When Franci Neely started her law career in 1978, she was among very few women entering the legal profession. From 1950 to 1970, only 3% of all lawyers were women. However, the number started to rise by 1980. Neely spent two decades working as a business litigator and was the first female partner at Susman Godfrey LLP. Neely says she made partner in the early 1980s. The fearless former litigator defines herself during her earliest days in the legal world as a “gladiator.”
Neely shares that she was one of the first six lawyers at the law firm that became Susman Godfrey. The firm now has more than 150 trial lawyers in four offices.
“There weren’t that many women trial lawyers then — I don’t think there are even many women trial lawyers practicing today,” Neely says. “I was one of the first in that arena.”
In the 1980s, women had to overcome many hurdles in the legal realm regarding gender discrimination and unequal pay. Although great strides have been made, there’s still a gaping hole in the gender pay gap.
In 2002, women earned just 80% of what men made, reports the Pew Research Center. Last year, they made 82% as much. Women all over the world earn less than men, according to data released by the United Nations Development Program. Education doesn’t play a factor either. “Average income gaps between women and men are correlated more strongly with measures of gender social norms than with gaps in education,” it states.
And the unfair wage dichotomy doesn’t end there. Even among undocumented workers, USA Today reveals that these women not only earn less than men, they earn less than documented women.
Franci Neely: ‘It Ultimately Depends on Us — Women’
While Neely says she excelled at standing up for what she thought was right for others, looking back, she admits she should’ve spoken up more about her own financial compensation. “I was reluctant to lobby the named partners,” she says. “I believe that the treatment of women in firms very much depends, then and now, on the personality of each firm.
“I hope that strong women in those firms assert their rights to equitable compensation and treatment regarding case and task assignments. It ultimately depends on us — women — to stand together for fair treatment and respect.”
But she always was a standout in the crowd. Attending the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, Neely was part of the school’s law review — a legal journal published by the related school. Being a part of a university’s law review is generally considered a high honor, and students usually have to be invited to participate. Clearly, Neely’s stellar skills were recognized early on — as were some of her classmates.
Neely says she attended school with Bill White, later a colleague at Susman who went on to serve as the mayor of Houston and in President Bill Clinton’s administration as the deputy energy secretary from 1993 to 1995.
She says she looks back on her days as a student with deep fondness and pride and hopes to inspire other women to follow in her footsteps and pursue careers in law.
Fighting Fox News
Neely remains proud of her former firm, which has been making headlines lately for its role in the pretrial settlement for Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox News. She acknowledges handling cases of that magnitude is no easy feat.
“Thank goodness for lawyers and the people who uphold the rule of law best they can,” Franci Neely avers. “My firm is the best of the best. It’s a gold medal firm.
Neely says she’s grateful to founder Steve Susman’s fair approach to hiring the best and the brightest candidates for the job regardless of gender, color, or sexual orientation. She says soon after she joined Susman Godfrey LLP, Susman opened the law firm’s doors to Evelyn Jo Wilson, another female attorney. “He believed in the firm’s lawyers enough to provide them first-chair experience early in their careers and pay them well,” Neely says. “Steve embraced me for who I was.”
The Houston-based retired attorney reiterates she’s one of the lucky ones in the industry who didn’t face the same plight many other female attorneys face. Still, she worked hard, sharing that big law doesn’t come without an immense load of stress. And Franci Neely isn’t alone in her assessment.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that law is the most stressful occupation in the United States.
While Franci Neely absolutely loved her time as a litigator, she advises anyone following in her footsteps to practice self-care such as meditation and take periodic vacations. In addition to reading, which she says is her top stress reliever, she’s an avid traveler who’s currently in the midst of visiting every country in the world by 2025. Her recent excursions included inspiring jaunts to Antarctica and Norway — and she’s already planning her next itinerary for trips later this year to Australia and Africa.
While work is vital, Neely says scheduling time away is a crucial component of surviving in any career, but particularly law. Maintaining a schedule as a litigator can be madness, especially since it’s at the mercy of the court system and judges’ schedules.
She recalls a trial where a judge decided to go on a trip with his children despite the fact that the jury had just been listening to evidence for roughly 14 days. While Franci Neely approves of keeping family as a priority, she says it was a costly move for the jurors and the court.
A Soupçon Of Franci Neely’s High-Profile Cases
During her time at Susman Godfrey, Franci Neely says she handled many memorable cases, including the one between Northrop and McDonnell Douglas over the foreign sales rights to the F-18 fighter plane. In a fascinating turn of events, Neely was one of the lead lawyers for the underwriters in the historic Exxon Valdez oil spill dispute.
The accomplished attorney notes that she’s kept in touch with some of her clients over the years, including a woman who was hit by a car and ended up marrying the sheriff’s deputy who came to her rescue at the accident scene.