Susman Godfrey’s First-Ever Female Partner Franci Neely Reflects on Firm’s History-Making Settlement

By  //  June 8, 2023

Susman Godfrey L.L.P. is a litigation powerhouse. The boutique law firm has earned a reputation for tackling huge, exclusive cases, like Dominion Voting Systems’ massive defamation suit against Fox.

Franci Neely has the honor of being the first female lawyer, and eventual partner, at the firm. “I was with them, or their predecessors in name, since 1979, until I retired,” she said.

Although Neely has retired from practicing law, she’s immensely proud of the caliber of work the firm is still doing. “I’m so proud of my law firm,” she said. Trusted by dozens of Fortune 500 companies, “It’s a big deal law firm,” Neely stressed. “That’s how good it was when I was there, too.”

Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corporation, in 2021 for $1.6 billion in damages. The suit alleged that Fox News’ personalities, executives, journalists, and guests defamed the company by pushing false conspiracy theories that accused the tech company’s ballot-counting machines of manipulating the results of the 2020 presidential election to steal them from former President Donald Trump in favor of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. 

On April 18, 2023, the judge confirmed both parties had reached a settlement just as opening statements were expected to start. Fox News consented to pay Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million in addition to acknowledging the court’s earlier ruling that Fox spread falsehoods about the company that produces and sells electronic voting hardware and software. 

Franci Neely is grateful she was a partner at the illustrious firm. “I am confident it was not an easy job,” said Neely. “Because Fox could pay lawyers forever more. And I’m sure they resisted Susman Godfrey’s efforts to get documents.”

Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis got it exactly right when he called the lawyering “top-notch,” said Neely. “My firm is the best of the best.”

Details of the Dominion Voting Systems Settlement 

Stephen Shackelford is a partner at Susman Godfrey and acted as a lead litigator for Dominion Voting Systems in the lawsuit. In an email to Bloomberg Law, Shackelford stated Dominion “fought to bring the truth to light” and explained that he’s never represented a company “that has ever had to go through what Dominion has.”

This settlement is reportedly the largest ever reached by a United States media company. “Thank goodness for lawyers and the people who uphold the rule of laws as best they can,” said Neely.

“The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” stated Dominion Voting Systems lawyer Justin Nelson.

In a statement, Fox said it’s “hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”

More work is needed for Shackelford and the rest of Dominion’s blockbuster legal team. The settlement with Fox is one aspect of a broader legal campaign by Dominion Voting Systems to seek accountability from companies and individuals it claims have spread inaccurate information about its technology. Dominion is also suing conservative media networks One America News Network and Newsmax Media, businessmen Mike Lindell and Patrick Burke, and former Donald Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. “These are all moving forward,” Shackelford confirmed to Bloomberg Law.

Franci Neely Looks Back at Law Career

Since retiring from her successful legal career, the Houston-based philanthropist has been on a mission to travel to all of the countries on Earth. She’s only got a few more to go. But no matter how far she roams, she’s never forgotten her Texas roots and has fond memories of her tenure at the Susman Godfrey firm.

“The firm was unique in that the founder Steve Susman was pretty much blind to gender, color, and sexual orientation,” she said. “If you were bright, motivated, and self-confident, that is what mattered. If someone could get the job done is what mattered to him.

“I didn’t experience the same degree of gender bias that many other women lawyers probably faced in the 1980s,” Neely continued. “Steve was brilliant. He embraced me for who I was and he expected me to represent our clients zealously. That’s what I did. I was one of the most outspoken lawyers at the firm when I practiced there. I did not back down from what I thought was right.”

Four years after being hired, Neely made partner at what became Susman Godfrey. “That was five years after I completed law school,” she said. “We were trained in the line of fire. I had the courage of my convictions even before I made partner.”

Early in her career, Neely took depositions of key executives in major Houston companies, who the sharpest litigators in Houston defended. She will never forget being in the courtroom with Joe Jamail, a Texas billionaire who became the wealthiest practicing lawyer in the United States. “I took the deposition of a Houston real estate tycoon who Joe was defending,” she said.

Jamail earned the nickname “King of Torts” for his wins against large corporations, including a $10.5 billion award for Pennzoil against Texaco over the purchase of Getty Oil in the 1980s.

“Joe’s technique was to intimidate his adversary, and he was top-notch at doing just that,” said Franci Neely. “He kept interrupting my questions to derail me. At one point, he said, ‘Hey honey, where did you go to law school, in the Soviet Union?’” 

Nevertheless, she persisted. “I continued with my questions undeterred,” Neely said. “I should have responded, ‘Yes, and I’m of counsel to Mikhael Gorbachev.’”

While confidence comes naturally to Neely, she admits it can still, unfortunately, be an obstacle for women in professional settings. “Some things don’t appear to change for the better in the way women professionals are viewed,” said Franci Neely. “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, the male counterparts, who speak with the same degree of confidence and forcefulness, are viewed as strong leaders and admirable. This is baked into the system.”