There's a different array of reactions when people learn Neal is an ex-con: There are those who despise him, who look down on him as if he was scum, as if he was evil in human form; there are those who just arch their eyebrows and stick up their noses and treat him as a functioning yet less deserving citizen; there are those who roll their eyes in disapproval, shake their heads from side to side, as if he was a child who deserved a scolding; and then there are those, fewer than the rest, who contain a smile, a hint of admiration in their voice even when they make a slightly condescending comment.
Neal likes the last kind best, and it's not even just because of his ego.
He likes them best because they, unlike the others, see him as a success. Clearly not a full-on success, since he was caught, but a success nevertheless. Because here's the thing: Neal Caffrey wanted fame and fortune and the thrill of outsmarting everyone, and he got it; he wanted this, and he lived it; he did outsmart everyone (or most everyone, because there's Peter, who managed to move a step ahead, and who, therefore, deserves his respect and admiration and feelings he doesn't really have a name for just yet); he embodied not evil, not a poor spirit, not an utter lack of value, but a dream.
While all these people went to college and worked their way up the social and professional ladder, while they married and spawned kids and bought houses and got mortgages and payed off their credit cards and students loans and put up with crap from their bosses and did everything to reach an arbitrary point of satisfaction and moderate accomplishment, while they pushed away their childhood dreams and hid the ballerina slippers and the cowboy hats and the poetry notebooks under their beds, Neal did the exact opposite. He took everything he wanted, he stepped over the things he was told he couldn't do, he pushed and pulled until he overcame every boundary and restraint people placed around him, and he lived it, he lived his uttermost desires with accuracy and intensity and a whole lot of winning.
What they — those who roll their eyes and bite their tongues and frown upon him — don't know is that, deep down, Neal pities them, for he knows that whoever pegs him as a failure has probably never experienced fulfillment.