The skies are threatening over Hutchinson, Kan., and Susan McGreevy — the lead construction attorney for the full-service firm Husch & Eppenberger — is up on a school’s roof, all 4 feet 11 inches of her, tiptoeing in high heels to inspect what seems to be a faulty roofing job done by a subcontractor. She hurries down when the hail begins.
“It’s what I do,” she explains over breakfast. “I usually have a pair of work shoes in my car, but I didn’t know I’d be up on the roof.” McGreevy seems to have a fondness for high places. On another inspection tour she was hoisted by crane to the newly installed and leaking roof of the University of Northern Iowa’s Uni-Dome. Again, she was looking for shoddy work, in breach of a contract she oversaw. “I love it,” she says about vetting and overseeing construction contracts for clients mainly in a five-state region. Construction wasn’t her first lawyerly love, though.
“I went to law school to save the world,” she says, smiling. But a professor led her to contract law, and after several jobs, she wound up in the Ford Administration’s Justice Department. There, McGreevy did have one save-the-world moment. She was handed a lawsuit brought by State Department employees overseas who believed they’d been fired in the early 1950s “for innocent associations with potential communists.” Her client was the Department of State and she was told to settle. McGreevy fretted over the political overtones: these “career types” would finesse their suit while others accused of the same associations would not. In the end, she won agreement for a court to decide whether the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their suit, while extracting an understanding from State that, if they lost, they would find all the others “that should get the same treatment.” But she soon got fed up with the “cutthroats” in Washington and left before finding out the resolution to her brokered deal. She took up construction law in Kansas City.
Today, after 30 years of practice with two firms, she is the only construction attorney voted every year to Kansas City’s “Best of the Bar” award, among other honors. Her life is her work; that, and caring for her husband, who suffered a stroke in 2002 and is now recovered. “I dropped everything, all the philanthropic work, the United Way, the Community College Board, serving on nursing home committees.”
For McGreevy it’s been an adventurous ride. Like the time in the mid-1980s when her contractors were building 20 hospitals in the Saudi Arabian desert … until the price of oil dropped. “The Saudis didn’t want to pay off the contractors,” she remembers. When she asked for their money, “the Saudis arrested our people. We got them released and got them out of the country under cover of darkness.” McGreevy also worked under a U.S./USSR treaty that provided for the U.S. to build a new embassy in Moscow while the Russians built a new one in Washington. McGreevy supervised the construction contract. “Each one of us [U.S. and USSR] would bring in our own supervisory people but each country would provide its own laborers. A lot of them provided for our embassy were KGB. They were embedding listening devices in the mortar and there was nothing we could do about it because we didn’t control the workers.”
McGreevy exudes energy while telling her stories. She’s trim, vivacious, but not gushy. Her clients wouldn’t like that. “Contractors are the last cowboys,” she says. “They work on 2 to 3 percent profit. If one subcontractor screws up, they’re under water.” Yet in construction law more than any other field, “they settle because there’s no pot of gold at the end of these civil trials. All they’ll get is what they’re out of pocket.” She calls most contractors “straight-speaking, hard-charging, testosterone-driven macho guys. Most of them would probably not want a woman under 5 feet tall as their lawyer. [But] I look for clients who look past your appearance and want results. Really, being a woman sometimes works to my advantage. If they take you seriously right from the start, you lose the element of surprise.”
She smiles, and the diminutive woman in blue blazer and red dress rushes off to surprise a few more people.