Former Susman Godfrey Attorney Franci Neely Reflects on Dominion Settlement: ‘The Lawyering Was Top-Notch’
Philanthropist Franci Neely was with the Susman Godfrey law firm from 1979 until she retired from her legal career. The firm, initially based in Houston, now with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, has been making headlines for the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against Fox News.
In April 2023, Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corporation, reached a deal. As a result, they averted a trial over allegations that the network repeatedly pushed false claims about Dominion’s involvement in defrauding the 2020 presidential election. “The lawyering was top-notch,” says Franci Neely. “I’m so proud of my firm.”
In the weeks following the 2020 presidential election, then-President Donald Trump and his associates vehemently challenged President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Members of Trump’s legal team and Fox News talking heads made false and unsubstantiated claims against Dominion Voting System’s involvement in the election results.
Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis confirmed a settlement had been reached before the trial started. “I have been on the bench since 2010,” said Davis. “I think this is the best lawyering I’ve had, ever. I would be proud to be your judge in the future.”
Franci Neely says, “Fox could pay lawyers forever, and I’m sure that they resisted all of Susman Godfrey’s efforts to get documents. So it was not an easy task, I am confident. But as the judge had said, the lawyering was brilliant. I’m really proud of the firm and what they accomplished.”
Specifics of the Settlement
Dominion initially filed a $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox in March 2021. It alleged that the network’s stars, journalists, guests, and executives defamed the company and thrust it into the center of a conspiracy theory that it had switched votes filed for the Republican Trump to the Democratic challenger Biden.
However, both parties settled for $787.5 billion just as a jury had been selected and the trial was scheduled to start. Justin Nelson, a lawyer for Dominion, said the amount “represents vindication and accountability” because “lies have consequences.”
John Poulos, Dominion CEO, stated, “Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees, and the customers that we serve. Nothing can ever make up for that. Throughout this process, we have sought accountability. Truthful reporting in the media is essential to our democracy.”
A statement released by Fox News read, “We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false. This settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We are 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.”
By settling and avoiding a jury trial, Fox didn’t have to make public potentially damaging evidence, such as redacted documents and statements. “By largely trying its case in the court of public opinion, Dominion has gone a long way toward restoring its good name,” Tom Weiner, a retired Michigan corporate lawyer, told Nevada Public Radio. “Fox’s own reputation has been seriously undermined.”
Franci Neely: Susman Godfrey Is the Best of the Best
Steve Susman was a talented litigator for the Fulbright & Jaworski firm before deciding to branch out and put his entrepreneurial skills to the test by starting his own firm. So he formed Susman Godfrey in Houston in 1980 with a vision: Hire the best, reward success, and handle every case with a relentless focus on winning at trial. Today it’s renowned for being the nation’s premier litigation firm, and Neely played a part in establishing its credibility.
“I was the first woman lawyer, and later partner, at the firm,” she says. “I was fortunate to be recruited as one of the first six lawyers ever at the firm that would become Susman Godfrey.” She says she was “hired to represent our clients zealously.” And she did just that throughout her distinguished career.
Neely understood the attorneys’ challenges as they prepared for the Dominion case against Fox. “Big law is stressful, and there is no area of law more stressful than litigation,” says Neely. Therefore, she advises, “Don’t enter the litigation profession unless you have an understanding that you’ll need family and outlets to reduce stress, such as meditation, periodic vacations, or social occasions with colleagues.”
Franci Neely says she was “trained in the line of fire.” In the early days of her tenure at Susman Godfrey, she was responsible for taking depositions from key executives at major Houston companies, often defended by the top litigators in Houston.
And she’s proud to admit she was one of the most outspoken lawyers at the firm. She was never afraid to stand up for what she believed in and thought was right, even before being made partner. “I had the courage of my convictions,” she says.
Over the past four decades, Franci Neely has watched the industry evolve for the betterment of women. “I believe that most well-respected firms have done a good deal to respect their women colleagues,” she states.
She offers this advice to other women lawyers: “I believe that the treatment of women in firms very much depends, then and now, on the personality of each firm. I hope strong women in those firms assert their rights to equitable compensation and treatment regarding case and task assignments. However, it ultimately depends on us, women, to stand together for fair treatment and respect.
“Some things don’t appear to change for the better in the way women professionals are viewed. 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, 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.”
Where would we be without lawyers? “Thank goodness for lawyers and the people who uphold the rule of laws as best they can. My former firm, Susman Godfrey, is the best of the best,” says Franci Neely. “There are lots of good lawyers, and I am proud of all of them.”