He stands out in a crowd. He’s the one who, at a lunch counter on a summer afternoon, is wearing a bowtie and baby-blue seersucker suit. He’s what used to be called a “natty dresser.”
That’s on the outside. On the inside, Brian Neary is a Jersey City boy, who grew up on Wade Street in the Greenville section to become one of the tristate area’s most successful trial attorneys.
Though only five-foot-nine, basketball gave passion and permanence to a life that spans some six decades living and working in Hudson County.
His work puts him in the orbit of some pretty famous people, but it’s the name Bob Hurley that really floats his boat.
Hurley, Jersey City’s stellar basketball coach, was a boyhood friend of Neary.
“I could hold my own with anybody,” Neary says. “I can really dribble and shoot. I spent a lot of time in the schoolyard dribbling back and forth. I was on the first varsity team at Hudson Catholic.”
Would he have made the varsity team in 2016? He thinks yes, maybe shooting three-pointers like a Steph Curry. “Though not that good,” he acknowledges.
“At the same time,” he says, “I was a pretty smart kid. When I wasn’t in the schoolyard, I was sitting in a room reading a book.” It runs in the family. One of his two sisters attended St. Dominic Academy and became a physician. The other graduated from Holy Family in Bayonne and is a banker “down the Shore.” Neary says, “Our mother was a stay-at-home mom, who was the smartest person I ever knew. She read a book a day.” His father was the first person in the family to attend college.
Neary’s wife was a soap opera star for 20 years and is a television director. He has four grown kids, one of whom is an assistant prosecutor in Passaic County.
The Catholic Thread
Neary attended St. Paul the Apostle grammar school in Jersey City before going on to Hudson Catholic, an experience that reverberates to this day.
“I’m not pious,” he says, “but a Catholic education gives you a sense of morals, conscience, and social responsibility. I was an altar boy for a long time” and later in life represented priests who took advantage of altar boys.
He was in the second graduating class of Hudson Catholic and now serves as chairman of the board of trustees.
“I’m a role model for kids,” he says. “I walked these same streets and corridors and turned out pretty good. I’m close to the basketball teams. The kids know me and know that I was a player.”
After graduating from Hudson Catholic, he went on to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he majored in sociology.
“I’d never been west of Patterson,” he jokes. Back then in Neary’s circles, “people did not go away to college.” Talk about culture shock. “Absolutely,” he says. “Oh gosh. I was not ready for the Midwest experience. I was from an urban environment. What’s this thing called country music? I’d never heard it before.” He came back home to attend law school at New York University in the heart of Greenwich Village. It was after Dylan and his crowd were haunting the Bitter End, and before the Millennials were texting their brains out. “It was Needle Alley,” Neary says.
Nevertheless, it was where the bowtie first caught his fancy. “I was a law student in the NYU criminal law clinic,” he recalls. “The first week I saw an assistant district attorney working the courts wearing a bowtie, and I thought it was cool.” The rest is history. “I haven’t worn a straight tie since the mid ’70s,” he says.
Court to Court
The basketball court and the trial court have been home to Neary for most of his life. Early on, he had stints as a prosecutor in both Bergen and Hudson Counties, but “ultimately I think I knew I would end up as a criminal defense lawyer,” he says.
In hindsight, that sociology degree played a key role. “I was interested in deviant human behavior,” Neary says, “in juvenile delinquency, psychology, and how people interact.”
Despite the glut of TV lawyers, it’s not Perry Mason or Olivia Pope who inspire him. “Anybody my age has read To Kill a Mockingbird,” he says. For him, Atticus Finch spoke to the “ethical quality” of the law profession. “It takes a certain conscience to be able to represent people,” he says. “You have to understand human nature, human foibles. You have to be willing to protect people in the legal system. It’s about how to represent people and take care of people when they’ve been charged in terrible events.”
DUI cases are a good example. “I counsel people that they shouldn’t drink and drive,” he says, “but a person is entitled to a defense in a death-by-auto case. The defendant has often otherwise led a good life, but in a dramatic consequence, they could go to jail for 30 years.”
A Neary case that may ring a bell with Jersey City folks is that of Leona Baldini, a deputy mayor in the Healy administration, who did time in federal prison, convicted on bribery charges.
Well-known Neary clients include Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Wilson Pickett; hip-hop artist DMX; rapper, model, and actress Foxie Brown; and NBA player Jason Williams.
Coach in the Classroom
“Teaching comes naturally to me,” Neary says. “I love teaching law students.” He describes it as the “whistle-and-clipboard” technique. “Not lecture hall. I’m hands-on. I teach young lawyers how to try cases. How do we do this? I jump up and have them do it again. I’m a trial coach: back to the basketball metaphor again.”
He has his students at Rutgers and Notre Dame read or reread To Kill a Mockingbird.
“I go back to South Bend twice a year to teach, and I have to re-acclimate myself,” he says. By that he means, reacquaint himself with the country-music scene.
Neary calls me early on a Sunday morning. He’s already been to the basketball court in Hamilton Park—he texts me a selfie to prove it.
We go over key points that are important to him. “It may sound somewhat trite,” he says, “but I wanted to help people. I liked standing up to people. I hated bullies.”
His career as a defense attorney has borne that out. Twice a week, he boxes at Everlast in Hoboken—he’s a fighter in and out of the ring.
He gave up his Hoboken office and now has an office in Hackensack and in a “gorgeous location” on Exchange Place in Jersey City with three other lawyers and two staffers.
“I am so fortunate and so grateful to Jersey City for what it has given me, and I love to give back,” he says. “I can talk to a Supreme Court justice in the morning and a basketball coach in the afternoon.”
Where are you headed, I ask him.
“The Hudson County Jail.”—JCM