence very seriously – in both his profession and in life.
Along the way, Emery, a top trial lawyer who has represented many agricultural businesses in legal matters, has supported and assisted 4-H, FFA, agriculture education, fairs and Santa Rosa Junior College, believing agriculture is the heart and soul of Sonoma County. Like his friends and clients, the late Richard and Saralee McClelland Kunde, Emery wants the county’s rich farming heritage to be preserved for future generations. He devotes his time to make that happen.
“Pat really shines when he is not wearing a coat and tie in some board room, but in his boots and jeans around the barns at the fairgrounds, herding lambs, weighing steers, or supporting a young future farmer who is fighting back tears, saying good bye to the market animal he raised,” said Santa Rosa attorney Les Perry, a longtime friend and fellow attorney who served with Emery as a director of Sonoma County Fair.
Emery, a farm boy from the Sierra Foothills, credits the mentoring of his high school ag teacher with the guidance that got him into Harvard when his path was far from certain. He learned valuable life lessons, like responsibility and respect for others, that would script his future. His years raising market beef and a flock of sheep as an FFA member instilled an incredible work ethic.
In recognition of his lifetime of accomplishments in law, education and building the community he calls home, the Santa Rosa Junior College AgTrust has named Emery the honoree for the AgTrust’s 2023 AgStravaganza, which will be held May 13 at SRJC’s Shone Farm near Forestville.
“The SRJC Ag Trust is proud to honor Pat Emery for working on many levels to inspire tomorrow’s leaders in agriculture. He is truly a treasured and valued leader in our community,” said Pj LoCoco, president of the SRC AgTrust.
It was Emery’s leadership, academic achievements and athletic prowess in high school that earned him admission to Harvard University where he graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature.
After he completed his military obligation as a member of the Army National Guard, he earned a law degree from the University of California, Davis. He was a member of the law school’s sixth graduating class.
In 1974, Emery settled in Santa Rosa, knowing that Sonoma County was poised for growth and would provide some challenging legal work because of its proximity to the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. He wanted to be in a court room arguing important and interesting cases, not in a drab office writing wills and divorce settlements.
“I didn’t want to be a small-town lawyer,” said Emery, who is 75. “I guess I was ego-driven enough that I wanted to be a player on some significant level. It was very important for me to work with the people who were at the top of my profession.”
Emery is mostly retired from active legal work but remains “of counsel” at the firm Abbey, Weitzenberg, Warren & Emery. His reputation is legend in legal circles.
“Pat is universally regarded as one of the premier trial attorneys in the county,” said Perry. “One of his former partners described him as the best all-around lawyer he has ever seen. Sonoma County judges view Pat as one of the best to appear before them.”
In addition to his stellar legal career, Perry said he admires Emery for his dedication to the fair and the 4-H and FFA members who show their animals. Perry said Emery was hand-picked by Saralee Kunde to join her in founding the Sonoma County Fair Foundation. As president of the Fair Foundation, Emery spearheaded the $3 million capital campaign to build Saralee and Richard’s Barn at the fairgrounds.
Those who worked closely with Emery say he strived to be the best and worked very hard to make that happen – all to the benefit of his clients.
“One of Pat’s philosophies was ‘outwork your opponents.’ He made sure he knew every detail he needed to know. He asked every question. He studied every witness thoroughly. He knew every argument inside and out. He out-prepared his opponents,” said attorney Rachel Angress, who is general counsel and head of the legal department for American AgCredit, the region’s leading agricultural lender.
Angress worked with Emery for 15 years in his legal practice as he took on challenging cases and achieved many successful outcomes. For 20 years Emery was retained by American AgCredit and other Farm Credit entities to defend them in lender liability cases ranging from almonds to sheep and poultry to apples. He would immerse himself in whatever agricultural commodity he was dealing with, learning every aspect of production. He witnessed some farm disasters that he will never forget.
“I represented a major egg producer for a long time. One time PG&E let the power fail in his huge chicken house without giving the required emergency notification. Have you ever seen a pile of 100,000 dead hens? It ain’t pretty,” Emery recalled.
Angress said Emery has an amazing command of language and is a gifted writer.
“In addition to always presenting a persuasive oral argument, Pat’s writing did a lot of the heavy lifting for his clients,” said Angress, who considers Emery her mentor in the legal profession. “Pat was the toughest person I’ve ever worked for in terms of his high standards and expectations. I learned more from him than from anyone else in my career.”
Emery loves teaching and guiding others. For many years he taught trial practice at Empire College of Law in Santa Rosa and at Stanford Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop. For five years he taught a class in agriculture law at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Looking back, Emery said, he had challenges and success beyond his wildest dreams, winning major court cases against well-funded, big-gun law firms.
“What I liked best was representing the underdog and working on their behalf to make it right,” said Emery. “That was very gratifying to me.”
His court triumphs did not go unnoticed by fellow trial attorneys. In 2009 he was elected a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. It’s the pinnacle of recognition for a trial attorney, with only one percent of all trial lawyers in the U.S. and Canada elected to the prestigious body. At the group’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. there is a reception and dinner with the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Emery said at one of the trial lawyers’ gatherings he had the opportunity to meet the late Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia. After talking with Scalia, Emery reflected on how far he had come from those days on the farm in rural Placerville.
“My career has surpassed my expectations on every level including the fun I would have doing what I really wanted to do,” said Emery. Now the hard-charging attorney is settling into a more relaxed life that gives him more time for family, friends, community work and his country property in Santa Rosa.
“I do miss the camaraderie of my colleagues and the intellectual challenge of complex legal issues,” he said.
It truly gets to the heart of who Emery really is when he says, despite world renown professors at Harvard, his most influential teacher ever was his agriculture instructor at El Dorado High School in Placerville. Emery said ag teacher Keith Smith guided him at a crucial juncture in his life when he needed a mentor. He has never forgotten Smith’s wisdom in effectively guiding boys toward manhood. Emery said without Smith’s guidance it all could have gone the other way, with no Harvard, law school or legal career.
“Keith Smith made me realize I was responsible for my own behavior and my own future at a time when it really mattered about the direction I would take,” said Emery.
Emery’s peaceful retirement on his country property was cruelly interrupted by the Glass Fire in 2020. The wildfire swept over his east Santa Rosa property, destroying his home, John Deere tractor and many of the olive trees he had carefully nurtured for olive oil. He spent two years rebuilding his home and continues to restore his farming landscape.
Emery and his wife Allison Sanford, a director and past chairwoman of the Sonoma Land Trust, travel and spend time with their family, which includes six grandchildren.
Still the farmer, Emery also nurtures the 65 olive trees that survived the fire. This year he will again grow 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, which he unloads on appreciative family and friends during harvest’s peak.
Farming, he said, keeps him grounded and in tune with the seasonal rhythms, always a good thing for a fruitful life.