Franci Neely on Breaking the Glass Ceiling as a Woman in Big Law

Franci Neely
5 min readJun 12, 2023

“I was the first woman lawyer and later woman partner at the firm,” says Franci Neely, who remained with the firm from 1979 until the day she retired from practicing law.

“From the beginning, the firm’s founder Steve Susman’s philosophy was to hire the best and the brightest, regardless of gender, color, or sexual orientation.”

She continued, “Shortly after I joined the firm, Steve hired another woman lawyer, Jo Wilson. He believed in the firm’s lawyers enough to provide them first-chair experience early in their careers and pay them well. In return, our litigation-only firm worked hard and often played hard. In short, I was lucky. I didn’t experience the same degree of gender bias that many other women lawyers in the 1980s probably faced.” However, that doesn’t mean breaking the glass ceiling as a woman in big law was easy.

Challenges Women Face in the Legal Profession

“Big law is stressful, and there is no area of the law more stressful than litigation,” says Franci Neely. Why exactly does she feel that way? “A lawyer’s schedule is not his or her own. It depends on schedules that the court system and individual judges in that system establish, often changeable and idiosyncratic,” she explains.

“I recall a trial where the jury had been listening to evidence for about two weeks when the judge suddenly announced he was recessing the trial for a week while he went on one of his children’s scouting trips,” says Neely. “I applaud the notion of putting family first. However, I do not applaud this type of schedule change.” That’s because it put the jurors on hold for more weeks of their lives. “Stopping a trial in progress is inexcusable unless there is a true emergency,” Neely says. “Stopping trials is inevitably costly to the litigants, not only financially but in terms of their mental well-being.”

“Don’t enter the litigation profession unless you have an understanding family and outlets to reduce stress like meditation, periodic vacations, and social occasions with colleagues.”

Historically, women have faced even more challenges in carving out their space in the legal field. “Steve’s the brilliant founder; however, he was not the only man in power in the firm,” mentions Neely. “There was, in fact, some differential treatment of women, primarily in terms of compensation. [Meaning] although most of the time unstated, single women did not ‘need’ to be compensated as much as their male counterparts, especially when those men had families.

“I was one of the most outspoken lawyers at the firm when I practiced there, as my colleagues will readily acknowledge. However, I did not back down from standing up for what I thought was right. I had the courage of my convictions, even before I was made a partner.”

That didn’t translate into Neely asserting herself regarding her financial compensation. “I was reluctant to lobby the named partners,” she says. “I have never been one to curry favor. I am plainspoken. Although, I wish I had been more plainspoken about my own compensation.

“I believe that the treatment of women in firms very much depends, then and now, on the personality of each firm. I hope strong women in those firms assert their rights to equitable compensation and treatment regarding case and task assignments. However, it ultimately depends on us, women, to stand together for fair treatment and respect.”

During her legal career, Neely was proud to represent a woman whose three male partners had wrongfully squeezed her out of their partnerships. “The jury and judge agreed that the guys had behaved illegally,” she says.

Franci Neely Discusses Her Most Memorable Case

“I worked on many fascinating cases, including the case between Northrop and McDonnell Douglas over the foreign sales rights to the F-18 fighter plane,” says Neely. “The lawyers working on that case had to get security clearances to review some of the documents. I will never forget seeing communications among sales force personnel working to affect sales in the Middle East speaking about the ‘peace threat’ posed by peace between Egypt and Israel, for instance.”

That case was settled. “[That is] the norm for most big-dollar cases,” says Neely, who was also one of the lead lawyers for the underwriters in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. “That was a suit Exxon brought in Harris County, Texas, its world headquarters, against some of the least popular people in the world, insurance companies,” she says.

“During discovery in that case, I met a brave man who had been responsible for placing Exxon’s marine insurance and dealing with the very underwriters that Exxon was suing for oil spill cleanup costs,” Neely says. “At the time he was deposed in the case, he had retired from Exxon. He testified truthfully that Exxon’s contract with the underwriters did not allow Exxon to recover oil spill cleanup costs from the underwriters. The judge disallowed that testimony and I was told that Exxon terminated his retirement benefits.”

In many instances, Neely represented the prevailing party at trial, knowing that most civil cases settle before the proceedings. She says Susman Godfrey “represented an insurance broker who had been wrongfully terminated. 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.

“It didn’t help the defendants, with the jury, to defame our client while testifying. One man insisted that our client had ‘jumped back 20 yards’ when he was fired. When we demonstrated that 20 yards would have had him jumping a distance larger than the courtroom itself, the jury saw for itself that the defendant was fibbing.”

Friendships were formed, too. “Forty years after the case was resolved, I remain in touch with a woman who, in her late teens, was hit by a car while walking by the side of the road,” says Franci Neely. “That young woman ultimately married the sheriff’s deputy who came to the scene of the accident. They are still married and still communicate with me regularly.”

Originally published at https://swaay.com.

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