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.
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.