October 1, 2010
Carrying on the Tradition: Jill Gelineau ’85 Continues Schwabe’s Niche Practice in Condemnation Law
This story is part of a weekly series profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
Jill Gelineau is somewhat of an anomaly these days. In a nation where the average length of time an individual stays with one employer is now three to five years, she’s been working for the same law firm for twenty-five years and couldn’t be happier.
Noting that large firms tend to get a bad rap, Gelineau says her experience at the Portland Office of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt couldn’t be better.
“Schwabe is just a great place to work,” says Gelineau who worked as a student for the firm during one summer in law school. “I work with colleagues whom I trust and admire, and I’ve always had that balance of work and family. I work with people who are incredibly smart and good at their jobs. There’s never been a problem that someone hasn’t seen and been able to offer solutions for.”
Gelineau, who was raised in Calgary, Canada, adds that the quality of life in Portland certainly has made it easy to stick around Oregon.
“Portland is a big enough town that the legal work is exciting. The city’s not so big that it becomes annoying. We live in a loft, so I can walk to work while my husband bikes to his office.”
Gelineau practices condemnation law, meaning she represents private property owners when the government steps in and wishes to acquire their land. It’s somewhat of an odd specialty in the legal world, but continues a tradition started by one of Schwabe’s founders, John Schwabe, who practiced condemnation law nearly fifty years ago.
She’s quite good at it too, which has earned her a host of honors. From 2006 to 2009, Gelineau was co-chair of the ABA Section of Litigation ’— Condemnation, Zoning, and Land Use Committee. In 2006, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski appointed Gelineau to serve on the Task Force for Land Use Planning, which was charged with performing a thirty-year review of Oregon’s land use system. Since 2007, she repeatedly has been selected and named in Portland Monthly as one of the “Best Lawyers in Portland” specializing in eminent domain and condemnation law. She also has been listed in Best Lawyers in America for the last three years as well as in the publication Oregon Super Lawyers.
Gelineau says that in this area of law, she’s often representing individuals who never thought they’d be involved in the legal system. They’ve done nothing wrong, she notes, just owned property that the government wants to take away.
“It’s very rewarding work,” she says. “I like knowing that I am helping people who really need and deserve help.”
While Gelineau’s initial area of practice was eminent domain, the specialty of her mentor Joe Willis ’71, it was her part in the successful representation of the Dolans in the 1994 case Dolan v. City of Tigard, following its remand from the United States Supreme Court, that solidified the direction of her career and the continuation of Schwabe’s historical condemnation law practice. Dolan v. City of Tigard is considered a landmark case that established some significant property rights for landowners. It’s a case frequently seen in first-year Property Law classes.
Gelineau humbly claims pure luck in the Dolan case, but there’s no doubt serious skill is required to take on a case of Dolan’s magnitude.
“To be fair, I just got entirely lucky. The chances in a state the size of Oregon of a case going to the U.S. Supreme Court in your specialty and being part of the successful outcome are incredibly slim,” she explains. “I think I was a woman in the right place at the right time. Don’t get me wrong, I took my opportunity, but that will never happen again in my career.”
Despite pure luck, Gelineau’s keys to a successful law career include a clear focus, a realistic outlook, and a great amount of patience.
“Success comes because you work out what it is you care about and what steps you must take to get there. There’s usually a lot of little baby steps along the way,” Gelineau notes. “It takes a while, but it’s been fun for me.”
The ability to learn from failure is also an important part in the road to success, according to Gelineau.
“You often learn more from failure than from success. The hard part is when you lose a case, for example, and you have to explain this to the client while remaining fair and honest. It’s a really hard and really humbling experience, but it teaches us that nobody’s invincible — you can’t control everything. That’s a good lesson for lawyers.”
When she’s not in lawyer mode, so to speak, Gelineau and her husband can be found cycling around not only around Portland, but also around the world.
“My husband and I are pretty serious cyclists,” she says. “We just got back from Spain and watching the Tour de France. We try to pick one or two destinations a year — we just booked our trip to Ecuador for next year.”