After serving one term as the 80th governor of Georgia, Barnes didn’t entertain the many offers he received from big downtown law firms; instead, he came back to Marietta and set up Barnes Law Group to practice litigation his way.
Born and reared in Mableton by two generations of “farmers and peddlers” in Barnes’ words — his bucolic upbringing shaped both his character and work ethic — and still drives how he spends his days.
Barnes’ grandfather opened Barnes’ Brothers general merchandise store in Mableton in 1929. Barnes’ father grew up in the store business and owned a dairy farm before opening a second store next to his father’s in the 50’s.
“Daddy brought home the money from the store every night to count,” said Barnes. “He counted the paper money and I counted the change.”
Growing up, Barnes didn’t dream of a different life. “I thought I would do like all of my family — farm and run a business,” he said. A family friend and mentor convinced Barnes otherwise. “He told me you don’t need to stay in that store the rest of your life, you need to go to law school,” he said.
After law school, Barnes became a prosecutor in the Cobb County District Attorney’s office before opening his first law firm in downtown Marietta in 1975.
At age 26, he was elected as the youngest member of the Georgia State Senate, where he served eight terms. After an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990, he won election to the State House of Representatives, serving for six years before becoming governor in 1998.
Leaving office in 2002, he had a plan. “I don’t like big firms and I like to run my own business,” he said. He called two former partners, Charlie Tanksley and John Beavis, his daughter, Allison, and son-in-law, John Salter, both also lawyers, and convinced them to start the boutique law firm.
Barnes bought and completely remodeled a 35,000-square-foot building on Atlanta Street. The firm occupies the top floor and rents the first floor. The basement contains a mock trial courtroom; a trial preparation “war room” and a nursery for his grandchildren.
The firm has five partners, two associates and six staff members. He says they “signed in blood” that they would never have more than 10 attorneys, so clients receive the attorney they hire.
He says complex business litigation has been the firm’s fastest growing area. “Companies got tired of paying law firms that would put five lawyers on a case and run the bill up,” he said. “We have tried to develop a new business model, and it has worked very well.”
Barnes says two-thirds of their work is outside of Cobb. “I take my black pick-up truck and go,” he said. “I learned a long time ago folks in every town will accept you if you drive a pick-up truck.”
Barnes says he still gets to the office by 6:30 a.m. daily and doesn’t sleep or vacation much. “I was raised this way, you work every day,” he said. “It’s not drudgery to me.”
Once a week, Barnes does carve out time to go to his 194-acre farm in west Cobb and check on his 144 cows and three horses.
Chuck Clay, attorney and founder of Brock Clay, located next door to Barnes’ firm, describes Barnes as “visionary”.
“Roy Barnes is a man who has never forgotten his roots in Mableton and Cobb County,” Clay said. “He is one of the most notable of a truly visionary group of leaders who made Cobb County not only the envy of its Georgia neighbors but a role model for the nation at large.”
Barnes says he remains addicted to the law. “When they come in and my head is on the desk, that is when I’ll quit practicing law,” he said. “When I tell you I am ready to retire, you better get ready to bury me.”