Jennifer Freel: From TV Newscaster to White Collar Criminal Defense Attorney

As a young reporter at a local TV station in Baton Rouge, Jennifer Freel was handed a plum assignment: She got to cover the high-profile corruption trial of ex-Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards who was found guilty of extorting millions of dollars from companies that had applied for casino licenses.

Sitting in the courtroom gallery watching the lawyers, Freel came to a realization: “I didn’t want to be covering the trial, I wanted to be part of the trial,” she said. “I decided that my skill set, my curiosity, and my ability to stand on my feet and make a persuasive statement, all of those things would work in a courtroom.”

Soon after, Freel left the TV station and headed to George Washington University Law School, where she was Editor-in-Chief of The George Washington Law Review. She embarked on a legal career that would include nine and a half years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas where she prosecuted the likes of the Zetas, the notorious Mexican drug cartel. This past July, Freel joined V&E as counsel in the firm’s Austin office where she focuses on white-collar criminal defense work and government investigations.

Freel’s return to V&E — she was an associate at the firm from 2006 to 2008 — is part of an effort to expand the firm’s white-collar practice in Texas. While V&E has many notable former prosecutors, including Matthew Jacobs, the co-head of Vinson & Elkins Government Investigations and White Collar Practice Group, Freel is the first based in the state.

“I speak prosecutor,” Freel said. “I can talk to any investigator or prosecutor and explain our client’s position in a way that the government will understand. I know the courts in the Western District of Texas. I’ve tried cases in front of those judges.”

“Having been on the other side and knowing what a grand jury investigation looks like, and knowing what prosecutors are looking for when they’re deciding who to indict in a white collar investigation, that really puts me in a good position to advise and defend clients.”

Becoming a prosecutor

After graduating from law school Freel clerked for Judge Fortunato Benavides on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. After the clerkship ended, she joined V&E as a litigation associate.

A V&E partner had been appointed to represent an indigent criminal defendant, and was seeking an associate with criminal law experience. Freel, who had done research on criminal cases while clerking, worked on the case and helped secure a good result for the client. After the representation ended, the prosecutor on the other side encouraged her to join the U.S. Attorney’s office in Austin. She applied, and was accepted.

When Freel took the position she told her husband she planned to stay for five years. She ended up staying nearly twice as long.

“I liked standing up in court and saying ‘I represent the United States,’” Freel said.

“It felt good to go to work every day knowing that my job was to do justice and make our community better.”

Freel focused on both trial and appellate matters, securing and defending convictions involving narcotics conspiracies, gun smuggling, money laundering, mail fraud, securities fraud, wire fraud, and asset forfeiture. In a matter of five years, she argued 23 appeals in the Fifth Circuit Court.

“It’s one of the things I bring back to the firm: hours of court experience,” Freel said.

Taking on the bad guys

Among her most notable cases, Freel served as trial counsel for the U.S. in the prosecution of an advisory firm executive who was subsequently convicted by a federal jury of running a $75 million Ponzi scheme that targeted NFL players and members of the Mormon Church. Her work on the case won her the DeAtley Award for Complex or Significant Trial.

Over the years, Freel gained experience in anti-money laundering and asset preservation. Her skills came into play in a case involving a huge money-laundering scheme perpetrated by the Mexican Zeta cartel. The Zetas took millions of dollars in drug money and laundered it through the purchase, sale, and breeding of quarter horses.

Freel worked with the Office of Foreign Assets Control to seize approximately $20 million in bank accounts around the world, airplanes, and 450 horses.

Freel’s work sometimes put her in danger. “When you take bad guys’ money, they don’t like you,” she said. “There were some threats against our team and for a few months an Austin Police Department cruiser had to park outside of my house.”

Time for a new challenge

As much as Freel loved her job, after nine and half years, she was ready for a change. A mother of three children, she was attracted to V&E in part because of the firm’s commitment to retaining and promoting women. Another draw: V&E’s strong white-collar practice.

In the years since she left broadcast journalism to practice law Freel has had many career highs. One came about a year ago when she met the lead prosecutor on the Edwin Edwards case.

“He did a great job. It was a career case,” Freel said. “I had a chance to tell him, ‘You are the reason I am a lawyer.’”