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Barr

In his journey to managing partner at Davis Polk, an international law firm with representatives serving in the highest echelons of business and government, Neil Barr '93 has done many big deals and advised clients through many crises.

Specializing in mergers and acquisitions, he has a client list that includes Comcast, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, and Pfizer. Hearkening back to a passion for sports that began at the Academy, he has concentrated on sports deals, most recently representing Josh Harris in buying the Washington Commanders from Dan Snyder. He is now the lead outside lawyer for that team and for Harris's other teams, the Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey Devils, and Crystal Palace, a Premier League soccer team.

In all those deals, and in serving as CEO of a firm that has $2 billion in revenue annually and is consistently ranked as one of the world's most profitable, Barr said he measures his firm's success on the values instilled at Norfolk Academy.

“I personally want to lead an institution whose co-equal principles are excellence and integrity," he said. “And that's Norfolk Academy. I learned that here. It's important to be your best, but it is as important to be your best by doing it the right way." 

Barr gave the annual Homecoming Chapel to an audience of Upper School students and faculty, and an enthusiastic contingent of longtime friends from the Class of 1993, all ready to celebrate their 30th Reunion this weekend. He was introduced by new Head of School Travis Larrabee, who shared his own excitement to celebrate his first Homecoming with the Bulldogs.

During his time at NA, Barr developed a passion for history under the tutelage of teachers like Richard Oberdorfer and Toy Savage, both of whom were renowned for their storytelling abilities. At graduation, he received the award for the top history student and the award for excellence in academics and athletics. He also loved sports and developed a passion for baseball, although he also played football and basketball. For much of his middle school and even early high school career, he was short and not all that fast. However, during his senior year, he persuaded Varsity Coach Dave Trickler to let him join the basketball team, although he mostly sat on the bench.

He majored in business at University of Virginia, and went on to Georgetown University Law School, where he studied under Professor Marty Ginsburg, whom he cited as the “most consequential academic influence" of his life and the person who shaped his interest in business law. Ginsburg was spouse of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

He had long planned to return to Virginia Beach, and he even interned at Kaufman Canoles in Norfolk. All the details were in place until he met his wife at Georgetown Law School. She had different plans and, he noted, forceful advocacy. They settled in New York City as a “compromise," and that decision, “the argument I lost," as he put it, charted his life's course. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and I think of that as a bit of a theme of my life," he said.

Barr told the students that practice and effort are the core ingredients of preparation, and that these were inculcated at Academy. “I decided early on that I may lose, but no one was going to outwork me in achieving a goal." After the speech, his mother, Patsy, recalled that he would spend hours in his room with books spread out on the floor, and that friends would start calling the home phone -- in the pre-mobile phone days-- to ask for his help with math. She and Neil's father, Burt, still live in Virginia Beach and were on hand for the speech.

As much as Barr embraced all that he loved about Norfolk Academy, he said the school today has made significant positive improvements from the way it was during his time, particularly in terms of diversity and inclusivity. “It is clear how far it has come on the diversity of the community, the inclusiveness of the school, and the aperture being widened to foster a sense of belonging," he said. “I applaud this and hope you will carry this spirit with you in the years to come." He stressed that students need to be open to having thoughtful, civil discussions with people who have opposing viewpoints.

“I would implore you to be inclusive in all respects--race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, socio-economic status, and also with those people with whom you simply don't agree." He said his firm puts an emphasis on maintaining an open and inclusive approach in its hiring, noting that one of the lawyers soon to join Davis Polk was, as a teenager, a gang member jailed for gun trafficking; he became a Fulbright Scholar.

Before taking questions from the students, he closed his speech with an admonition to keep honor as the guidepost for all they do. He recounted a story from his Bulldog days that exemplified how to live with honor. During a football game in 1992, a mistake by the chain crew allowed NA to score on a fifth-down play, which led to the Bulldogs winning. When coaches realized the error, they chose to forfeit the victory.

“The world still has room for people to do well while doing good, so never lose the spirit of your Honor System," he said. “I left here with the Honor System in my blood, was fortunate enough to have those views refined and amplified at UVA and Georgetown, and I sleep well at night knowing that my integrity can never be taken from me."

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