Franci Neely Discusses Her Law Career at Susman Godfrey — Times Square Chronicles
Retired lawyer Franci Neely was recruited as one of the first six lawyers ever at the law firm that would become Susman Godfrey. “It’s a highly successful firm that handles only litigation,” she says. And if that name sounds familiar, it’s because its client Dominion Voting Systems recently won a $787.5 million settlement against Fox News to resolve Dominion’s defamation suit against Fox. “I’m so proud of them,” Neely says.
“I was the first woman lawyer, and eventually female partner, at the firm,” Franci Neely continues. “I was one of the firm’s most outspoken lawyers when I practiced there. I did not back down from standing up for what I thought was right and had the courage of my convictions, even before I made partner.”
The Houston native spent most of her legal career working for the litigation powerhouse founded by Steve Susman. She started there in 1979, approximately one year after she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and stayed at the litigation firm until her retirement. She was a founding contributor to the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas. Since retiring, she’s continued to expand her philanthropic efforts in a plethora of ways. As if that’s not enough to fill her days, Neely’s on a mission to visit every country in the world. Even with such exciting new adventures, Neely has fond memories of her time at Susman Godfrey.
According to Neely, Susman’s philosophy was progressive and he was known to “hire the best and brightest regardless of their gender, color, or sexual orientation.” She feels his choice to focus on talent and ability has served the firm well since its inception. “Steve believed in the firm’s lawyers enough to provide them first chair experience early in their careers and pay them well for doing so,” she says. “If you were bright, motivated, self-confident, and got the job done, that mattered to him.
“I was lucky. Steven embraced me for who I was and expected me to represent our clients zealously. And I did.”
Trial by Fire
Franci Neely made partner at what would become Susman Godfrey approximately four years after joining the firm. She was adept at working under pressure. “As a very young lawyer, I took depositions of key executives in major Houston companies, defended by the best litigators in Houston,” she says. “I was trained by doing it.”
She’s worked on numerous high-profile cases, including the one between Northrop and McDonnell Douglas. The case centered around a dispute between Egypt and Israel over the foreign sales rights to the F-18 fighter plane. “The lawyers working on that case had to get security clearances to review some of the documents,” she says. “In reviewing the documents related to potential foreign sales, I was dismayed to see that Middle East peace discussions were referred to as a ‘peace threat.’”
Neely was also one of the lead lawyers for the underwriters involved in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. That was tied to one of the largest environmental disasters in America. It happened when an oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and spilled 11 million gallons of oil. But, she says, “That was a suit Exxon brought against insurance companies in Harris County, Texas, its world headquarters.”
There were many cases where Neely represented the prevailing party at trial. She says she did that with the “understanding that most civil cases settle.” Susman Godfrey “represented an insurance broker who had been wrongfully terminated,” says Neely. “We brought home not only a breach of contract verdict and judgment, but also the largest defamation verdict and judgment that was known at the time in Harris County courts.”
Neely says she was “proud to represent a woman whose three male partners had wrongfully squeezed her out of their partnership. The jury and judge agreed that the guys had behaved illegally.”
Decades ago, she worked on a case for a woman who had been hit by a car while walking on the side of the road as a teenager. “Forty years after the case was resolved, [we] remain in touch,” says Neely. “That young woman ultimately married the sheriff’s deputy who came to the accident scene. They’re still married and communicate with me regularly.”
Neely adds, “Another of my clients was sued by a large securities firm for $50 million, alleging that my client had defrauded it. The judge and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. We managed to obtain a summary judgment, the court finding there were no disputed issues of material fact on every cause of action that the securities firm had brought. The judge correctly wrote that if our client was a scoundrel, the securities firm knew it in advance and intentionally chose to continue to do business with him. Our client simply outsmarted the big firm, which was not actionable.”
Despite her successful career, Neely says if she had to do it all over again, “I might go to the Hague and prosecute crimes of genocide, against humanity, or of war. I am a warrior by spirit, trying to right what I perceive as wrongs, even when it would be more comfortable for me to keep silent. I cannot stand silent in the face of what I perceive as injustice.”
Franci Neely Shares What It Takes To Enter the Litigation Profession
Making a name for oneself in big law is a challenging feat. “Big law is stressful,” Neely concurs. “And there is no area of law more special than litigation. Moreover, a lawyer’s schedule is not his or her own.”
Neely explains that “it depends on schedules that the court system, and individual judges in that system, establish, which are often changeable and idiosyncratic.”
For example, she recalls one time during a trial, after the jury had been listening to evidence for almost two weeks, the judge said he would recess the case for a week so that he could go on his child’s scouting trip. Neely supports “the notion of putting family first [but] not that type of schedule change.”
Franci Neely continues, “To stop the trial in process and put nine jurors on hold for more weeks of their lives is inexcusable unless there is a true emergency.” She explains that “stopping trials is inevitably costly to the litigants, not only financially but in terms of their psychic well-being.”
Neely offers these words of wisdom: “Don’t enter the litigation profession unless you have an understanding family and outlets to reduce stress, such as meditation or the occasional vacation.”