The Storyteller's Story

Atlanta's Ira Genberg isn’t just one of the top lawyers in the country; he’s the next Scott Turow

Published in 2007 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine

By Shannon Wilder on February 16, 2007


Ira Genberg, senior partner and head of the construction law and litigation department at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, was recently named one of the top 75 lawyers in the country, according to a poll of in-house counsels at Fortune 1000 companies. Asked why he thinks he deserves the accolade, he’s blunt: “I don’t know that I do,” he says.

Asked why he thinks they think he deserves the accolade, he’s a little more forthcoming. “Their personal experience with me,” he says. “I have a good deal of success in cases I’ve handled.”

A nice understatement. With a 50-2 record during a 30-plus year career, it’s no wonder he’s sought by clients around the world.

Few have known Genberg longer than Tom DiBiasi, a New Jersey attorney who roomed with him at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “Ira was always a couple of steps ahead of the other law school students,” DiBiasi says. “He had amazing analytical ability, was born to practice law. He’s beyond bright, beyond insightful. If there’s such a thing as being born with a legal mind, he was born with it, yet he does it in a way that’s not egotistical or pretentious. He shows a lot of humility.”

Glenn Turner III, a California attorney with Gibbs, Giden, Locher & Turner, served as co-counsel with Genberg on a construction case in the early 1990s. “I know a lot of very motivated, hard-working people in the legal business,” he says. “They’re not rare. But Ira stands out among that crowd of people as the hardest-working, most dedicated lawyer I’ve had the pleasure to work with. It’s kind of intimidating. Even when you’re on his team.”

Genberg’s client in the same case, Phillip DeSautelle, says, “I work for an international consulting firm now. And on the few projects I have that may be headed in the direction of construction claims … my immediate advice to them is to talk to Ira and put Ira on retainer. Simply so they do not have to wind up looking at him across the table.”

As if this weren’t enough, Genberg is also an award-winning novelist whose freshman effort, Reckless Homicide, published in 1998, was nominated for the Best American Novel award by the Mystery Writers of America.

It sold more than 200,000 copies.

Genberg’s own story is equally award-worthy. The son of first-generation Americans whose own parents emigrated from Russia shortly after World War I, Genberg says that the poverty of his early years led him to the law. “I came from a working-class family,” he recalls. “There were five of us—my mother, my father, me, my brother and my uncle—all in a one-room apartment in Newark.” The neighborhood was exclusively Jewish and home to numerous Holocaust survivors. “I was in the seventh grade before I met anyone who wasn’t Jewish,” he jokes.

Around 10th grade he decided to pursue law as a career—it was a stable profession that offered other opportunities (politics, etc.)—and sports helped him get there. He received both an academic and basketball scholarship to Rutgers, and graduated at the top of his class. This led to a full ride at Penn. Despite offers from several prestigious New York firms, he thought there would be more opportunity in Atlanta.

The story of how he met his wife, Rosemary, is almost too serendipitous for fiction. One day during his third year of law school, while flipping through his brother’s Seton Hall yearbook, Genberg noticed an attractive co-ed. He told his brother he wanted to meet her. “I tried [to call her] all weekend but couldn’t get her,” he remembers.

Fast-forward five years. While Genberg was taking depositions, Emory Law School sent over students to shadow real attorneys for the day. A young woman was assigned to him. They hit it off and started dating. On the third date, Genberg remembers, “She said she went to Seton Hall and it occurred to me. I said, ‘You’re the woman in the picture I was trying to reach five years ago!’” They’ve been married 26 years.

Perhaps it was the same stroke of fate that brought him a case former colleague McNeil Stokes refers to as “pioneering” and says only Genberg could have handled. “There’s a go-to guy in every firm when you know it’s going to be tough. He would get the most complex antitrust actions,” Stokes says.

Genberg refers to it as “a very high-profile antitrust case” involving a price-fixing attempt by the nation’s largest electrical union, the IBEW.

He won the initial foray; the U.S. District Court ruled in his client’s favor— with damages and injunctive relief exceeding $100 million. The Federal Court of Appeals upheld the earlier verdict. All the IBEW had left was a trip to the Supreme Court. Appealing to the court requires a writ of certiorari, and only 3 percent of writs are granted, so the opposition decided it was time to negotiate.

Genberg’s client, however, was not further inclined to negotiate, and shortly thereafter he was found dead. The police ruled the death a suicide and blamed it on a drug deal gone bad. “Then we found that his body was cut up into 20 pieces,” Genberg says. The Supreme Court denied the writ and the case never settled, but it’s frequently cited by other courts, and has even been the subject of legal seminars. Genberg believes its landmark status is the result of bringing together “the concepts of price fixing, collective-bargaining agreements and labor union activity in the business market.”

In another landmark case that occurred about a decade after the price-fixing case, Genberg was asked to represent a French contractor, Harmon CFEM Façades, which claimed discrimination when the British government awarded a $55.2 million job building new parliamentary offices to a much higher—but British—bidder.

This was shortly after new European Community Rules took effect, preventing one member nation from discriminating against a business from another member nation. Despite the complexities of the case, Genberg knew he had all but won when the first witness for the opposition took the stand and effectively recanted his earlier statements.

“The court was so stunned I don’t think they ever recovered,” he says. The ruling in Harmon’s favor made headlines on both sides of the Atlantic and set an EU precedent.

Work still takes him far afield—to Germany, France, England, Argentina and Mexico. Most of these cases, however, are arbitrations as opposed to courtroom tangles, since construction companies and owners increasingly agree to arbitration before a project dispute arises.

Genberg has also taken steps to prevent contract disputes from reaching U.S. courts. In his role as general counsel to the Associated Owners and Developers, an organization whose roll reads like a Who’s Who of American business and higher education—DuPont, Marriott, Disney, Home Depot, Princeton, Intel, Georgia-Pacific, PricewaterhouseCoopers—Genberg helped draft a 100-page document called the AOD Agreement, which sets forth the standard form contract for owners and contractors throughout the construction industry. That particular document helped bring one of the biggest projects in the Southeast to life—the Georgia Aquarium.

As though his legal expertise isn’t enough to establish him as a leading name in the construction industry, Genberg recently helped organize two national conferences for the industry, one in Atlanta and one in Washington, D.C.

“We had very strong attendance; had really top-flight groups joining us on the panels—Coca-Cola, Home Depot, Mitsubishi, Marriott Hotels, Mirant, Walt Disney, Boeing, Marsh, the city of Atlanta, NYU, Princeton and UC Berkeley. We also had seven of the 10 largest general contractors in the U.S.,” he says.

That Reckless Homicide made it to the shelves is further testament to Genberg’s determination—and his time-management skills. After developing an extensive outline, he worked on the manuscript two hours a day for four years. Not only did he have to ensure that his writing didn’t interfere with this workload, he also made sure it didn’t conflict with helping his chil-dren—Jack, currently a junior at Harvard, and Anne, a freshman at NYU—with their homework.

When the story was complete, Genberg did what every budding novelist does. “I followed the rules of the publishing industry and I sent in a one-page synopsis to several agents,” he says. “I got the names of the agents like anybody else could get them—I went to a bookstore and picked up a book [listing] the best literary agents.”

His first literary respondent, agent Philip Spitzer, asked to see the book and offered to represent Genberg. Spitzer sent the manuscript to publishers, and within two days St. Martin’s Press and Doubleday were competing for the book. “I would not at all characterize it as a bidding war,” Genberg says. “But they did bid against each other some.” In the end, St. Martin’s offered the higher price, and a more enthusiastic editor, Jennifer Weis.

A year after he submitted it to St. Martin’s, Reckless Homicide hit the shelves. It drew rave reviews—Booklist deemed it “[t]he best debut in the legal-thriller field since [Scott] Turow’s Presumed Innocent.” It also drew interest from Hollywood studios.

After devoting so much time to the project on the front end, Genberg found a major way to conserve time on the back end. He refused the national book tour St. Martin’s wanted, compromising instead with a series of radio interviews—30 stations in 30 days—conducted via telephone from his midtown office.

Genberg is hard at work on his sophomore effort, which he says will be a bit more far-reaching in scope and, if he can swing it, more literary as well. “What I want to do to the extent that I can do it—to the extent that I have the talent to do it—is write a novel that has a more serious and meaningful subject matter than Reckless Homicide,” he says. “Although I think Reckless Homicide was substantive and meaningful, I’d like to go a little further.”

When contemplating how to handle royalties from Reckless Homicide, the Genberg family decided, as a unit, to donate the funds to the United Way of Metro Atlanta, with a substantial portion earmarked for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

Because of his father’s death from leukemia, Genberg wanted to help Atlanta Legal Aid create an initiative to provide cancer patients with legal assistance. Executive Director Steve Gottlieb told him the organization already had such a program to support AIDS patients. “Out of that conversation,” Gottlieb says, “he helped us create our original cancer initiative,” helping patients with cancer, ALS and other life-threatening diseases with such legal matters as insurance, discrimination, wills and estate planning.

Altruism runs in the family. When son Jack was a junior at Riverwood High School in Sandy Springs, he and his father devised a tutoring and mentoring program for disadvantaged youngsters called REAP—Reaching Every Atlantan’s Potential. Jack and his fellow National Honor Society members were trained as mentors by the United Way, which, after six months, granted the group $28,000 for three years. Father and son convinced Cox Communications and Publix to come in as additional sponsors, providing funding and food, respectively. The Atlanta Falcons even agreed to send players to the sessions.

Mark Eisenberg, a judge with the Workers’ Compensation Board of the State of New York, has seen another side of Genberg’s generosity. “For 33 years, he’s made himself available to me whenever I needed him,” Eisenberg says. “I’ve probably gotten into the thousands of dollars in his time of legal advice on issues I called him about.”

Asked to assess his own accomplishments, Genberg is typically humble. “It’s hard to judge myself,” he says.

Which is why we consulted a higher authority. “He is a very compassionate person,” his wife, Rosemary, says. “He can put himself in the other person’s position. As an advocate, you want to have your own point of view, but you can also anticipate the other person’s point of view. Same thing with writing: He can get inside the heads of his characters because he is able to empathize with different parties in a novel or in a lawsuit. I don’t know how he does it, but he keeps his eye on the ball.”

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