Business Law: Doris R. Bray • Schell Bray Abel & Livingston PLLC, Greensboro
As corporate counsel for Vanguard Cellular Systems, a Greensboro-based wireless-phone-system operator, Doris Bray helped put together its 1988 initial public offering. She would go to New York with Vanguard co-founder Haynes Griffin to meet with bankers and underwriters. On their side of the table would be five, six, seven lawyers, Griffin recalls. “On our side, it would be Doris.” The other guys didn’t realize, he says, that they were outnumbered. “Despite the fact she is always very polite and gracious, Doris is absolutely tough as nails when she needs to be.”
That tenacity has helped her build a successful, 36-year career and win the respect of colleagues statewide. “She writes well, she thinks well and works hard,” says Charlotte lawyer Russell Robinson. Both served on North Carolina’s General Statutes Commission, which monitors and updates the state’s civil laws, and helped draft the North Carolina Corporation Act. “She is one of the best lawyers I know.”
It wasn’t an easy journey. Her high-school guidance counselor bet her $5 she would never become a lawyer. Not because she lacked the smarts or drive but because women didn’t become lawyers. Not in Reidsville in the mid-’50s. She studied English and history at a private women’s college in Ohio. She graduated, married and earned a master’s in American studies at Yale. Two years later, she separated from her husband and returned to Reidsville with her baby daughter.
In 1963, Bray enrolled in UNC’s law school, one of three women in her class. She finished first in her class and was the first female editor in chief of UNC’s law review. After a year as a law clerk at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, she started looking for a job in private practice. The interviews weren’t encouraging. “I heard things like, ‘Will you stay in the library and not meet clients?’ I said, ‘No, of course I won’t. Why are you asking me that?’” She joined Greensboro-based Smith Moore Smith Schell & Hunter, the only firm she found that was willing to give her a fair shake, and worked closely with its senior business lawyer, Braxton Schell. “At the beginning,” Schell says. “I would meet with her for a time or two with clients, but that didn’t need to last too long because she generated their confidence very quickly with her capabilities.”
Business law was a great fit. “It is problem solving,” she says. “You know the facts. The client wants to get from here to there, and you try to help them figure out the best way to get there.” Bray and Schell formed their firm with three other partners in 1987.
The first time she listed a company on the New York Stock Exchange was in the late ’60s. She went to New York, but officials wouldn’t let her do the first trade. “They didn’t allow women on the floor because there was lots of ugly language down there. I had to go stand in the balcony and watch.”
By October 1987, when Vanguard’s IPO started heating up, that wasn’t an issue. But timing was. The day that Bray and Vanguard executives met with underwriters to set a price range turned out to be Black Monday, Oct. 19. Bray kept her cool. “With Doris’ help and a lot of hard work,” Griffin says, “we kept our documents in order and were able to go public. In fact, we were one of the first IPOs after the crash.”
Bray says her biggest accomplishment has been proving she could bring in clients for her firm. “When I started, I didn’t know if men would take advice from a woman. I worked on that and became a rainmaker and attracted clients of my own.
“That was a goal I set that worked,” she adds. “And I am a goal setter.”