Nancy Geenen: Rebuilding the Mideast

The woman who never does anything surprising decides to change her ways

Published in 2005 Northern California Super Lawyers — August 2005

Nancy Geenen, managing partner of Foley & Lardner’s San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices, is all keyed up. But her excitement is not about a recent trial or her firm’s expansion into the Silicon Valley.

“The Iraqi constitution was signed yesterday!” Geenen triumphantly announces, referring to the interim document put in place by the Coalition Provisional Authority on March 8. Now, why would an American trial lawyer who was born and raised in Wisconsin be so passionate about a change in the Iraqi government?

The answer begins with a rewind on her life, back to 1997, when then-39-year-old Geenen got a call from a lawyer who’d just relocated to Switzerland. It was a day that Geenen remembers as “one of those freaks of nature.”

Geenen’s friend, Craig Christensen, told her that following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War, the United Nations was setting up a Compensation Commission (UNCC) to file construction and engineering claims. In order to ensure that Iraq pay for its damages, the United Nations needed the help of legal officers.

After taking a legal exam — similar to the one she took upon graduating from the Santa Clara University School of Law — Geenen was hired by the United Nations For almost two years, starting in January 1998, she joined legal and accounting professionals from Asia, Australia, Europe and Africa, working on the project in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I didn’t even have a passport,” Geenen says. “It was the first time in my life that I’d lived outside the country.”

Indeed, working for the United Nations was a far cry from home for this Stanford grad who had played college soccer, hockey and basketball, and then went on to teach high school physical education in Hayward. “I always wanted to do competitive sports,” explains Geenen. “But law is a good substitute for that. I still get the good aspects of organized sports with a competitive edge.”

Still, why did Geenen sign on for such an adventure? “I’m not usually a risk taker,” Geenen says. “But it was great timing. I did it because I never do anything surprising.”

Referring to her previous work at the firm Murphy, Weir & Butler, Geenen adds: “In a way, the job was similar to my work at the bankruptcy boutique I was at before, so the jump made sense. For example, we had a finite amount of money to work with. … We spent the first four or five months at the UNCC just getting organized. I read over every single claim of the 400 that we had in my unit. They were worth $11 billion.”

In the end, Geenen is proud of the fact that every claim she worked on was awarded. John Gaffney, a partner with O’Flynn Exhams in Cork, Ireland, served as a legal officer on the unit that Geenen led. “I would describe working with Nancy at the UNCC as a defining moment in my legal career,” Gaffney says. “She set the highest standards for everyone on the team, including herself, and encouraged us all to achieve and, if possible, surpass those standards. She always led by the example of her own careful and diligent work.”

Geenen remembers the assignment in most unlawyerly language: “That was just the coolest gig in the whole wide world! I would do it again in a second.”

If there’s another opportunity with the United Nations, will she jump on board? Geenen says, “I haven’t had any offers.”

Still, the Middle East remains a hotbed of controversy, and the media seeks Geenen’s opinion. In April 2003, for example, both CNN Money magazine and Reuters quoted her. To Reuters, she said: “It is extremely important that most of Iraq’s oil resources are reinvested back into the country to give the Iraqi people and the Iraqi economy a chance.”

In the meantime, Geenen is focusing her energies on the home front. The nearly 1,000-attorney Foley & Lardner opened an office in Palo Alto in March 2004, in addition to its offices in San Francisco and Sacramento. Geenen’s work today centers on commercial litigation, intellectual property rights, unfair competition, trade secrets, creditor’s rights and business valuations. The San Francisco Business Times recognized that work when it named Geenen one of its 100 “Most Influential Women in Business.”

This weekend, she is headed to the golf course. Thanks to an injured knee, her exercise routine has changed. “Golf is perfect because all it requires is a cart.” Like everything she does, she plays golf to win.

Geenen has not lost her competitive edge, no matter the sport.

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