The year was 1999 and, after nearly 50 years, venerable Atlanta firm Long, Weinberg, Ansley & Wheeler was dissolving as 23 of its 37 lawyers split off to found a new concern, Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial, geared less toward insurance defense and more focused on high-profile commercial and complex defense-oriented litigation and catastrophic personal injury work.

Among the firm’s first hires was a second-generation lawyer from North Georgia with a freshly printed law degree from the University of Georgia, an athlete’s competitive drive and a yearning to learn the law.

He came to the right place.

“When I started I was lucky, because we had a lot of cases and not a lot of people,” says Charles L. “Chuck” Clay Jr. “I got thrown into a lot of cases right off; I had three trial my first year. I probably learned more in that year than I ever have anywhere.”

Thirteen years later, Weinberg Wheeler has more than tripled its legal firepower and opened satellite offices in Las Vegas and Miami, and counts Clay as one of its top national litigators and go-to guys when a client calls needing a sharp defense pro on the ground, now.

Clay has pulled out defense wins that saved his clients untold millions of dollars over the years in clear wins and by keeping damage judgments down, according to published cases and fellow personal injury lawyers on both sides of the bar.

In one “no-win” case, in which a surgeon was killed and his wife left brain-damaged by a carbon monoxide leak at a Wyoming hotel, he kept a multimillion-dollar award more than $175 million below the pre-trial demand despite his client’s liability.

In another case in which a brain-injured auto-accident victim sought $17.5 million from a trucking company, Clay saw that the award was held to $500,000.

And in medical malpractice cases involving allegations of grievous injury or wrongful death, Clay has pulled down defense wins in courtrooms across the country.

“Chuck has a good feel for case evaluations, and really understands accident reconstruction as well as any lawyer I know,” says Weinberg Wheeler partner Billy Gunn, who has worked countless cases with his young colleague and confirms that, since his hiring, Clay has been someone to whom the firm routinely tosses knotty cases.

“Very early in his career, when he’d been with us about a year and a half, we were trying a brain-damaged baby case in Chicago; very tough case,” recalls Gunn. “I had given local counsel a couple of witnesses to cross-examine, and he fell through on us.”

Gunn called on Clay to step in, he says, “and he crossed them that day on two hours’ notice. We got a defense verdict.”

“A lot of times,” says Gunn, “we’ll get hired for a particular case somewhere because it’s in trouble; by the time he’s done with it, he’s developed a relationship with the client that ends up with him getting cases regularly [from that client]. He really digs in to his cases, he’s very good in front of jury, and interacts really well with opposing counsel.”

Attorneys who’ve faced off with Clay agree.

“I’ve handled several cases on the other side of him” over the past decade or so, says plaintiffs personal injury lawyer Adam Malone. “Chuck has always been a fierce advocate for his client, but he also always displays the utmost professionalism: He avoids the nastiness and fighting over things that don’t have anything to do with the merits of a case.”

Clay, says Malone, “always seems to show up to defend the toughest cases, the one with really big exposure, so his clients must have a tremendous amount of confidence in him.”

“He’s one of my favorite people on the other side,” observes Pete Law of Law & Moran. “We’re adversaries for sure, but he’s one you know will defend his case well. If he tells you something, you know you can believe it — and that’s the highest compliment I can pay.”

When Clay was young, his family moved to Rabun County, where his mother taught high school and his late father’s practice included real estate and stints as the county attorney and Clayton city attorney, Clay says.

“I always thought I’d play a sport growing up,” says Clay, who played football, basketball and golf in high school. “Golf was my best, but once I got to college, I figured out I was not as good as I thought I was.”

After graduating from Furman University with a degree in business, Clay says, he looked at the job market and reconsidered his father’s occupation.

“I liked the competition at law school: the moot court, trial practice,” he says. “I’m very competitive, so I like the litigation aspect of defense work.”

Along with the excess insurance cases he handles frequently, Clay also counts several Fortune 500 and international companies among his clients, including Coca-Cola Refreshment.

Clay says he gets along well with opposing counsel because he believes that, ideally, both sides are working for a fair result.

He recalls defending a case involving an accident in which a toddler was run over.

“The grandfather came up one day after court, and I didn’t know if he was going to punch me or what,” says Clay. “He thanked me for the way I had questioned the family, then he asked, ‘How do you do what you do?’

“I explained that, to me, I don’t view what I do as a disservice to the plaintiffs,” Clay says. “I want to see a reasonable outcome. If you’re reasonable on the defense side, that usually prevents these crazy awards you hear about. Plaintiffs lawyers know that. I’ve found that, the more I’ve tried cases, the less frequently I’ve had to take them to trial … good lawyers can usually reach a settlement.”

That means not digging in and risking a huge award when liability is clear, he says.

“Sometimes the acts are so bad and so horrific, the optimal outcome is to say, ‘You’ve got to go ahead and pay your limits, and get out,’” he says. His clients know him well enough to follow his advice.

“I’ve reached the point where I can say what needs to be said without getting contradicted or disrespected. That’s a good place to be.”

  • Charles L. “Chuck” Clay, 38
  • Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial
  • Undergraduate: Furman University, business
  • Law school: University of Georgia, 1999
  • As a kid wanted to be: A professional athlete
  • Last vacation: Lake Rabun, July 4, 2012
  • Last book: Cage’s Bend, by Carter Coleman
  • Fallback career: Athletic coach
  • First job: Working on a construction crew, building houses in Rabun County
  • The takeaway: “I wanted to do something more intellectually stimulating.”