January Alumnus of the Month: Antonio “Tony” Clayton Shares His Thoughts

Twenty sixteen was a banner year for SULC alumnus Antonio “Tony” Clayton, Class of 1991, managing partner in the law firm of Clayton, Frugé, and Ward, in Port Allen, Louisiana.

One of the Law Center’s most successful local attorneys, Clayton, who won his first million-dollar case just five years after beginning the practice of law, has won three cases that netted $81 million dollar settlements and verdicts in his 25th year in the practice. The cum laude graduate of the Law Center is grateful for the part his alma mater has played in his success, and his ongoing gifts to support SULC and its students are proof of his appreciation.

His is a boutique law firm–not more than seven lawyers, three paralegals, and five support staff–with a strong emphasis in civil litigation. Clayton’s firm represented such corporate entities and Ford Motor Company, Lloyd’s of London, Placid Refinery, and other Fortune 500 Companies, but it is the work he does for the “little man” against “major corporations” that has him excited about his contributions through the legal system. Clayton was lead attorney in the 2014 lawsuit Whitley Lacy v. Acadian Ambulance, winning $117 million, the highest jury verdict in the state of Louisiana and one of the highest in the country

A successful prosecutor, Clayton is most noted for his prosecutions of serial killer Derrick Todd Lee, who was convicted of second-degree murder; and of Louisiana’s second most notorious serial killer, Sean Gillis. Lee died in January of 2016, while serving a life sentence in Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Gillis is currently serving a life sentence.  Clayton co-wrote with Susan D. Mustafa and Sue Israel the book, I’ve Been Watching You: The South Louisiana Serial Killer [later published as Blood Bath], about the Lee case.

He is also a former judge, appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1997, which at the time made him the youngest district court judge to serve in the 18th Judicial District Court. First appointed to the Southern University Board of Supervisors in January 4, 2001, Clayton has served three consecutive terms, with his current appointment through December 31, 2018. He assumed the office of chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Southern University on January 1, 2009, becoming the tenth person to hold this distinguished position in the Board’s 34-year existence.

The Plaquemine, Louisiana, native is the second oldest of four children—two sons and two daughters–of Clara and the late Ernest Clayton.

The Southern University political science major says his attraction to SULC alumna Paula Hartley, now his wife, fueled his desire to enroll in law school because she did. His enrollment at Southern was facilitated by the late Jesse N. Stone, who became a tremendous influence in his life. A member of the law school’s first graduating class, Stone became known as a “Bridge Builder” in law, education, and politics and more importantly Clayton’s mentor during the student’s law school days.

After passing the bar on the first attempt, the young attorney served in such public sector law positions as prosecutor in the Parish of East Baton Rouge and special prosecutor for the 18th Judicial District Court. At the same time, he convinced his wife to join him in opening a private law practice. “Paula and I started a practice out of a former snow ball stand.”  He recalls with a chuckle that their barebones investment included a single line for telephone and fax service. Five years was his goal to make his first million-dollar case and he made it.

The couple now practices law in a 7,000 square-ft. well-appointed Antebellum-style office building on LA Highway 1 in Port Allen. Clayton says, “I’m 53 and will practice until I can’t do it anymore.” He plans to leave the practice to two of his five children. He is grooming son Brilliant, Class of 2014, employed in the 18th Judicial District; and daughter, Jené, in her first year at SULC. His other children are Austin, Brandon, and Antonio “TJ”.

When asked about his winning the highest jury verdict ever in the state of Louisiana, the 2015 SULC Hall of Famer said he owes it all to the Southern University Law Center, where a talented faculty taught him well, successful alumni inspired him, and the significant benefits of a diverse educational environment put him on a course to do anything that he felt so inclined to do in the pursuit of career and happiness. He gave advice to current law students and recent graduates on how to make the best of their SULC experience. Also the Oscar, Louisiana, resident shared news of a recent commercial investment in a strip mall and that he has 300 acres of land used for farming and deer hunting. Excerpts from the interview follow:

What were the cases that netted you the multi-million dollar settlements/verdicts this year?

Clayton went to his smartphone to Google the news articles that reported on these cases stating: On April 13, 2016, the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report in the article “New Orleans jury awards client of Baton Rouge attorney $51.5 million,” wrote that a jury awarded a New Orleans woman the amount in damages from Daimler Trucks North America, the manufacturer of an 18-wheeler truck that ran over a woman in 2012, leaving her with a severe brain injury.

In an article dated September 26, 2016, The Advocate reported that four plaintiffs were awarded $13.6 million in the Williams Olefins case involving a 2013 explosion at the company’s Geismar plant.

In a November 16, 2016 article, The Advocate reported that an energy company’s payout to workers injured in the 2013 explosion at the Williams Olefins Geismar plant reached nearly $30 million following a jury’s verdict in a second trial related to the disaster.

You’ve stated that initially the pursuit of your wife, Paula, who enrolled at the Law Center, prompted you to enroll; however, what subsequently drew you to the study of law?

I quickly learned the value of a legal education at Southern. I don’t think I could have done anything better, although my dad was pushing me toward a career like his on the railroad.

I saw Law Center graduates launch all types of successful ventures in the legal community. It (SULC law degree) was a clear pathway to the achievement of different goals and I was impressed by the success of these graduates.

During my first semester, an alum from New Orleans Ernest Caulfield spoke at a Law Center convocation about his personal injury practice.

When I was introduced to this successful lawyer, I said, “I can do this.”

What is your advice to incoming law students and law graduates?

To law students, I say concentration on English courses, learn to analyze and write well, and get your GPA up as high as you can. I also say minimize your student debt load. I was fortunate to have little student load debt because my parents paid for me and I am paying tuition for my children.

As a trial lawyer, you must prepare well for cases and always be prepared when you go to trial. Sometimes I study all night. Those cases I am prepared for go to settlement; and those I’m not as well prepared for, go to trial.

I see myself as a small-town lawyer –the great equalizer–willing to fight for the little people against the big corporations. The big companies don’t frighten me. I am confident in my abilities, and because of the work I put into each case, I am sure about my competence.

For example, I never ask a question in court that I don’t know the answer to beforehand.

And how do you get the answers to such a variety of questions that could be asked of you in court?

I study and read a lot about history and the development of communities, businesses, and industries. Chemical plants have taken advantage of many communities.

Right now I’m reading The History of West Baton Rouge Parish: People, Places, Progress (written by The West Baton Rouge Historical Association, Faye Phillips, editor) and Tirailleurs: A History of the 4th Louisiana and the Acadians of Company H (by Thomas H. Richey)

This former book tells how the parish evolved with stories of individuals that developed this community politically, economically, and socially. The latter shares information of the longtime families of West Baton Rouge Parish who fought for the Southern Cause. I get to know the backgrounds of individuals I encounter today that carry these family names.

What is the value of a legal education at Southern?    

In the State of Louisiana, you will not find a better law school that has been the #1 producer of African-American lawyers, who have impacted the legal profession and done very well for themselves.

The Jesse Stones, Aaron Harrises, B. K. Agnihotris of the world taught the raw law and how to find answers, as well as how to go out and do the job in un-charted territories, with great success. As an HBCU, Southern can talk about its background in civil rights and should not give up on such goals. Today’s law students can be taught the lessons of the past by focusing on the diversity we now enjoy because of the work of these civil rights lawyers.

There is great value in our diverse learning environment. Diversity helps to break down barriers.  For example, you get to understand how a jury will feel in South Louisiana and appreciate other’s perspectives.

My firm consists of SULC graduates Michael Hendry, Class of 2014; and Rick Ward, Class of 1974; and a young associate, Randall Gay, Class of 2015; as well as an LSU Law School graduate, Mike Frugé.

Our firm’s motto is “A Diverse Law Firm for a Diverse State.”

You have shared that you have 300 acres of land for farming and deer hunting. The farming is mainly soybean crop. Why farming?

My grandfather enjoyed farming and I see it as a suitable investment because of my family roots in the business.  I also have an example in SULC mentor and former professor/associate dean Aaron Harris, who has a successful cattle farm in the Opelousas area.

Your other recent investment includes the Village at Hun’s Grove located just down the street from your office, am I right?

Yes, I am negotiating now with others businesses, such as Rotollo’s and Best Buy, in the strip mall that already has attracted a Community Coffee house and SoSis Boutique.

“We are fortunate to have an alumnus like Antonio Clayton who saw the value in a legal education at the Southern University Law Center,” said Chancellor John K. Pierre.

“The faculty and staff of this Law Center is committed to producing lawyer-leaders providing all that students like Mr. Clayton need to succeed,” the Chancellor said.

“However, raw talent and determination speak for themselves and Mr. Clayton has both.”