Houston-based philanthropist Franci Neely was hired as one of the first six lawyers at the firm that would eventually develop into Susman Godfrey LLC. The firm is focused on litigation and has been in the news recently since its client Dominion Voting Systems received a history making $787.5 million settlement in its defamation suit against Fox News.
Franci Neely is retired but is still proud of the place where she spent the majority of her legal career. In 1979 she became the first female lawyer at the firm and eventually earned her position as the first female partner. “There are a lot of women lawyers, but for trial, you have to be on all the time,” she says. “I was one of the first in that arena.”
During her career at Susman Godfrey, she worked with numerous high-profile clients. Neely, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, was one of the firm’s most outspoken lawyers. That ability to speak her mind and have the courage to stand by her convictions served her well throughout her law career. Her love of academia is what motivated her to become a trial lawyer. “I was a natural trial lawyer. That’s good and bad because I’m an instinctual debater. And I have a sense of theater,” she says.
“I am a warrior by spirit,” Neely adds. She’s dedicated her life to trying to right what she perceived as wrong. “Even when it would be more comfortable for me to keep silent,” says Neely, who refuses to stand quietly in the face of what she perceives as injustice.
Franci Neely’s Career Highlights
About four years after joining the firm that would become Susman Godfrey, Neely made partner. “I was trained by doing it,” she says.”I was lucky [the firm’s founder] embraced me for who I was and expected me to represent clients zealously.” That’s exactly what she did. As a young lawyer, she took depositions from important executives in major corporations, who were being defended by the finest litigators in Houston.
Franci Neely was involved in a prominent case between Northrop and McDonnell Douglas. That case pertains to the foreign sales rights of F-18 fighter planes, and the lawyers involved were required to get security clearance to review many of the documents.
She says, “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.”
Forty years ago, Neely worked on a case for a woman who had been hit by a car as a teenager while walking on the roadside. She and the client are still in touch today. “She married the sheriff’s deputy who came to the accident scene,” says Neely. “They’re still married and communicate with me regularly.”
Neely recalls one time that defendants hurt their case in the eyes of the jury by defaming her client while testifying. “One man insisted that our client had ‘jumped back 20 yards’ when he was fired,” she explains. “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.”
She understood that most civil cases settle. However, that didn’t stop her from representing the prevailing party at trial throughout her legal career. Her firm once represented an insurance broker who had been unjustifiably terminated. According to Neely, the firm brought home a breach of contract judgment and verdict. It was also the largest defamation verdict judgment in Harris County courts at that time.
“I was proud to represent a woman whose three male partners had wrongfully squeezed her out of their partnership,” says Franci Neely. “The judge and jury agreed that the men had behaved illegally.”
Another career highlight for Neely was representing a client sued by a big securities firm. The securities firm alleged that Neely’s client had defrauded it and was suing for $50 million. “The judge and the Fifth Circuit Court disagreed,” she says.
Neely’s legal team obtained a summary judgment because the court found no disputed issues of material fact on all of the courses of action that the securities firm had brought against the client. Neely says, “The judge correctly wrote that if our client was a scoundrel, the securities firm knew in advance and [knowingly decided] to continue to do business with him.”
What She Learned Throughout Her Career in Big Law
“I worked on many fascinating cases,” Neely says. Even though she’s retired from practicing law, she would “go to the Hague and prosecute crimes of genocide, against humanity or of war” if she were to get back into the business.
While she helped blaze the way for more women to get into big law, it’s certainly not an easy profession for anyone. “It’s stressful,” says Neely. She explains that there is no area of law more nerve-wracking than litigation. One reason for that is that a lawyer’s schedule is unpredictable.
“It depends on schedules that the court system and the individual judges establish,” she says. Neely suggests that people think twice about getting into the litigation profession if they don’t have an understanding family and ways to reduce stress. She recommends that litigators learn how to meditate and take occasional vacations.
Since retiring from her 20-plus years in corporate law, Neely’s been on a mission to visit every country on the globe. She does it because she loves to explore other cultures and parts of the world. Neely is especially interested in people’s history and way of life worldwide.