Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
George Koenig comes to the aid of his country
Published in 2022 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine
By Candice Dyer on February 14, 2022
“I’ve heard it said that we do best in crisis what we do in our day-to-day jobs,” says George Koenig. “If you are a helicopter pilot, that is what you do in a crisis. If you are a logistician, that is what you do in a crisis.”
Koenig has been an altar boy, an Eagle Scout, and a lawyer, but it was his background as a logistics officer with the U.S. Marines that proved particularly useful during the country’s biggest crisis this century.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, he became counsel to the general counsel for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—a job likened to chief of staff—and the logistics were challenging. “We were scattered all over D.C., Maryland, and Virginia,” he says. “One office used to be a psychiatric hospital that housed John Hinckley. Mine was in what used to be a girls’ school.”
The DHS quickly swelled its ranks, and Koenig found himself dealing with 2,000 lawyers and 200,000 employees under the leadership of both Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff.
“George brings this sense of urgency and mission-driven initiative to everything he does,” says Joe Whitley of Womble Bond Dickinson, who, as general counsel of the DHS, worked with Koenig on a daily basis. “He is one of the most patriotic people I know. He uprooted his family and took a sizable pay cut to move to Washington, where he could be of use. He was an essential part of drafting regulations and handling organizational details for this brand-new agency—to get it off the ground.”
“It was like building a plane while you’re flying it,” Koenig remembers. “The hardest thing was earning people’s trust and believing that DHS would be stronger for being more united. Many of the components had been legacy institutions going back to the country’s founding, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. There was a built-in loyalty to the components leadership. Developing a trusting relationship with the general counsel took constant attention.”
Koenig’s first priority was precision. “I set up regular calls and regular meetings to create a culture,” he says. “We were dealing with law enforcement, customs and immigration, TSA—people who didn’t always think alike or agree. It was a challenge.”
Another challenge: develop a concept for DHS similar to what Army JAGs call operational law. “The idea was to have a legal division focusing on the necessary legal authorities for the planning and response for any disaster, manmade or natural.” he says. “We would try and anticipate legal issues before they came up. When Hurricane Katrina hit, I immediately asked the general counsel for permission to head to Louisiana.”
On the ground, Koenig was struck by Katrina’s devastation. “I remember driving around, thinking the city wouldn’t bounce back soon,” he says. “I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, how I was going to eat, how I was going to get around. I just trusted I could get through the uncertainty and discomfort. I offered to do anything that was asked of me—deliver supplies, help with people who were homeless from the storm, whatever it took.”
He also reviewed the potential risks involved with displaced residents returning to their homes.
“It was a tough balance, protecting against potential health risks from lack of water, potential diseases caused by the after-effects of the hurricane and flooding, potential issues with the levees, etc.,” Koenig says. “Ultimately, the leadership in the state and federal government decided that residents could return safely to retrieve personal possessions and to assess the damage. For many Louisianans it was evident that it would be a long time before they could return, restore or renovate their homes. I believe it was a wise decision, so people could make informed decisions about what to do next.”
Koenig, who grew up on the Jersey Shore across the street from Bruce Springsteen, is a second-generation Marine, serving from 1985 to 1990.
“George excelled in situations where you had to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says retired Major Gen. D. D. Yoo. “I believe the reason why he performed so well was due to his genuine character and values imparted by his parents: his faith, intellect, and his willingness to fight for what he believes in.”
Early on, Koenig set an example of leadership, Yoo says. “As I recall, there was a young Marine in George’s platoon that had a lot of personal and professional issues. Everyone in the chain of command, and within the company, was ready to wash their hands of this wayward lad—but not George. He continued to mentor this young Marine, while holding him accountable for his actions, and ensuring he became a productive member of his platoon.”
After DHS, Koenig joined Kemp Partners, founded by former Congressman, NFL quarterback and vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp, as senior counsel with expertise in defense and homeland security matters.
“I was working for the honorable Jack Kemp when he became very sick and sadly passed away from cancer,” Koenig says. “It was 2009 and a terrible time to be transitioning to a new job. My resume looked more D.C. than Atlanta, but my wife really wanted to move back to Atlanta—we still owned our home here. A former colleague at Alston & Bird had hung up his own shingle and really encouraged me to do the same. He offered me space and said he would have enough work for me until I could develop my own client base. He was also very helpful in explaining the economics of running your own practice—what to spend money on and what not to spend money on. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Today, Koenig Law Group focuses mainly on business litigation and government relations, in addition to white collar criminal defense, personal injury and professional malpractice litigation.
“George is firm, and he’s tough, but he’s not mean,” says former Gov. Roy E. Barnes, with whom Koenig has squared off on legal matters. “He’s always totally and completely prepared, and always so courteous. I’ve never seen him lose his temper or become disagreeable. He’s a pleasure to oppose.”
Koenig chalks up his temperament to his devout Catholic faith. “That’s where my strength and joy lie.”
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