Clay Long, 85, attorney with a heart for public service, dies

Clay Long co-founded one of Atlanta's former power law firms, but also held a deep interest in the environment. He served both a Republican and Democratic governor in appointed positions planning for the saving of green spaces in Georgia.  (Kimberly Smith/staff)
Caption
Clay Long co-founded one of Atlanta's former power law firms, but also held a deep interest in the environment. He served both a Republican and Democratic governor in appointed positions planning for the saving of green spaces in Georgia. (Kimberly Smith/staff)

Credit: AJC staff

They were fellow young attorneys looking to build careers who became fast friends. Then, Clay Long and John Aldridge, Sr. started talking about breaking away from comfortable positions at a heavyweight law firm in 1970s Atlanta.

“We were there four or five years together and talked about ‘crazy things’ as young people do — forming a small, high-quality firm composed of lawyers who were at the top of their law school classes.”

One thing led to another and we actually did it,” said Aldridge.

Long, Aldridge, Stevens and Sumner, formed in 1974, focused on corporate and real estate law and was a turning point for the Alabama native Long, who grew up dirt-poor but graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School.

He helped build it into a premier firm that went on to serve the state and Atlanta icons such as the Coca-Cola Company, even while maintaining a willingness to turn down work from companies Long felt they should not represent.

As the firm grew, Long dedicated himself to causes such as public transportation, charities, representing the poor and preserving greenspace that all Georgians can enjoy.

“He was a superb lawyer and an even better person,” said Jonathan Golden, a friend of 60 years’ standing and a fellow Atlanta attorney. “You could always trust Clay.”

Long, 85, died May 29 after battling a neurological illness. He’s survived by his wife Elizabeth E. Long, daughter Katie Long and son-in-law Adam Gelb and several grandchildren and nephews.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Clay Long

Gelb said Long could be a fearsome negotiator and advocate for people and causes he believed in. But he also had a gracious side and willingness build consensus and compromise.

The law firm hit a key marker in 1986 when Atlanta-based Coca-Cola spun off its bottling operations, and Long helmed the highly organized pitch to become outside counsel for bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises.

“Much to everyone’s surprise, our firm was selected,” said fellow formative partner Bill Stevens.

As the firm grew to hundreds of partners, Long threw his intellect, heart and efforts behind the United Way, the Urban League and the Fulton County library system. He chaired the MARTA board early on. He chaired the Georgia Conservancy board and drew a direct line between MARTA and conservation in a 2004 Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview.

“My experience with the MARTA board really was the first time I saw there was a connection between preserving the outdoors and preserving the environment in the city,” he said.

If you face up to how you use the land and how you preserve the natural quality of that land, you take care of a lot of air and water problems at the same time.”

His Conservancy work included the development of Blueprints for Successful Communities, a smart growth model used by a number of Georgia cities.

Additionally, governors Roy Barnes, a Democrat, and Sonny Perdue, a Republican, tapped him to head state land preservation efforts.

Long also took a key role advising the state in the initial stages of the long-running water war with Alabama and Florida.

“He was a quiet giant in the Georgia environmental movement,” said environmental activist Tricia Allen. “He was my hero and I had great respect for how he handled difficult problems.”

Low-key and self-effacing by nature, he did a considerable proportion of his work behind the scenes. While he would accept kudos, he was no egotist or self-promoter.

Gelb and others recount how Long at the start of his career clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Long drafted the ruling in a 1963 landmark case, Gideon vs. Wainwright, which established that poor criminal defendants facing felony charges have the right to a state-provided attorney.

But as a family obituary put it, “Despite his central role in the case, the most he ever allowed was ‘I helped.’

A celebration of Long’s life will be held later this summer. The family requests any donations in his name be made to the Clay Long Fund at the Georgia Conservancy.