Southwestern Law School Los Angeles, CA

Alumni Q&A with Robert McNeill '79

Robert H. McNeill, Jr. '79, Founding Partner and President, Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt

Q: How did your experience with Dr. Martin Luther King in the '60s impact your desire to pursue a career in the law?

A: He inspired me to focus on rights. He taught me the importance of insisting on one’s rights. That stayed with me and influenced me to study law after I graduated. He was a very important influence on me. I was also impressed by how articulate he was, and how he explained things so that you didn’t have to be a college professor to understand.

Q: Did you have role models in the legal profession? If so, who, and what did you learn from them?

A: Well, it’s a bit odd. I was a huge fan of the Perry Mason TV show growing up. I loved how his assistant would always come in at the very last moment with a crucial piece of evidence! Most importantly, though, I looked up to my uncle, Charles R. Scarlett. He was an attorney and now is a superior court judge in California.

Q: Why did you choose to go to Southwestern Law School?

A: It was Mayor Tom Bradley’s school. When I found that out, I said: You know what? I want to go to a great school like that.

Q: What did you like most about attending Southwestern? Were there particular courses, faculty or alumni that helped shape your career path?

A: What I enjoyed most was my study group. Some of us became lifelong friends. Constitutional Law was the one course that influenced me the most. The professor broke things down to help me understand how the constitution was written and what it meant. It was very meaningful to me to study our country’s most important document – the basis of our existence as a country.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being a prosecutor?

A: When I started in the DA’s office, I wasn’t specifically interested in prosecution. I just knew that I wanted to be a litigator. Getting trial experience was very important to me. It was a good job and I got great training in exactly that.

Q: What was the most important thing you accomplished during your three terms on the LA County Commission on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs?

A: My emphasis on treatment rather than incarceration for those people found to be offenders of the law. Marijuana was considered a dangerous drug, but I didn’t think jail was the best answer to the problem. I didn’t start the emphasis on treatment, but I helped further that goal.

Q: When did you decide to establish your own firm? What made you decide to take this entrepreneurial step?

A: My uncle (Hon. Charles Scarlett) had a private firm. His partner had left to join the bench, and he had a young lawyer named Ricky Ivie working with him. One day my uncle called and asked me if I wanted to leave the DA and meet with Ricky Ivie. So I met with him and we took over and changed the firm name to Ivie and McNeill. That was in 1980, and a few years later we added Keith Wyatt to the partnership.

We started our own firm, because we didn’t necessarily want to work for someone, but we also wanted to make some money. When we first started, we had one account RTD (Rapid Transit District). Then we grew and got defense and other independent clients. In 1990, we moved from Washington Blvd and Carmona to Downtown Los Angeles. That was a big jump for us. Currently, we are located at 5th and Flower on the 18th floor in a 12,000 square foot space.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges of running a law firm?

A: There are so many challenges. When you have dozens of lawyers and support staff, it’s important to hire talented people.

Q: What is it about Southwestern graduates that have compelled you to hire so many for your firm?

A: You always get good quality from Southwestern. They are people who have their feet planted firmly on the ground. They can often bridge that transition from theory in the classroom to the courtroom.

Q: What is the most difficult aspect of working as a trial lawyer? What traits does one need to be an outstanding trial lawyer?

A: You have to prepare! You have to know your case, get your jury instructions together, and assemble your witnesses. You also have to be a great communicator, so you can convince a judge or jury of your clients’ rights or entitlements to a recovery.

Q: Which cases have you tried that have been the most meaningful to you?

A: I handled two death penalty cases as a private counsel. In one case, my client was found not guilty. I had another one where the client was found guilty, but we beat the death penalty. He got life in prison instead. If you’ve never argued for someone’s life than you don’t know what it is to do it. The pressure is enormous. It’s so serious that it demands every bit of your dedication and concentration and your originality.

Q: What did your Southwestern education enable you to do in your life that has been particularly meaningful to you?

A: I’ve been able to educate my children and provide them with a good home. I was also able to do a certain amount of travel.

I don’t remember who said: “Give me a gift that’s bigger than what I need, so I can give it to someone who needs it more than I do.” That’s really important. When you ask for something, you should be thinking of how you’re going to use that gift, that skill, that career – whatever it is - for others. That’s a philosophy I try to live by. 

Q: What advice would you share with those who are or have recently completed their legal education at Southwestern about the best way to ensure that they have fulfilling and meaningful lives and careers?

A: I would say: Choose a legal practice that you’ve dreamt of, seek work in the area of law that you’ve always wanted to pursue. Don’t make a decision based on money. The money may come, but it’s far more important to be happy with what you do with your legal expertise and education.