According to the 2022 Women Leaving Law report by Leopard Solutions, which surveyed women working in the Top 200 law firms, a large number of women are leaving the profession at the pinnacle of their careers. The report also noted that more women than men are hired immediately out of law school. Franci Neely can relate to that. In 1979, she was hired at the firm that would become Susman Godfrey, less than a year after graduating from law school at the University of Texas.
Before retiring, Neely spent her law career at the litigation firm that’s been in the news a lot lately for being instrumental in Fox Corporation’s $787.5 million settlement with Susman Godfrey client Dominion Voting Systems over defamation charges. “The lawyering was top-notch,” says Neely. “Susman Godfrey is the best of the best. I’m so proud of the firm and what they were able to accomplish.”
Franci Neely: ‘Thank Goodness for Lawyers’
Neely says, “There are lots of good lawyers and I’m proud of them all.” In fact, a love of law runs in her family. “My nephew is a lawyer as well,” she adds.
“Where would we be without lawyers?” asks Franci Neely. “Sure, there is bad in every profession, but thank goodness for lawyers and people who uphold the laws the best they can.”
She’s helped to ensure future generations of lawyers have the support they need. For example, she was a founding contributor to the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas at Austin. “That was a pledge I made a long time ago and it’s been redeemed,” she says.
Neely is grateful for her experiences with Susman Godfrey during her legal career. “I didn’t experience the same degree of gender bias that many other women lawyers in the 1980s probably faced,” she says. “Steve Susman was the firm’s founder. He’s a brilliant lawyer whose philosophy was to hire the best and the brightest regardless of gender, color, or sexual orientation. Moreover, he believed in the firm’s lawyers enough to provide them first chair experience early in their careers. And, he paid them well for doing so.”
She was the first female lawyer at the firm. Four years later, Neely became the first female partner there. “Steve embraced me for who I was and expected me to represent our clients zealously, which I did,” says Neely.
Historically, the legal profession has been dominated by men. However, the field of law has come a long way for women in terms of inclusion. “I believe that most well-respected firms have done a good deal to respect their women colleagues,” she says. “My firm was unique in that the founder was blind to gender. If you were bright, motivated, self-confident, and got the job done, that is what mattered [there].”
That’s not to say that Neely’s experiences as a woman lawyer in big law were all sunshine and rainbows. “I believe that the treatment of women in firms very much depends, then and now, on the personality of each firm,” she says. “I hope that strong women in those firms assert their rights to equitable compensation and treatment regarding case and task assignments. Us women need to stand together for fair treatment and respect.”
During her career, “There was some differential treatment of women, primarily in terms of compensation,” Franci Neely explains. “Although it went unstated most of the time, [it seemed] 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 firm’s most outspoken lawyers when I practiced there. 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. Interestingly, however, that did not translate into my asserting myself regarding my own financial compensation. I was reluctant to lobby the name partners as I have never been one to curry favor and am plainspoken. However, I wish I had been more plainspoken about my own compensation.”
Have things changed for the better in the past 40-plus years? In some ways — but there’s still work to be done. Neely says, “I observed when I practiced law and in my retirement that women who speak confidently and forcefully are too often viewed in pejorative terms. On the other hand, their male counterparts who speak with the same degree of confidence and forcefulness are viewed admirably as strong leaders. This is baked into the system.”
What the Legal Profession Looks Like Right Now
An American Bar Association National Lawyer Population Survey by the United States Census Bureau reports that male attorneys outnumber female attorneys. However, the percentage of women attorneys has expanded by 5% over the past decade.
Last year, females comprised 38.3% of lawyers, while 61.5% were male. That’s a step in the right direction, since from 1950 to 1970, women made up only 3% of all lawyers. The percentage of lawyers of color has grown 7% over the decade from 2012 to 2022, and the diversity of law firm partners has grown over 28 consecutive years.
How can women stand out more in the legal profession? Anna Elizabeth Polito is an immigration case coordinator at Capelle Kane Immigration Lawyers Professional Corporation. She echoes Franci Neely’s thoughts on how women are viewed. “As a woman in law, a lot of the ‘desired’ characteristics align more with what society views as masculine traits. Here is the secret, the one thing they do not tell us in law school enough. To stand out, you need to think differently. You need to be your authentic self,” she stated on the “Legally Speaking Podcast.”
“For a woman in law, that means celebrating your traits that do not align with the common lawyer narrative and showing how those traits make you the perfect person for the job.”
Polito continued, “Being a woman in law means you have the added challenge of not automatically fitting into the masculine narrative we are told is desirable for a career in law. But being your authentic self, and showing all you bring to the table, should not be seen as a challenge, but rather something to be celebrated.”
Her advice to women interested in having a career similar to Neely’s in big law is, “Break the molds, challenge what is not right, and be your authentic self.”
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