Atlanta And The Southeast - Law Firms Involvement In The Community Grounds A Law Firm's Place In Atlanta

Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - 00:00

Editor: Mr. Haidet, would you tell our readers something about your background?

Haidet: I grew up in Ohio and attended Miami University for my undergraduate degree and the University of Toledo Law School for my legal studies. It may seem unusual that an Ohio law school graduate would choose an Atlanta law firm. But in 1984, Atlanta was becoming an exciting city with a growing professional population and a lot of opportunity. One of my law school colleagues who had clerked at Long Aldridge advised me to interview there. Clay Long and John Aldridge impressed me with their energy, focus and entrepreneurial spirit, and I sensed they were leading the firm in a strong direction. When I came on board, there were only 30 lawyers at the firm.

Editor: I gather that by the mid-1980s Atlanta no longer had the reputation of being a city closed to outsiders.

Haidet: By the mid-'80s Atlanta was evolving into a major metropolitan city with a growing number of transplants and corporate headquarters. To meet someone who had been born and raised in the city, at least at that point, was the exception rather than the rule. I was attracted to the fact that Atlanta welcomed outsiders. And there were plenty of civic, charitable and community activities to help bring those outsiders into the fold quickly.

Editor: Please tell us about your practice.

Haidet: I spend most of my time managing the firm and its practice areas. When I practice, it is mostly in the area of business transactions, including outsourcing arrangements, mergers and acquisitions and private equity finance transactions.

Editor: McKenna Long represents the merger of two outstanding firms, one of which had a long association with Atlanta and the Southeast. Please tell us something about the origin of Long Aldridge and its history up to the merger with McKenna & Cuneo.

Haidet: The Long Aldridge firm was formed in 1974, and three of its founders - Clay Long, John Aldridge and Bill Stevens - are still with the firm. In the early days, the firm focused on business transactions, particularly real estate finance (including real estate distress portfolio workouts) and mergers and acquisitions. As our client base grew, litigation became more and more important. As we explored ways to better serve our clients, we began focusing on the area of government relations. By the time we grew to 200 lawyers, the firm was well established in these four practice areas.

Editor: What were the factors that went into the decision of the two firms to merge?

Haidet: On both sides, the merger was driven by the desire to better serve our clients. McKenna & Cuneo was recognized as one of the best in the country for highly specialized practices such as government contracting, chemical regulation and mass tort litigation. The firm was located on both coasts and also had a Brussels office. The Long Aldridge firm wanted a West Coast presence and more visibility in Washington, DC, where we already maintained a small office. Clearly, McKenna & Cuneo's history of government contract work and of handling disputes with the government fit well with the Long Aldridge practice of developing strategies to help clients deal with government.

Our litigation practices also complemented one another. McKenna & Cuneo were well-known experts in mass tort litigation and government-related disputes, and Long Aldridge had established a strong commercial litigation practice in the Southeast that provided a gateway for McKenna & Cuneo's efforts in this area. There was little overlap and considerable harmony in the two firms' practices, and we merged in early 2002.

Editor: And the history of the firm since the merger?

Haidet: The merger has gone extremely well. It is rare to find a successful merger of equals because they are so difficult to negotiate, but ours is an exception. Neither party dominated, which allowed us to create best practices policies and procedures instead of being stuck with legacy approaches. The decisions our firm management and board of directors are based on the best interests of our clients and our people. Our strategy and objectives reflect a dynamic new firm with a strong sense of momentum.

Editor: Does the Atlanta office focus on a particular aspect of the firm's practice? How does it fit into the firm-wide structure?

Haidet: The Atlanta office, due to its size and experience, has developed an extensive and diverse menu of practices. Our office, for example, handles complex litigation work across the country, often drawing heavily upon the resources of our other offices. The ability to quickly mobilize a team to represent a client wherever that client is litigating plays a key role in our firm's success. Our corporate and real estate practices also reside in Atlanta, and we serve clients across the firm from this office.

Editor: Does the firm's Atlanta presence help in your recruiting efforts? Is Atlanta a draw for recent law graduates and young lateral hires?

Haidet: I feel the characteristics that attracted me to this city in the mid-80s are still present. Atlanta remains a very livable yet professional and sophisticated city, which makes it an easy location to sell when recruiting.

Editor: The firm's commitment to civic and community affairs in the city is extensive. Can you tell us about some of these undertakings?

Haidet: Much of our ongoing visibility stems from our community involvement. While we represent many important clients, there is a degree of anonymity with these relationships Ñ at least where the public is concerned. The firm's public image, however, is directly connected to our role in civic, community and pro bono activities.

For example, we recently concluded a very successful and highly publicized pro bono effort regarding the criminal prosecution of Marcus Dixon. Marcus was a high school senior with considerable promise both as a student and an athlete. Many people, including my partner David Balser, considered his conviction to be unfair. Thanks to David and others at the firm intervening on his behalf, the conviction was overturned on appeal. Marcus is now free and intends to pursue college and his sports activities. If not for this pro bono effort, he would instead spend years in prison.

Clay Long has set a very high standard for the firm through his long history of civic involvement. Among other leadership roles, he has led MARTA, the Georgia Conservancy and (under two governors) the Green Space Commission, which creates more natural areas for our citizens.

As a public service, McKenna Long served as general counsel to the G8 Summit that met in Georgia. Eric Tanenblatt, head of our government relations practice group, was appointed the governor's representative to the G8, and I acted as the organizing committee's general counsel.

On the charitable side, Atlanta's managing partner, Phil Bradley, serves as general counsel for Habitat for Humanity and is also active in Atlanta Legal Aid. The firm has established a broad base of leadership and support for these two organizations and many other Atlanta non-profits.

Editor: How about Atlanta Bar Association initiatives?

Haidet: We have always been active in the Atlanta Bar Association and related groups, including the American Bar Association. One of our partners, Bill Ide, served as former president of the ABA and remains active in ABA activities, especially in corporate governance issues arising from recent corporate scandals.

Editor: Does the firm encourage its people to get involved in civic and community activities? It must be a challenge for a young associate or junior partner to take on some of these activities while trying to build a career.

Haidet: In a large firm setting such as ours, the demands on a lawyer's time are tremendous. Nevertheless, we place a premium on civic and community involvement. Our personal involvement is important not only because it enhances the firm's public image and reputation and assists those in need, but also because it helps develop our lawyers professionally. Community and civic projects connect us to our peers in other firms and to people in business, government, the courts and communities that may be underserved by the profession. We constantly encourage our people to devote the time to become involved, and to develop and foster these relationships.

Editor: What value does the firm derive from community service?

Haidet: When our people are involved in these organizations and projects, they carry the name of the firm with them. We value this visibility, for it conveys a collective sense of support for the community. Our involvement also helps make our firm stronger. Our people develop a passion for the cause they represent, and feel better for having put their shoulder to the wheel Ñ not for personal advancement or compensation, but to personally contribute to a cause that is important to them. They make decisions and observe others making decisions. In the process, they develop distinct leadership styles and attain certain skills that improve their own practice and strengthen the firm as a whole.

Editor: Where would you like McKenna Long's Atlanta office to be in, say, five years?

Haidet: We will continue the legacy that Clay Long established in Atlanta civic and community affairs. By fostering this leadership position, we enhance the quality of our professionals, thereby continuing to evolve our services to the highest level possible for our clients.

Please email the interviewee at jhaidet@mckennalong.com with questions about this interview.