Emerson George Spies attended Hobart College where he earned a B.A. in 1936 and received a B.A. in Jurisprudence in 1938. In 1939, Spies earned a B.C.L. in 1939 from Brasenose College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. Returning to the United States, he became a tutorial fellow at the University of Chicago for 2 years. Spies relocated to New York City to join the law firm of Mudge, Stern, Williams, & Tucker. Spies entered the Army during World War II and, after completing the Judge Advocate General (JAG) School in Michigan, he taught at the JAG School. He remained at Michigan until he was persuaded by Col. John Ritchie, III to join him on the UVA Law School faculty after the war. Specializing in real property and real estate finance, Spies taught Property to every first-year law student from 1947 -196. At the time of his death in 1990, it was noted that Spies had taught half of the Law School's 13,000 living alumni. He was a dynamic, caring teacher who was loved and fondly remembered by his students. His faculty duties included helping with the admissions program at the UVA Law School. With characteristic energy and enthusiasm, Spies became deeply involved in the admissions process and conducted it almost singlehandedly for 20 years while teaching a full Law School course load. Spies was involved in the development of the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). In 1947, Spies and university representatives of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Pennsylvania formed the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) which spawned the LSAT. From 1963 to 1966, Spies was head of the LSAC, and he served on its Board of Trustees until the year of his death.
Spies exerted strong leadership at the Law School in other ways. For ten years he served as chair of the Appointments Committee which attracted a number of outstanding faculty members. In 1976, he became Acting Dean at the UVA Law School, and later that year, Spies was appointed Dean, a position he held until he retired in 1980. During his deanship, Walter L. Brown Hall (Phase II of the North Grounds building) was completed, funded entirely by private money. As the UVA Law School Dean, he strengthened alumni relationships with the school, and he exerted strong leadership in fundraising for faculty research and scholarships. Commenting on Spies’ leadership, former Dean Bob Scott wrote, “more than anyone I’ve known, he saw his interests and the interests of this institution—his colleagues, students and alumni—as inextricably bound together.” In 1984 Spies was presented the University's Thomas Jefferson Award in recognition of his many contributions to the Law School and University, especially his excellence in teaching. Upon his retirement in 1985, the alumni created the Emerson G. Spies Professorship. John Calvin Jeffries, Jr. was the first Emerson G. Spies Professor, beloved student and later colleague and close friend of Spies. An avid gardener, Spies planned, selected the plants, and tended a woodland garden at the Law School, which was later named for him.