John Dean, former legal counsel to President Richard Nixon, presented his Watergate CLE on the morning of August 29, 2017, and then unearthed part of Neal & Harwell’s history at a reception hosted at the firm later that evening. Transformed from star witness to historian of an era that altered American politics, Dean displayed the same mastery of the facts that made him “Mean John Dean” during the Watergate Senate hearings and trial—a trial that resulted in guilty verdicts and jail sentences for those closest to the President. He also reminded our guests of the wit (and modesty) of one of our founding partners, Jim Neal (“it was always my practice to only prosecute the guilty—now I defend the innocent”). Showing excerpts from a 2004 panel discussion (“Reflections On Watergate”, available at https://youtu.be/01mEbN1vVaA), Dean recalled that the firm’s early days were interrupted by the infamous Saturday Night Massacre and the return of Jim Neal to Washington to lead his Watergate prosecution team to trial.
Neal’s return to public service as a prosecutor made for a challenging time for the infant law firm, but a riveting drama for the Nation. Nixon resigned in disgrace and his lieutenants were put on trial—one in which Jim Neal himself said (from the comfort of 40 years after an overwhelming prosecution victory) they “never had a chance.” Why? Because, unknown to the defendants (until Judge Sirica compelled the White House to release tapes from the Oval Office), their discussions of contrived defenses had been captured on tape.
For those of us who lived through Watergate, and the increasing number of Neal & Harwell lawyers and staff that weren’t born until years later, this was a journey through the history of the firm and an illustration of its guiding principles. As one publication described Neal’s command of the evidence:
No sane man would have subjected himself to a pissing match with an elegant skunk like Neal. Being a professional good ole boy from Tennessee, Neal was all charm, good humor and polite apologies — but drop your guard for a second and he’d have you on the floor and screaming. He was cowboy handsome and he strutted around the courtroom with the confidence of a bantam-weight boxer on a winning streak. Having studied the evidence for more than a year, he could spot the smallest discrepancy in the testimony of a witness.
Crouse, Timothy, “Gambits of Desperation: The White House Five Defense Lawyers,” Rolling Stone (January 16, 1975).
Those familiar with Jim Neal will not be surprised to learn that this was one of his favorite articles about Watergate. Not just because of his flattering description, but because it captured the lesson that he taught all of us: Outwork your opponent.
Photos from Neal & Harwell’s reception are featured in the Nashville Post.