Up to the Challenge
Stints as a JAG and at the U.S. Attorney’s Office were the foundation of Clarence Davis’ career
Published in 2020 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine
By Trevor Kupfer on April 27, 2020
Clarence Davis doesn’t like to reminisce—“I was always told if a man has to live in his glory days, it means he’s not doing anything now,” he says with a laugh—but it’s hard to overlook what military courts and the U.S. attorney’s office did for his career.
“They provided outstanding training, experience, and the foundation for my trial, deposition and motion and appellate argument skills,” he says.
Davis didn’t have to wait long for trial work. After law school, he worked for nine months at McNair, Konduros, Corley, Singletary & Dibble before serving his obligation with the U.S. Air Force in 1983. Capt. Davis started with JAG in the Philippines—his top choice “because, based on my research, it would always average in the top three for general court martials, which are felony trials, and special court martials, which means it had a lot of trial work and that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I had a gift.”
He spent three years at the Clark Air Base office, defending and prosecuting Air Force members in criminal matters. “I tended to get complicated ones like fraud, attempted murder, rape, DUIs,” he says. The pace was frenetic, Davis recalls—he once won four acquittals, back to back, in a one-month period—but he was up to the challenge. So much so that he gained a reputation.
“There’s a little-known provision where a military member can request a lawyer of their choosing,” he says. “Toward the end of my tenure there, I started getting requested—in Okinawa, Japan; in South Korea; in Guam.”
Davis later became a circuit trial counsel for JAG—one of 21 in the world. He prosecuted 25 trials in a jurisdiction covering eight Western states of the U.S. “My wife says I was on the road 210 days that year,” he adds.
In 1987, Davis returned to McNair Law Firm [now Burr & Forman] for about two years. Then he was approached by U.S. Attorney E. Bart Daniel. “Since I was accustomed to doing big-document cases, he asked if I would do complex business crimes, environmental crimes and tax crimes. I hesitated because I was about to become partner, but I asked myself, ‘How many times in your life are you able to work with the Department of Justice?’”
The cases were large and complex—some of the biggest in Davis’ career. A securities case, he says, “was several years in the making before I even got there, and it took us two years to get to trial. It involved hundreds of thousands of documents.” Another involved a Clean Water Act violation, which was the first jury trial for an environmental crime in the state. Davis won, attracting media attention, but he didn’t let it go to his head.
“[Daniel] came up to me and said, ‘Davis, what does it feel like to make history?’ I said, ‘All that’s just fine, Bart, but once we’re done here and I go home, the first thing I’m going to have to do is take out the trash,’” he says with a laugh.
Davis returned to private practice in 1991, spending 22 years with Nelson Mullins, and two more with Greenberg Traurig, then opened his own firm in 2015 with Jim Griffin, another former assistant U.S. attorney. It presents its own challenges, but Davis still pulls in big cases and still sees these as the good old days.
“I did the public work for the challenge, the adventure, the development. Do I look on those days with fondness? Sure, they were great days. But I’ve had a great career, period. I’ve been blessed,” he says.
Blessed or not, someone still has to take out the trash. “Yeah, I had to do it this morning,” Davis says.
Head to Head to Head: A comparison of three Clarence Davises
First African American associate at McNair Konduros, and partner at Nelson Mullins
|Part of the “first all-black backfield” at USC
|President of Maryland AARP from 2012-2018
|Awarded the Order of the Palmetto
|All-American and Super Bowl XI champ
|Named to National Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame
|Served in Air Force JAG, 1983-87
|Secured the infamous “Sea of Hands” aerial pass in 1974
|Served in Air Force 1960-64
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