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Elise Neal never expected how motherhood would impact her career path. She worked hard to graduate with honors from Rice University and then Columbia Law School before becoming an associate with a prominent Texas firm. She had visions of working her way to partnership and then possibly searching for a law-related job without such a demanding schedule. But those plans changed when she became pregnant with her first child. Shortly after her daughter was born in August 1996, Neal changed course. She began to work a modified schedule at Baker Botts in Houston. Then she jumped at an opportunity to become general counsel for Academy Sports and Outdoors in Katy, Texas, which also allowed her to work reduced hours. “I had no idea how having a family would impact my career,” Neal says. “Until I got pregnant, I didn’t give it any thought. I guess that’s when my maternal instincts kicked in, and I decided I wanted to spend more time at home with my child.” Growing up in a family of lawyers made it almost inevitable that Neal would pursue the unofficial family business. Her father, brother, uncles and several other relatives all are attorneys who do trial work. So when the 37-year-old New York native graduated from Columbia Law School in 1991, it seemed natural for her to join the trial division of a major firm. She returned to Houston — where in 1988 she had received her undergraduate degree in economics and sociology from Rice University — to became an associate with Baker Botts. She says she enjoyed working on large cases that involved as many as 20 lawyers. By the end of her nearly six-year tenure with the firm, she says she mostly worked on products liability cases for Ford Motor Co. But after becoming a mom, she felt a need to make some changes in her career, namely to cut back on the number of hours she was at work and away from her daughter. Neal says the firm allowed her to work a modified schedule with fewer hours. Of course, that meant a cut in pay, but all was well — until she received an offer she says she couldn’t refuse: an in-house position with Academy. Through word of mouth, she heard about the opening and made inquiries. With the opportunity to get paid more than she was making working part-time at Baker Botts, but still have a flexible schedule, Neal took the job as general counsel and vice president. “The part-time program at Baker Botts was working for me, but this job just fell in my lap,” Neal says. Neal’s supervisor at Baker Botts, partner David Sterling, says the firm was sorry to lose Neal but understood why she pursued the in-house position. “She was an excellent trial attorney for us,” Sterling says. “Elise got a great opportunity, and when those come along, you’re hard-pressed to pass them by.” Neal signed on as general counsel for Academy in July 1997. She says she immediately realized the difference between working for a firm and working in-house. “I had never worked for a company before. My whole legal career was working with a firm — from summer clerk positions to the associate position at Baker Botts. So looking at things from a business perspective and not just legal perspective was different.” Academy also had some adapting to do. Prior to hiring Neal, Academy had no general counsel. The company relied on several firms to help with employment and real estate matters or relied on the legal expertise of Academy owner and former lawyer Arthur Gochman. His son, David Gochman, Academy president and chief executive officer, also holds a law degree. “My father practiced law for years, and we never saw a need for an in-house attorney,” says David Gochman. “But the issues became numerous enough [to need a general counsel] as we began to grow.” David Gochman says that the company didn’t have any particular structure in mind for the newly created legal department, so he was open to candidates who preferred a more flexible schedule. “We were really up in the air, and I knew that there were a lot of talented people out there who would want to work a modified schedule,” Gochman says. He says that in Neal he found someone who was laid-back — a trait important to a corporation whose employees mainly work in warehouses or as retail associates. “Elise came across as very approachable and as someone who would not allow her intelligence and education to intimidate our employees,” Gochman says. “It was important that if someone needs to talk to her from the warehouse that they feel comfortable. For many of our employees, she is their only contact with an attorney.” Neal says she likes not having to keep tabs of her billable hours and not having to wear a suit to work every day. The other major change she experienced working at Academy is the level of direct contact she has with the store’s employees. “They come to me for all kinds of issues — divorce, advice on buying a house — and ask if I can refer them to an attorney,” she says. “It’s a family atmosphere here.” STAYING CONNECTED Neal says she’s typically in her office by 9 a.m. and leaves by 2 p.m. The schedule allows the mother of two — her son was born in 1998 — the time to take her children to school and pick them up in the afternoon. And while they’re at school, she’s busy managing litigation. “I think we are a good, fair employer and maybe our policies and procedures have kept us from a large number of employment suits,” she says. But Neal says she has had to deal with some products liability claims, adding, “In Texas, if a retailer sells a product, the retailer can be wrapped up with other defendants in a product liability suit.” At Academy, “every day is a little bit different,” she says. And that’s part of what makes her job enjoyable. “No two days are alike. I like the variety.” Just because she leaves in the afternoon to pick up her kids, doesn’t mean she’s quit work for the day. “I have a pager, cell phone and computer at home, so I’m available if they [Academy] need me,” Neal says. “I’ve been known to tie up some loose ends on my cell phone while sitting in the carpool line.” Eden Sholeen, a partner in Bracewell & Patterson in Houston, works with Neal on labor and employment issues. She says she and others at her firm are cognizant of Neal’s schedule and try to make sure they complete business by the time Neal leaves for the day, but admits she has cheated every now and again. “Our sons used to play on the same soccer team, so there were a couple of Saturdays when I’d talk to her about something that I didn’t get around to on Friday,” Sholeen says. “I suppose it wasn’t your typical soccer mom conversation.” Sholeen describes Neal as bright and supportive of outside counsel. She says Neal usually has a grasp on how to handle a particular issue but is willing to bounce ideas off outside counsel. Neal says she is a firm believer in teamwork and works closely with Academy’s human resources department. But being a one-person legal department means it’s even more important to have dependable outside counsel. “At the firm, I could walk next door to someone in another office to bounce off ideas. I don’t have that here,” she says. “It’s nice that I can pick up the phone and know that there is someone who can let me know if I’m dong the right thing or point me in the right direction.” Jeff Irwin, a partner in Austin’s Herring & Irwin, works with Neal on litigation, including contract matters and employment issues. He says that Neal’s background in litigation is an asset. “She has a solid understanding of the ins and outs of what it takes to prepare for a trial, which makes it easier on us,” Irwin says. Academy Sports and Outdoors got its start in 1938 when David Gochman’s grandfather, Max Gochman, who is now deceased, opened the Academy Tire Shop in San Antonio. The store was named based on its address on Academy Street. Max Gochman added military surplus to the list of items sold at the shop, and, in 1956, the headquarters moved to Austin. The company was renamed Academy Surplus. Four stores opened in Houston between 1956 and 1973. In the early 1980s, Academy added sports and outdoors items to the inventory and evolved into a full-line sporting goods store, prompting the need for another name change. Now, with 2002 revenues of $940 million, Academy operates more than 70 stores in seven states: Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Mississippi. The retailer plans to open one store in Arkansas this year, which has been keeping Neal busy lately as she studies laws that pertain to that state. “There are new issues and new laws in each state. I need to know what they are so we can stay consistent in our policies,” Neal says. “I also do research on law firms in Arkansas that we may need to use as outside counsel.” Academy sponsors several professional sports teams, including the Houston Texans. Therefore, Neal reviews the contracts the company has with the teams in addition to agreements they have from vendors, which range from mom-and-pop manufacturers to national brands such as Nike. “I enjoy the variety of work I get to do here,” Neal says. Still, she admits there is a part of her that misses the work she did as a trial attorney. “I don’t handle any of our litigation, but I help gather information for our outside counsel. I enjoy sitting in the courtroom and watching them do their work. I sometimes imagine how I would handle the case,” she says. “What I don’t miss is the stress of preparing for trial.” Neal says that her children, ages 7 and 5, know that their mom works for a sporting goods company. Both play soccer and are involved in other activities that require equipment sold in Academy stores — and it helps that all Academy employees receive a company discount. Her modified schedule allowed Neal to be a classroom mom for her daughter last year. She worked with the teacher on projects and was a liaison between the school and the parents. “It was so good to have the opportunity to be involved like that,” Neal says. “I’m really thankful that my job gives me the opportunity to do things like that. Decisions involving work schedules are so personal — especially for women. I don’t think there is one right decision. For me, this is the right choice.”

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