Law Magazine Spring 2005 Features
On a typical day, Patricia McNerney '94 leaves her northwest Washington townhouse at bit after 6 A.M. and heads for the downtown Y. (She's a triathalon competitor and masters swimmer.) After her workout, she drives on to the U.S State Department, where she'll spend the first couple of hours reading: overnight cables, intelligence reports, news clippings. Then the day fills up with meetings. Currently her main focus is on international negotiations for President Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative, which is designed to cooperate with other countries to inderdict shipments of weapons of mass destruction.
McNerney grew up in Vermont and upstate New York. She finished high school a year early to take a Rotary Club scholarship to France. Boston College followed, then a year off to “dabble in journalism,” then W&L.
“Law wasn’t my first choice at all,” McNerney said. “I was thinking of a Ph.D. in English, but it didn’t seem to fit my personality. “And my aunt kept prodding me. ‘You’ll have options you don’t have with an English degree in the working world,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.
Over the past six years, those options have landed McNerney in the posts of majority counsel for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; general counsel for the Senate Intelligence Committee; back at Senate Foreign Relations as Republican chief of staff, and at the State Department in her current role.
Her career began when a classmate recommended McNerney to the Senate committee, and she started as a research assistant in June 1994. “It was pretty routine,” she says, “but I saw it as a way to get a foot in the door.” When the Republicans gained the majority in Congress in ’94, more positions opened up on the committee, and she became an associate counsel.
Four years later, McNerney had become majority counsel, advising the committee on legislation, treaties and nominations. The Intelligence Committee post followed, then her return to Foreign Relations as Republican chief of staff.
“We recruited her to come back and succeed me,” says Steve Biegun, now vice president for international government affairs at Ford Motor Co. He had worked closely with her for several years, including her stint with the Intelligence Committee.
Her present boss, Under Secretary John Bolton (recently nominated to become ambassador to the U.N.), says he also actively recruited her. He adds, “Frankly, I was hoping I would be able to keep her, because I knew a lot of other people in Washington would be wanting her.”
Biegun says it’s typical for people who are talented and hardworking to find a place on Capitol Hill. “But that was a steep climb even for the Hill. Most of her predecessors in these posts are career people who have been on the Hill for 20 or more years.”
Underscoring her accomplishment, he notes, is that she was the first woman to hold the chief of staff position in the committee’s 188-year history.
McNerney says her work at Foreign Relations was a heady experience, especially early on. “Here’s this 26-year-old, and I’m being handed the reins on most all of the treaties—taxes, trade, adoption, you name it. It was a great thing for a young lawyer.”
She worked on comprehensive reform of the State Department and foreign aid programs, a restructuring undertaken to reflect post-Cold War realities. “Patti,” says Biegun—all of her colleagues call her Patti—“was instrumental in gaining sweeping reforms at the U.N. as well. It had spent itself into debt, and she was a key player in brokering a compromise under which we paid a significant majority of U.N. debts in return for more oversight of operations. Patti drove a lot of those reforms. She was the expert.”
“We put our relationship with the U.N. back in balance,” McNerney says simply. From her time with the committee, she says, “It’s the thing I’m probably proudest of.”
As part of her State Department role, she worked on the U.N.’s nonproliferation Resolution 1540, which passed unanimously in 2004 and is legally binding. “The President had said he wanted it in his speech to the General Assembly in 2003. It took another eight months, but we got a resolution that met all of his requirements.”
If that wasn’t enough, McNerney is also working on issues involving the United States’ position vis-à-vis the International Criminal Court and to check moves by the European Union to lift the post-Tiananmen embargo on selling weapons technology to China.
She visited London for talks on the China issue. Her work can take her out of the country for weeks—“a few countries at a time”—and she says she’s probably “hit all of the continents except Antarctica.” Her list includes Australia, Great Britain, Canada, France, South Africa, Japan, China, Poland, Laos, Angola, Tanzania, Indonesia, Uruguay, Ecuador, Peru, Malta, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and Slovakia.
McNerney, who received the Frederick L. Kirgis Award for International Law while at W&L, remembers that one of her professors said, “No one ever gets to practice public international law.” She’s much too diplomatic to toot her own horn, but she has clearly proven otherwise.
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