Since retiring from her successful law career, trial lawyer Franci Neely has traveled the world in pursuit of her dream of visiting every country. This aspiration aligns with what the Houston-based philanthropist learned over her more than 20-year career in corporate law: Stay true to yourself and interact with others.
“I’m not trying to do that for any back-patting purposes,” Neely said of her world travels. “I do it because I love to explore other cultures, other areas of the world, ways of living, history. I’m very curious about that and I care about it very much.”
Neely’s interest in others and commitment to staying true to herself helped shape her legal career. She dreamed of becoming an actor, “but I also wanted to support myself financially. And I didn’t think that was going to be so easy to do being a performer.”
All the pieces fell into place once she realized studying law would allow her to flex her dramatic muscles and make money. “I loved academia, so I became a trial lawyer,” Neely said. “I was a natural trial lawyer. That’s good and bad because I’m an instinctual debater. And I have a sense of theater.”
Neely added, “I was good at debating. I would use the word ‘arguing,’ but that often connotes that you’re argumentative. And I am, in one sense of the word. I debate things because I like to see all sorts of issues. Some people do view that as confrontational. And some people are very, very confrontation averse. They’re uncomfortable with people who want to talk about ideas. When people are like that to me, I find it interesting. I like to debate them and talk about their ideas. I know I was naturally good at that.”
She started practicing law in the late 1970s. At the time, she said, “There weren’t that many women trial lawyers.” Things haven’t changed all that much since then. According to a study of data collected by Zippia, an online recruitment services company, of the 260,649 trial attorneys employed in the United States in 2022, 33.8% were women. Why is that? “There are a lot of women lawyers, but for trial, you have to be on all the time,” says Neely. “And so I was sort of one of the first in that arena.”
Franci Neely: Lessons Learned Working in Law
As of 2022, women maintained 8.8% of leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies. However, from 1950 to 1970, only 3% of all lawyers were women. The percentage increased to 8% in 1980. Neely was included in that small percentage of women in law.
She spent her career blazing new trails in the male-dominated field as a trial lawyer — and did it in heels. “Now I’m proud that I never tried to act like a guy in that forum,” she stated.
Women’s power suits were synonymous with massive shoulder pads and skinny little bow ties at that time. The look was tailored and masculine and all the rage for working women from coast to coast. However, Neely didn’t subscribe to the trend.
“I dressed like a woman. I didn’t wear the little ties,” she said. “I wore women’s suits. I didn’t want to try to pretend I was a guy; I wanted to be me.”
Her dedication to her own unique style paid off professionally. “I think juries like that or were curious about it,” said Neely. “So I’m proud of that.”
Neely offered advice for anyone interested in becoming a trial lawyer: “Hone your analytical abilities.”
She said that as a trial lawyer, “The goal in the courtroom — and in front of a judge at hearings, too — is to tell a story persuasively. I don’t mean a made-up story, an actual true one. Tell it in a way that’s as easily understandable and persuasive as possible.”
While you can’t believe everything you see on TV, Neely feels that shows like Law & Order can offer a reasonably accurate depiction of the courtroom during a trial. “Even though those shows are unrealistic in many ways, they do show you the importance of picking a theme and sticking with it and developing the theme,” she explained. “If you’re kind of analytical, like I am, you’ve got to let some of the facts go. You don’t have to beat the other side over the head with every fact. You’ve got to pick the ones that illustrate your story best, so it doesn’t become confusing.”
People might be surprised to learn that despite her ability to command attention in the courtroom, Neely is more of an introvert in her daily life. “I am not an extrovert,” she said. “I used to think that an extrovert was someone who seems outgoing or can carry on a conversation with people well. That is not really the [whole picture]. It’s about how you get your energy.”
Neely added, “Extroverts are recharged by being around people. I am not recharged by being around people. To be clear, I like to be around other people, I’m stimulated by that, but I get my energy by being by myself. I literally recharge by myself.”
Don’t Wait To Travel — Do It Now
Since retiring from law, Neely has focused on traveling the world and immersing herself in new cultures. “When you’re young, you always think that you have infinite time ahead of you. But, no, you don’t,” said Neely. “It really goes by very quickly.”
She advises everyone: “Make something of every day of your life. You don’t know how much time you have left. So, set goals, but be willing to alter those goals as circumstances change, but don’t fritter your time away. Establish goals and keep moving them as you see fit. But realize time is actually pretty short.”
Neely said travel is the best education a person can get. Her goal in the next two years is to finish visiting all 195 countries. “For the most part, what I have remaining are some African countries and little island countries in the South Pacific,” Neely says. “Some of them are remote, hard to get to. So those two areas of the world are the main areas I have yet to explore.”
What does Neely want to do for the remainder of her time? “After I finish this goal of visiting every country in the world, maybe I’ll go live in Italy,” she mused.