As one of the first female lawyers at Susman Godfrey LLP, philanthropist Franci Neely reflects on her groundbreaking career in law. She highlights the challenges women face in the legal profession and some of the most notable cases she has tackled since she joined the firm in 1979.
Susman Godfrey, based in Houston, has recently gained attention for leading the pretrial settlement in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News. Neely expresses gratitude for being recruited by the firm, which has always embraced a philosophy of hiring the best and brightest, regardless of gender, color, or sexual orientation.
“As a woman breaking barriers in the legal field, I was fortunate to experience less gender bias compared to many of my peers in the 1980s.” acknowledges Neely. However, the formidable challenges of practicing law, particularly in litigation, the demanding nature of the profession, and the unpredictable schedules imposed by courts and individual judges created significant stress. For instance, she recalls that a judge once abruptly recessed a trial for a week due to personal commitments.
Neely advises that family support and practicing stress-reducing activities are crucial to navigating the pressures of the legal profession. She also sheds light on the historical discrepancies in the treatment of women within the legal field, particularly in compensation. During her time, it was common for employers to undervalue single women compared to their male counterparts who had families.
Despite her challenges, Neely stood up for her clients and what she believed was right. She recalls several memorable cases from her career, like the Northrop vs. McDonnell Douglas dispute over foreign sales rights for the F-18 fighter plane. She also recounts a case where she successfully represented a woman who was wrongfully excluded from her male partners’ partnerships.
Another significant case was her involvement as one of the lead lawyers for the underwriters in the Exxon Valdez oil spill case. Neely remembers a moment when a retired Exxon employee testified truthfully. But the court disallowed the testimony, causing Exxon to retaliate against the employee.
Neely often represented the prevailing party at trial. She understood that most civil cases settle before reaching court. There was a time Susman Godfrey LLP achieved a breach of contract verdict after a defendant’s false testimony was effectively challenged, ultimately leading the jury to recognize the deception. The case resulted in the largest defamation verdict in Harris County courts.
Beyond the legal world, Neely has enduring friendships with individuals she encountered during her career. One heartwarming example is a woman who was involved in a car accident during her late teen years. The woman married the sheriff’s deputy, who responded to the scene. “I regularly contact the couple to this day,” admits Neely.
Franci Neely’s career as a pioneering lawyer and her dedication to fighting for justice have left a lasting impact. Her experiences shed light on the challenges women face in the legal profession. She emphasizes that women should assert their rights to equitable compensation and fair treatment at work. Also, strong women in the profession must stand together in pursuit of equal respect and treatment to promote continued efforts toward equality and fairness.