By all accounts, Clay Greene's personal story could well overshadow his long and accomplished career in California divorce law. For starters, in his youth Greene pursued his conscience - and his indulgences. He dropped out a few weeks into his freshman year of college, and was promptly drafted into the Army. In San Francisco in the early 70s, he enjoyed the alternative lifestyle, for a few years "equal parts Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary." Yet in the three-plus decades since, Clay Greene has capably and coherently navigated his own course to the top of divorce law. It's a testament to his natural intellect and diligence that today, now in his early 60s, Clay Greene is one of Marin's best known and most respected divorce lawyers. Anywhere else in America, Greene's story might be trumpeted as one of redemption, even rehabilitation. But in California, long home to original Roads Less Travelled, Greene's experiences are instead credentials of a time and place. Greene himself recognizes that distinction: "I don't think there's a lawyer out there with a background quite like mine."
The son of the chief facilities engineer at The University of Florida ("The best man I've ever known"), Greene grew up in and around Gainesville, but was restless and eager to get away ("Remember, this was really the Deep South, segregated, ultra-conservative at the time"). School bored him, and he bolted after only a few weeks at a community college - and was swiftly drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. "Back then no one wanted to be in the Army. Dissention was rife." Remarkably, Pvt. Greene sued for a discharge on Conscientious Objector grounds, a process that lasted nearly two years and ironically led to a standard discharge. (Today, Greene is an admirer of the American military; "It's a different institution today.")
In 1970 Greene landed in San Francisco ready to try almost anything - which by his own admission he promptly did. What made a difference, he says, was "an ingrained habit of reading, a habit I got from my dad." (Over the years, he digested up to 200 biographies, histories and novels annually, he says.) There were no epiphanies, simply an itch that he had to grow up: In his mid 20s he enrolled in "a few courses" at San Francisco State and studied for the LSATs because "I knew I could do it, and the practice tests didn't look very hard." (California and Illinois are the only states remaining to allow law admissions without an undergraduate degree.) Thus, just married, he dropped his undergraduate classes ("I hadn't earned a single credit yet") and entered night law school while working in a downtown law office. "All the instructors were practicing lawyers" and the real-world relevance to his day job ensured that "nothing came out of left field. It was the first time I really enjoyed academics." So after graduation from law school and admission to the bar, "I hit the ground running" and in his late 20s teamed with Neil Bloomfield in general litigation, in Marin City. But by age 31, Greene found himself in a custody dispute of his own, over his young son. The experience "convinced me I could help others doing this."
He'd hired divorce lawyer Sylvia Shapiro for his own matter; when Shapiro was appointed a Marin Court Commissioner, Greene and colleague David Picchi assumed her practice. Since then, Greene has evolved truly in one of Marin's go-to lawyers for divorce cases, and his practice in central San Rafael is a well known destination for divorce law in the state. He knows most of the lawyers he goes up against, and well.
Among his peers Greene is seen as hands-on (a pair of worn work gloves adorn his busy desk) and a straight shooter; "I play with my cards on the table; when someone doesn't, or tries to mislead or deceive me, I don't forget it." Further, his views today on divorce are enlightened ("It's no stretch to call it a spiritual event in someone's life"); he teaches and encourages his clients as much as represents them. Among many high profile clients: Carlos Santana. A Martin six-string stands upright in Greene's office. In many respects Greene considers his own experiences - beyond his fully lived youth, he's been divorced more than once - central to his effectiveness. "As I tell my clients, I've tasted my own medicine. I know my life experiences have made me a better divorce lawyer." He tries fewer cases these days but Greene keeps his typically full caseload. Greene and his wife, Lornaa, are residents of San Rafael; his son Alex is a finance executive in Portland, Oregon. In the summer of 2009, Greene took time out once more - taking 10 weeks to bicycle, solo, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. "I had nothing to do but reflect on my life. And it wasn't so bad."