Visiting the office of Carol Clark Law is like stepping into an eclectic, bustling household. The rooms in the red-brick building she owns in suburban Sandy Springs, on the outskirts of Atlanta, are filled with oriental carpets, handmade quilts and paintings of seascapes, mountains and meadows. Surprises wait around every corner. There's a hand-carved wooden tobacco-store Indian peering from an alcove and vivid folk art paintings by Thornton Dial hanging on the walls. There's also an empty dog bed on the floor near her desk. It belonged to Claudia, the recently deceased Scottish terrier that once accompanied Clark to the office.
"It's been hectic today—I didn't know I was going to have to go to court," says Clark as she sweeps into the conference room. As the head of a firm specializing in commercial litigation and real estate law, Clark has been pulling even longer hours than usual in the midst of the financial crisis and mortgage industry meltdown. "My poor builders are just drowning," she says. "It's breaking my heart."
Despite the workload, Clark looks bright-eyed and formidable late into the afternoon. "Have a Clark bar," she urges, setting a candy dish on the conference table.
Two watches jangle together on her left wrist: One is sleek, feminine and modern; the other is a man's Rolex her father bought in Switzerland while serving in World War II. "The Rolex doesn't keep time right now, it needs to be cleaned," she explains. "I wear it because it makes me think of my dad."
Clark brings a strong sense of place and history to her role as a real estate attorney. She was raised in Rockdale County, Ga., a once-rural area nestled amid the granite outcroppings of the Stone, Panola and Arabia mountains. "The house that I grew up in was built in 1866 by my great-great-grandfather after he walked home from the Civil War," she says.
Her grandparents lived next door in a home that served as post office during the Civil War. "My grandfather had cows and it wasn't unusual to have to go round up a cow that got out before you went to school," Clark recalls.
Her father, a mailman, loved to garden. He decided to start a college fund for his children by planting a peach orchard. "We had 500 trees and no irrigation system. You had to prune the trees, spray them and harvest them. It was so much work!" says Clark, who spent part of her adolescence tending the crop. "But they were so delicious!" she adds. "We grew beautiful Georgia Belles and Golden Jubilees. All of them looked like little water color paintings."
Clark was a good student and an enthusiastic Girl Scout who loved collecting badges, going on campouts and working on community service projects. The bonds she formed in childhood remain strong to this day. "Many of my close friends go back to second or third grade," she says.
After graduating high school as valedictorian, Clark went on to major in English at the University of Georgia (UGA). As a sophomore she joined the Governor's Intern Program under then-governor Jimmy Carter and was charged with traveling around the state to educate the public about the need for landfills. Working for the governor's office put her in the midst of "all these go-getter young people who were talking about going to law school," she says. They sparked her interested and Clark went on to UGA School of Law.
After getting her J.D. in 1976, she was recruited by Hansell, Post, Brandon & Dorsey in Atlanta. "I said, ‘I want to litigate,'" Clark recalls. "I was told, ‘Well, that's nice but we don't have women litigators. Would you like to work in our real estate department?'" Turns out she enjoyed working through the complex problems in real estate law. "I wouldn't have thought about real estate law as a specialty on my own," she says. "It was God's way of getting me to where I needed to be."
But she persisted in pursuing her passion for litigation, and was eventually tapped to litigate real estate cases for the firm. "Property law covers just about anything you can imagine," she says. She cites zoning problems, building restrictions, foreclosures, construction, loans, storm runoff and everything from taxes to termites. "I've been on just about every side of every problem. You just never know what's coming next," she says.
Once when she was giving a talk to a women's group, someone in the audience asked if she had an obligation to disclose that a ghost had been frequently spotted on the porch of the house she was selling, even though the porch had been removed. Clark laughed but told the woman it would probably be better to tell potential buyers about the reports.
"If you are asked point-blank if there was a murder or a suicide on a property, you are required to disclose it," Clark says, explaining Georgia law for "stigmatized" property. If no one asks, a seller is not required to disclose that information, but Clark says she advises her clients to do so anyway. "You don't want the neighbors telling someone after they move in. Because neighbors know everything."
In 1982, the residential real estate group at Hansell Post broke away to form a new firm: McCalla, Raymer, Padrick, Cobb, Nichols & Clark. Clark served as head of the litigation department, and, over the years, gained a reputation for both finesse in the courtroom and fairness at the settlement table.
"Carol Clark personifies professionalism," says Carol Hunstein, presiding justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. "She knows that her job is not to win at any cost, but to advocate effectively for her client within the bounds of the law."
Lawyers who use aggression gratuitously could learn from Clark's genteel ways, Hunstein says. "You don't have to be ugly and unkind and underhanded to be a good lawyer. Carol Clark is a strong woman. She's very independent and successful. But she's also warm and friendly."
Maintaining a civilized environment for clients embroiled in real estate battles is no simple task. "When people had a land dispute in the old days, they might just go out and shoot somebody over it. Land is sacred to people. It represents their roots," Clark says. "We're in the land of Gone With the Wind," she adds, then quotes advice given to Scarlett O'Hara by her father: "Why, land is the only thing in the world worth workin' for, worth fightin' for, worth dyin' for, because it's the only thing that lasts."
As a certified mediator, Clark strives to help her clients understand that "being right" is sometimes not worth a lawsuit. "I'm not interested in squashing people like a bug," she says. "I'm a problem solver, and my favorite way of solving a problem is one where everybody wins." When she was a guest on a radio talk show, a caller in a dispute over a fence asked Clark for her advice. "I told him, ‘Take a big pitcher of sweet tea over to your neighbor's house and work it out. Don't spend your money on legal fees.'"
In 2006, Clark bought the office building close to her Sandy Springs home as an investment. When no renter answered her ad, and after a lot of prayer, she decided the space was meant for her. Carol Clark Law officially opened that year on April Fools' Day. "I chose that day," she says, "because I thought it would be hilarious."
Instead, it proved fortuitous. "We were still sitting on boxes in empty rooms when the phone started ringing," says Clark, who now employs a team of six lawyers and is planning to hire more.
In May 2008, Clark received the George A. Pindar Award, the highest award given by the real estate section of the state bar of Georgia. She was the first woman, and the youngest attorney, to receive the honor.
"She richly deserves it," says William H. Dodson II, former chair of the real property section, who presented Clark with the award. "I look up to her. Carol is an incredibly focused, indefatigable litigator. She is the go-to person for real estate law, and extremely supportive of other attorneys, who call her from across the state to ask her opinion on thorny matters."
In recent months, Clark and her team have stayed especially busy, trying to help homeowners and members of the beleaguered real estate, lending and construction industries. While working to achieve the best solutions possible, she counsels her clients to stay calm and take careful stock of their lives.
"It's important not to buy into the whole concept of fear that's going around now," she says. "If you can come from a place of peace, you can make better decisions. You'll be in better shape and the economy will be in a better shape."
Clark, with three decades in the field, takes the longer, broader view. "This is like déjà vu for me," she says, noting that shortly after she began her career, in the early 1980s, the economy went into a downward spiral. "I cut my teeth on the same things that are happening now—foreclosures, oil and gas shortages, and inflation. Interest rates went up to 18 percent. That's tough. You could buy a condo on St. Simon's Island for $18,000 because the market was so bad," she recalls. (They now run $350,000 and up.) "Real estate prices may take a dip, but they will come back up because people need a place to live and feel proud of. Remember, we started out in log cabins on the frontier in this country. We will get through this."
Clark's gentility extends to her ex-husband, civil litigator John Haubenreich. "We had a very elegant divorce," she says, noting that they worked out joint custody for Claudia, their Scottish terrier.
"Claudia was the most remarkable dog," Clark says. "She would come to work with me and help out. If someone was having a hard time, she would go sit by them. She just had a real gift for reaching out to people."
The same could be said for Clark. In addition to holding legal seminars, her favorite causes include the Girl Scouts, YWCA, the Arthritis Foundation and teaching Sunday school at her Methodist church. She recently bought and redecorated a bed and breakfast, the Providence Lodge & Gallery, at Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. She confesses to an excess of energy.
"My staff doesn't let me take vitamins," she says.