Photo by Felix Sanchez.
When Neal Manne, 56, was formally introduced as co-managing partner of Houston-based Susman Godfrey in September 2011, the legal press more than took note. Steve Susman and Lee Godfrey are the only lawyers at the 32-year-old world-class boutique to hold the title of managing partner. As both are now in their 70s, adding Manne as a third managing partner effectively anointed him the heir apparent.So it's not surprising the news of his ascendancy to the helm of the litigation powerhouse known for multimillion-dollar verdicts and six-figure associate bonuses was treated as something like a coronation.
Manne wasn’t plucked from the firm’s obscure partner ranks. He joined the firm in 1988 after spending several years in Washington, D.C., as chief of staff for U.S. Senator Arlen Specter and chief counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on juvenile justice. Since then, Manne has made a name for himself as a star litigator as deserving of the spotlight as Susman, one of the most famous trial lawyers in the U.S. and the colorful half of the firm name. He’s won major trials for both plaintiffs and defendants, representing a varied array of clients from energy companies to modern art icon Robert Rauschenberg, who was so happy with Manne’s successful representation that he gave the firm two of his painting as a bonus.
Manne’s reputation extends beyond his private practice to his pro-bono work. In 1994, the National Women’s Political Caucus named him as the national “Good Guy of the Year,” along with then Vice-President Al Gore, for his successful representation of Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics in controversial litigation against a radical anti-abortion group campaigning to shut down the clinics through mass disobedience. Manne obtained an injunction protecting the clinics, then later scored a $1.2 million verdict against the anti-abortion group after a six-week jury trial.
At the time, the New York Times called it the biggest verdict ever against radical anti-abortion groups. “N.O.W. liked it and gave me that award. Plus, I invented the internet during a break in trial, but Gore took credit for it,” Manne quips.
Manne has been serving on the firm’s executive committee since 1997. He has a democratic approach to firm management: Everyone has a say on the future of the firm, associates and partners alike, and no one gets guaranteed compensation.
Lawdragon: You already have a pretty successful litigation practice. What made you decide to take on the managing partner role at this time?
Neal Manne: I’ve spent most of my career practicing law at Susman Godfrey, and I deeply appreciate the opportunities I’ve been given here, including the opportunity to serve as a managing partner. I have been involved in firm management, both formally and informally, for many years, so perhaps I was a natural choice. But I’m very glad my partners elected me, and I will do what I can to ensure that we all work together for many years to come. That said, Susman Godfrey has never spent a huge amount of time on firm management. Serving as managing partner really won’t affect my own litigation practice.
LD: How has it been since you officially took over as managing partner? What’s the biggest adjustment for you?
NM: Actually, there hasn’t been much of an adjustment. I recognize that my partners are essentially unmanageable, because we have a very democratic system in which every lawyer has an equal vote on almost all issues of firm governance, and anything “decided” by the managing partners can be reconsidered at our weekly meeting of all our lawyers. Recognizing this helps me avoid most of the frustrations one could have as managing partner. We’ve also got guys named Godfrey and Susman who are also still managing partners and very much involved in running the firm.
LD: What skills as a litigator do you think serve you well in your current position?
NM: Good trial lawyers are problem solvers. They are able to identify what is important and what is unimportant. They focus on the end-game. They are persuasive advocates. I use each of those skills in my trial practice, and I use each of them to some extent as managing partner.
LD: Tell us about business development or marketing plans that Susman Godfrey is planning to undertake, or is currently undertaking, in your first year on the helm. Are you planning to just stay the course or go color outside the lines?
NM: For our entire 32 years as a firm, our very best method of business development and marketing has been to win cases. That’s still the plan. The headline on our website says it all: “Susman Godfrey: The Way To Win.” We’ve targeted some new types of cases, and offered even more attractive alternative fee arrangements to clients. But the bottom line remains the same: Win. We also have undertaken a major initiative to increase the number of female and minority lawyers (including partners) at our firm. We’re already seeing progress. By the end of the year, 50% of the lawyers in our Los Angeles office will be women.
LD: With all the doom-and-gloom news about law firms’ prospects in the papers these days, what makes you optimistic about the future of your own firm and the legal market in general?
NM: Our firm always has been extremely nimble in adapting to changing market conditions, and in offering clients the financial benefits of our efficiency and skill. We’re trial lawyers who can try any type of case, anywhere. That’s what we do, and that’s all we do. By consistently winning verdicts or big settlements in major cases, we have developed a very strong and resilient brand. Consequently, our firm has done extremely well even during the last years of instability in the legal profession.
LD: Do you have any theories on why law firms (even international behemoths with stellar reputation) fail?
NM: I don’t know exactly why others have failed. I do know why we have succeeded. We hire only the very best young lawyers, with the expectation they will stay and become our partners. We are singularly devoted to winning, and our clients know it. We leverage results (through use of alternative fee arrangements) rather than hours, since we have fewer associates than partners. We do not borrow to finance our business. We do not guarantee specific compensation to any partner. There are no points or shares — a partner starts each year on the same footing as every other partner. This model lets us be a very efficient, agile and successful business. We’ve always done the things that many firms are only now trying to do. We’re better at it, because it is part of our culture.
LD: Do you have any advice to give to a fellow managing partner who is trying to manage a law firm and make his partners happy in this economy?
NM: I’m wary of giving advice to my own partners, much less other firms’ partners! The only thing I’d suggest is setting up a system where personal self-interest links to the long-term success of the firm. When economic times are tough, there has to be a culture in place that makes people want to hunker down together and pull through it, rather than devising individual exit strategies. Our lawyers are committed to each other, and to our employees. When the economy soured in 2008, we took steps to ensure that we not only survived but flourished. I am delighted to say that we have not laid off a single attorney — or any employee, for that matter — for economic reasons. Having that kind of shared culture and commitment makes our firm a very, very strong place.
LD: If you have all the time in the world to do one thing, what would that be?
NM: I would be very bored if I could only do one thing. But what I enjoy most when I am not practicing law is being with my wife Nancy and our three children, traveling and doing other things we love to do together. They are the reason I do what I do.