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Kayla O'Brien
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"Do What's Right" - J. Lee McNeely Selected for 2018 Legendary Lawyer Award

INDIANAPOLIS – J. Lee McNeely will receive the Legendary Lawyer Award for 2018 from the Indiana Bar Foundation for his public service, community involvement, and contributions to the legal profession in his more than 50 years as an Indiana attorney.  Lee has focused his career on giving both to the public and the Indiana bar.  That dedication to the public has manifested in a variety of ways including through his volunteerism and multiple boards and awards.

J. Lee McNeely has been chosen as the 2018 Legendary Lawyer of the Indiana Bar Foundation. The award honors a Fellow who demonstrates the highest principles and traditions of the legal profession, compassion through service to the public in the community in which he lives and practical skills in the practice of law through a legal career of 50 years or more. McNeely will be honored September 26, 2018, in Shelbyville. Speakers at the event are the Hon. John D. Tinder, John Trimble and Michael Stephenson. To RSVP, contact the Indiana Bar Foundation

One example is Lee’s service as a special master.  “His life was threatened,” added Rose, his wife. The Shelbyville attorney was appointed the special master for a federal case remedying constitutional issues at the Delaware County jail from 1988 to 1996. After a midnight meeting with a confidential informant about problems in the jail’s construction that could have resulted in the deaths of both inmates and guards, he was instructed to transition from reporting on the progress of the jail construction to the Hon. Sarah Evans Barker, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana, to actually managing the project. His instructions from the judge were to “do what’s right.”

Of Judge Barker, he said “she was the Rock of Gibraltar” through it all. By the end of the project, even the local newspapers, which had lambasted him and the project daily, were more understanding that McNeely meant only to accomplish what was best for not only the incarcerated people but also the employees.  He described the role as “time consuming but rewarding.”

In addition to serving the public as an attorney, McNeely has served the public and the legal profession through his actions in and out of the courtroom.  McNeely is also the former president of the Indiana State Bar Association, the Indiana Continuing Legal Education Foundation, and Indiana Lawyer’s Commission.  McNeely is a proud alumnus of Wabash College, where he was named Man of the Year and also served as a Trustee. 

McNeely has been honored with a Sagamore of the Wabash eight times in his 50-year career by six different governors, both Democrats and Republicans. He counts both Republican Governor Eric Holcomb and Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett, a Democrat, along with scores of other elected officials, as friends. His ability to get along may be a familial trait. “My father was an Army Officer and successful business man who knew how to get along with people,” he said.

McNeely credits his active political life as the reason he is widely known for advocating zealously for clients but still leaving the courtroom as friends with his opponents. Building consensus was important in county politics, said McNeely, who was elected Shelby County Republican chairman at age 27.  

They “thought I was older because my hair turned white early,” he smiled.

He also credits former Republican Senator Richard Lugar as a friend and role model for how to treat people.

Helping the Public through the Mystery of the Law

“Other lawyers seek him out as a mediator,” said Rose. “Things can often seem impossible to settle but his experience, judgment and negotiating skills” make it possible, she added. She said it’s not unusual for him to spend a 12 to 14-hour day getting a mediation to close.

“I like the law. It makes sense to me,” said McNeely. Lawyers “are the brightest people to be around.” He finds lawyers “selfless” for voluntarily serving on so many civic, religious, educational and arts boards. He tells new lawyers, “The law is not obvious if you aren’t a lawyer. People come to you with a problem they cannot solve and don’t know what to do. Your job is to help them solve the mystery.”

He doesn’t envy young lawyers starting in the profession today. “They face more competition, more talent and more debt pressure,” than he had. “I didn’t have to make a decision (on employment) based on my finances.” He was able to return to his hometown and begin practice with a Harvard-educated attorney who was subsequently appointed to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He worked with “brilliant, ethical and talented” people.

He advises younger attorneys to “Find someone you respect and admire. Go practice law with them.” Mentors are the best way to learn how to practice law, in his view.

He’s had disappointments. “More than outweighed by the good times,” he shared. He doesn’t hold grudges. That “doesn’t mean you have to be somebody’s fool, however,” he said. Holding a grudge is “punishing me,” he said. “I have a very practical response: ‘Move on.’”

“Some would say he’s been lucky,” said Rose. “But he has taken risks. Some worked. Some didn’t.”  He added, “I don’t agonize about the ones that didn’t work out.” Why? Because he “tried to do the right thing.”

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