Legal community loses one of its "Lions"

James F. Neal

Wen James F. Neal '57, died on October 21, the legal community lost one of the "Lions of the Trial Bar".

By 1971, when Jim Neal and Aubrey Harwell II '67 founded Neal & Harwell, Neal had already distinguished himself as one of the nation's most talented trial lawyers.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Neal's career is that he originally planned to pursue a career in the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice; Neal earned an LL.M. in tax law at Georgetown University in 1960. But in 1961, he was tapped by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to join a team of prosecutors pursuing corrupt labor leaders, and his future as a trial lawyer was cemented. Neal handled the prosecution of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, whom he would later describe as "the toughest old bird I ever met." Although that trial ended in a mistrial in 1962, Neal succeeded in convicting Hoffa of attempting to bribe jurors during his previous trials in 1964.

Appointed U.S. Attorney in Nash-ville by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Neal served for two years before entering private practice. He would return to public service famously in 1973, at the request of special prosecutor Archi-bald Cox, to join the team that successfully prosecuted three members of the Nixon administration for crimes that became known as the Watergate scandal. Neal made his case using audiotapes recorded by President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. "It is the only time that I have been sad after winning a case," Neal told writer Mark Curriden of the ABA Journal, which profiled Neal as one of seven "Lions of the Trial Bar" in March 2009. "But it was the greatest example that our criminal justice system, thanks to an independent judiciary, works—even when dealing with those in the highest positions of government."

Neal was in the spotlight for his successful defense of the Ford Motor Company in the criminal trial related to the design of the Ford Pinto model, of Elvis' doctor, George Nichopoulos after he was charged with overprescribing drugs to Elvis Presley, of director John Landis against charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment when actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed in a helicopter accident while Landis was filming Twilight Zone: The Movie, of Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards against charges of corruption, of Exxon Corporation in charges resulting from the Valdez Alaskan oil spill, of a man accused of hijacking a plane in the nation's first air piracy trial, and in other "miracle" cases. Neal also served as private counsel for Vice President Albert Gore Jr. in the late 1990s.

At 81, Neal had been trying high-profile cases for well over four decades and was still an active member of Neal and Harwell when he died of complications of his treatment for esophageal cancer. Neal had told the ABA Journal that the fact he was able to try so many interesting, high-profile cases was "just damn luck." But Neal achieved his stellar record as both a defense attorney and a prosecutor through painstaking research, which he used as a basis for a brilliant and impeccably executed strategy. Neal claimed to have learned one of the keys to his success while playing football at the University of Wyoming as an undergraduate. "The coach used to say, 'The team with the fewest mistakes during the game will win,'" Neal said. "It was true in football, and it is true in the courtroom."

Neal is survived by his wife, Dianne Ferrell Neal '83, a son, a daughter and a stepdaughter, and five grandchildren.

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