Shattering glass ceilings is nothing new for Franci Neely. She spent more than 20 years as a business litigator and a partner at the firm Susman Godfrey LLP. As a pioneer for women in a traditionally male-dominated space, the determined legal eagle began practicing law in 1978. She was one of the lead lawyers for the underwriters in the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, winning a $780 million settlement. She worked on many fascinating cases, including the one between Northrop and McDonnell Douglas over the foreign sales rights to the F-18 fighter plane. In the ’90s, she represented Sheikh Mujaly A. Bamujally after his food company in Jeddah received a defective shipment of a soft drink brand.
While she’s since retired, the strides Neely made for women in the law sector are undeniable, especially as a founding contributor to the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas, Austin.
As a partner at Susman Godfrey, Franci Neely took on some significant cases. “I am so proud of my law firm because they were legal counsel for Dominion, and still are,” Neely informs. “There’s still suits remaining for Dominion. I was the first woman partner at that firm.”
Susman Godfrey has been in the headlines lately since Dominion Voting Systems, its client, and Fox News reached a $787.5 million settlement to resolve Dominion’s defamation suit against Fox over the network’s lies surrounding the 2020 presidential election. Said a Dominion spokesperson, “The evidence will show that Dominion was a valuable, rapidly growing business that was executing on its plan to expand prior to the time that Fox began endorsing baseless lies about Dominion voting machines.
“Following Fox’s defamatory statements, Dominion’s business suffered enormously, and its claim for compensatory damages is based on industry-standard valuation metrics and conservative methodologies.”
While Neely admits her time at Susman Godfrey LLP wasn’t an easy job, she says she remains proud of the work she did there, noting that even judges declared “that the lawyering was top-notch.”
Breaking Barriers for Women Lawyers in the 1980s
In the early ’80s, Franci Neely did something many women still hadn’t done at the time: She made partner at her firm. Women trial lawyers were essentially unheard of during the decade of excess. And it’s not much better now. According to the report “How Unappealing: An Empirical Analysis of the Gender Gap among Appellate Attorneys”: “Women made up only 27% of all lawyers arguing at the New York Court of Appeals according to a study conducted in 2020. Women are similarly less likely than men to argue before the highest courts in California (35%), Minnesota (30%), and Missouri (22%).
“The U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, has the starkest gender imbalance — only 18% of all attorneys arguing at the court were women for the 2020–2021 term,” reads the report. “This gender gap has not narrowed appreciably in the last decade.”
“There weren’t that many women trial lawyers then — I don’t think there are even many women trial lawyers practicing today,” Neely concurs. “I was sort of one of the first in that arena.”
Neely says she was fortunate to be recruited as one of the first six lawyers at the law firm that became Susman Godfrey. The firm now has more than 150 trial lawyers in four offices.
“Steve Susman was the firm’s founder, a brilliant lawyer who began his legal career at Fulbright & Jaworski, a big, multipurpose firm,” Franci Neely explains. “Steve soon realized that his entrepreneurial skills would be best served if he formed his own firm. He left the big firm and began his own. From the beginning, Steve’s philosophy was to hire the best and the brightest regardless of their gender, color, [or] sexual orientation.”
Franci Neely was proud she got the job because she was the best person for it. “If you were bright and motivated and self-confident and ‘got the job done,’ that’s what mattered to him. Shortly after I joined the firm, Steve hired another woman lawyer, Evelyn Jo Wilson,” she says. “Steve believed in the firm’s lawyers enough to provide them first-chair experience early in their careers and to pay them well for doing so. In return, our litigation-only firm worked hard and often played hard.”
Thanks to a boss who respected her and believed in who she was, Neely says she didn’t experience the same degree of gender bias that many other women lawyers in the 1980s probably faced. “Steve embraced me for who I was. He expected me to represent our clients zealously, and I did,” she adds.
Franci Neely does mention, however, that Susman wasn’t the only man in power in the firm and women did experience differential treatment at times, primarily in terms of compensation. “I was one of the most outspoken lawyers at the firm when I practiced there, as my colleagues will readily acknowledge,” she describes. “I did not back down from standing up for what I thought was right. I had the courage of my convictions, even before I made partner.”
The now-retired attorney admits she wishes she would have been more assertive when it came to her own financial compensation. “I was reluctant to lobby the named partners. “I believe that the treatment of women in firms very much depends, then and now, on the personality of each firm. I hope that strong women in those firms assert their rights to equitable compensation and treatment regarding case and task assignments,” she states. “It ultimately depends on us, women, to stand together and for fair treatment and respect.”
Looking Back on the Moments That Defined Franci Neely’s Career
The ambitious attorney became a partner at Susman Godfrey just four years after arriving there and, impressively, just five years after graduating from law school. She attributes the earliest days of her success to being trained in the line of fire sans safety nets.
“As a very young lawyer, I took depositions of key executives in major Houston companies, defended by the best litigators in Houston, including the famous Joe Jamail,” she says. “Joe’s technique was to intimidate his adversary, and he was top-notch at doing just that.”
Neely recalls taking the deposition of a Houston real estate tycoon who Jamail was defending and says Jamail — commonly referred to as the “King of Torts” — kept interrupting her questions in an attempt to derail her.
“At one point, he said (this was in the 1980s), ‘Hey, honey, where did you go to law school in the Soviet Union?’ I continued with my questions, undeterred,” Neely says. “My then-boyfriend was a very fine writer. When I told him about Joe’s deposition antics, my beau said, ‘You should have said, ‘Yes, I’m ‘of counsel’ to Mikhail Gorbachev.’ How was I trained? By doing it.”
As for the future of women in law, Franci Neely says some things don’t appear to change for the better in the way women professionals are viewed. “I observed when I practiced law and in my retirement that women who speak confidently and forcefully are too often viewed in pejorative terms,” she shares. “On the other hand, male counterparts who speak with the same degree of confidence and forcefulness and are viewed as strong, leaders, and admirable. This is baked into the system.”
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