Every Man’s a King

Alexis Neely brings the Rockefeller treatment to the common guy        

Published in 2008 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

By Rose Nisker on June 13, 2008


When Alexis Martin Neely graduated first in her class from Georgetown Law, she received, along with her diploma, a stack of glowing recommendation letters from the school’s most renowned professors—including one from Professor Martin D. Ginsburg, the famed tax attorney and husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Not surprisingly, Neely’s options for employment after graduation were practically unlimited. Neely, a budding estate attorney, landed a high-paying job at the elite Munger, Tolles & Olsen. She started at the top.

But Neely soon realized that her true career aspirations were more humble. “I just wanted to be the town lawyer,” she says. She wanted a genuine human connection to her clients, and so she turned her career around, and opened her own firm specializing in family estate law.

The 34-year-old Redondo Beach attorney is determined to make her practice into a quaint, old-world affair.

“I’ve always thought personal family lawyers were supposed to be with their clients for a lifetime, to look out for their clients’ families, and be a close source of support and advice,” Neely says. While this version of the attorney-client bond has traditionally been reserved for the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the world, Neely believes modern estate planning attorneys can use a similar paradigm for middle-class families.

And though she draws from a traditional model of the personal family attorney, her approach to her work is decidedly modern. She publishes an online magazine called Family Wealth Secrets that is geared toward younger families and estate planning novices. She writes a blog, “The Intrepid Entrepreneur”  (alexismartinneely.wordpress.com), where she provides “inspiration for moms, entrepreneurs and others about being afraid and doing it anyway.” The e-zine (familywealthmatters.com) features a photo of Neely in a stylishly whimsical coat and cowboy hat, with the kind of bright grin on her face generally not expected from attorneys who deal extensively with tax law.

Judging by the media attention she receives, Neely’s modern twist on the old-fashioned family attorney seems to be catching on. She has been featured as one of Worth magazine’s top 100 lawyers two years in a row, she’s been quoted in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and Lawyer’s Weekly, and was a guest on an NPR segment discussing how parents should pick a guardian for their children. She also has a new book, Wear Clean Underwear! A Fast, Fun, Friendly—and Essential—Guide to Legal Planning for Busy Parents.

When Neely thinks back to her early notions of “family wealth planning,” she says she can’t help but laugh. “There were a lot of lessons in what not to do,” she says. The Miami native explains that her father, a businessman, made a decent living, but was “a complete spendthrift.” Growing up, she recalls numerous occasions when the family’s power was shut off because they didn’t pay the bills. “We didn’t even have health insurance,” she says. In stark contrast to her father, Neely says she became a “hoarder” and started obsessively saving her money at an early age. “Fortunately I’ve acquired a much more balanced approach to money over the years.”

While Neely didn’t pick up her father’s bad financial habits, she says she did learn some important lessons from him about the role of a lawyer. “My father would always be on the phone with his attorney, and they had a very close relationship,” she says. “I was exposed to a good example of what the attorney-client bond can be.” She adds with a laugh, “I think the value of that relationship became particularly apparent when he was convicted of a white-collar crime [involving unfair business practices].”

Seeing her father navigate his legal troubles inspired Neely to go into law—as a criminal attorney. “I’m sure the psychology behind that was ‘I’m going to save my dad,'” she says. But at Georgetown, Neely was unenthusiastic about criminal law. Unsure what area to pursue, she signed up for what was considered Georgetown’s toughest course—tax law with Ginsburg. “Considering I had no math background whatsoever, I’m not sure what I was thinking,” she admits. “I guess that time in my life was all about challenging myself.”

Just being at Georgetown was a challenge for Neely. She had received her B.A. from the University of Central Florida, and now was competing with a school full of Harvard and Princeton grads. “It was definitely intimidating,” she admits. “I didn’t go to any of the big fancy schools so I told myself that I needed to study my butt off.”

The work paid off. Even without a math background, Neely earned the highest grade in all of her tax classes. “Of course, I worked incredibly hard, but oddly enough, tax law was something that seemed to come naturally to me.” With her newfound abilities in the area, she decided to pursue family estate planning.

Before she started advising other families, Neely started her own. In 1999, during her “stellar year,” she got married in February, got pregnant in March, graduated from law school in June, started her clerkship in August and gave birth to her daughter in November. Soon afterwards, she moved her family to Los Angeles to begin a job in the tax group at Munger, Tolles & Olsen. It didn’t turn out to be a good fit.

“The job was completely transactional,” she says. “People would come in, sign some documents, put them in a drawer at home and never look at them again.” Too often, she says, the plans they made then just didn’t work out later on; and too often she had to clean up the careless errors of previous lawyers, a problem to which she is particularly sensitive.

She watched her own family deal with a similar scenario while she was still in law school. Her father-in-law passed away, and the family had to deal with probate court. “I didn’t know much but I knew that if you had a lawyer, you shouldn’t have to deal with the probate court.” Upon further investigation, she realized the lawyer had never moved her father-in-law’s assets into his trust. “Now we had to pay the same lawyer more money to handle a court process that was only created because he didn’t do the right thing in the first place,” she says.

At the time, Neely says she was certain the lawyer had committed malpractice. “But as I got out into the world,” she says, “I realized that what he did was common practice.” Neely knew right away that standard procedure wasn’t going to be enough for her. “I felt extremely unfulfilled creating documents that I knew were unlikely to work for people later on down the road,” she says.

She lasted three years at Munger Tolles. “I spent a lot of time saying to myself, ‘Alexis, you should be happy. This is an amazing job that millions of law students would kill for,'” she says. But when one of the partners at the firm asked Neely to prepare his personal documents by saying, “Alexis, you’re my family lawyer now, you have to take care of my family,” Neely says, “I remembered why I had gotten into this area of law.”

In 2003, pregnant with her second child, she began preparations to start her own practice. She was still tying up loose ends from her job at Munger Tolles when she went into labor. “I was literally on the phone working during labor and the nurses had to tell me to get off the phone because I wasn’t progressing.”

Neely successfully completed both the delivery of her son and her work at Munger Tolles, and in 2003, she opened the doors to Martin Neely & Associates. She’s clearly ecstatic to be doing business her own way, and speaks energetically about her practice. “Every year,” she says, “we have what we call a ‘priceless conversation’ with clients where they talk about the nonmaterial things they want to pass on to loved ones—the values and stories that make up the culture of a family.” Neely records the conversations—a perk for those in her VIP membership program (“They pay a monthly rate and have access to us for any number of hours”)—and considers them an integral part of a family’s estate.

Neely has based her practice on a culture of familiarity, right down to her office location. Tucked away behind a historic colonial mansion, Martin Neely is housed in a renovated carriage house. With its cozy interior and calming music, the office could easily pass for a day spa. For Neely, the space represents the culmination of a lifelong desire.

“Doesn’t it look like the kind of office the town lawyer would use?” she asks.

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