Kevin G. Faley and Andrea M. Alonso
*Originally published in the
Winter 2015 – Vol. 15 – No. 2

Our firm was founded in 1952. The founding partner of this New York defense firm was John E. Morris, born in the Bronx to Irish immigrants, a graduate of public schools and City College and who then made the leap to Harvard Law School. Had he lived, Mr. Morris would be almost 100 years old today.

John E. Morris was a member of “The Greatest Generation.” Like many others at the time, he served in World War II and then returned to practice law in New York City. He was also a member of the generation of New York trial lawyers who were renowned for their trial skills, Damon Runyon-esque characters with nicknames like “Eyebrows Riley” and “Big Jim Hayes.”

His nickname was “Shoe Polish Morris” because of his perennial jet black hair. He was a raconteur, a bard who told stories to the jurors. He entertained them, angered them, made them laugh, and as a result got his fair share of defendants’ verdicts. This was in the day when cases were tried back to back, where carriers were unafraid to take verdicts and where jurors still seemed to be somewhat in awe of and enjoyed the excitement of the trial experience.

In 1993 we were fortunate enough to buy John Morris’ practice and with the help of our colleagues and clients the firm grew, bolstered by the clients he had established. We respected one another and trusted one another. He gave us precious words of advice on how to be a good lawyer and how to run a defense firm. While these chestnuts are by no means all inclusive, we pass them on to you.


Rule 1 - “Preparation is everything”

Mr. Morris felt that the three keys to trial success were PREPARATION, PREPARTION, PREPARATION. There is no substitute for hard work. He said simply: “The most prepared attorney wins.” He did not read summaries or digests of depositions, medical records or expert reports. He read every line, met every witness, examined every x-ray personally. Openings, cross-examination and closing statements were all written out beforehand. The judges’ charges, jury sheets, all memorandums of law were prepared ahead of time and printed. No flying by the seat of one’s pants. No shooting from the hip. He did not want to hear an attorney say “I’m good on my feet”. PREPARE, PREPARE, PREPARE. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, John Morris spent a lot of time preparing his spontaneous remarks.

Rule 2 - “Don’t give them the money today”

Negotiation and settlement are part of a defense attorney’s (and plaintiff‘s attorney’s) everyday life. It is a game of poker with the better poker players usually getting the better settlements.

Every poker player and every attorney have their own style of “negotiating” and John Morris certainly had his.

Before one trial the company had viewed the case as one of liability and had authorized a range of money to be offered to the plaintiff. They had told the attorney, “see what you can do.” When Morris heard this he warned: “That doesn’t mean you give it to them today.” He strongly felt that the longer one waited before offering the amount the less the carrier would end up paying. He did this not to run up trial costs, as these costs would pale in comparison to the amount saved. He did it as part of his negotiating, as part of his poker playing style. The first day he told the attorney to say, “I have nothing.” Next day say “I’ll make a call”. Third day he said, “offer something.” Trials took longer then, juries took days to pick. The climate has changed but we hear him saying “don’t offer it today”, when a carrier discusses settling a case.

Rule 3 - “Go to the scene”

John Morris was a firm believer in going to the scene of any accident prior to deposition and again prior to trial with your witness. He felt that nothing took the place of a firsthand view of the scene of the accident. He insisted that you take your witness with you to the scene of the accident before he testified. This would apply to property cases, construction cases as well as slip and fall accidents and even rape cases. In one case where it was alleged that the scene of the crime – the kitchen - was unsafe, he would require us to go numerous times to scour the scene. An investigator’s report with photographs was not good enough for his standards.

Rule 4 - “Get the witness”

Mr. Morris spared no time and expense in locating and interviewing crucial witnesses to a lawsuit. Nothing was more important than obtaining the non-party disinterested witness’ testimony. Like the scene in “The Godfather, Part II”: bring the brother in from Sicily to sit in the courtroom.

He once hired an investigator, water plane and backwoods’ guide to find a crucial witness who was camping in a remote area of rural Maine and bring back to New York City for trial. Spare no time, effort or expense. Get the witness and bring him into the courtroom.

Rule 5 - “Give them a show”

Mr. Morris believed that you should try every case as if your life depended on it, no matter how small. He told us always to assign the best possible attorney you have available at the time of trial. Moreover, he came from the school of attorneys who felt that the jury also wanted a showman. He would tell us “They are expecting Perry Mason, give them a show.” He criticized young lawyers for being too scientific, for reading from their notes, and presenting a college lecture instead of a story to the jury. He was a great believer in the dramatic gesture, in throwing down his eyeglasses or acting in mock surprise over a witness’ answer. His eyeglasses became a prop that he would use effectively with the jury. If a witness was saying something he thought was unbelievable he would take off his glasses prop them up his forehead and stare incredulously at the jury. If he was frustrated with the testimony he would toss his glasses onto the defense table with flare. He was also given to gracious gestures such as wishing a victim on the stand “All the best” in front of the jury.

Rule 6 - “Do not poll the jury”

Mr. Morris always told us never, ever, poll the jury. He once received a defendant’s verdict and said he was so completely full of himself at the time that he thought it would sound very important to ask the judge to have the jury polled. During the polling, juror #2 said that she had decided to render a defendant’s verdict because, “my voices had told me it was the right thing to do.” Mr. Morris immediately left the courtroom. His advice to us once you get your verdict: “Do not even bother to pick up your notes. Run out of the courtroom and let your trial prep guy pick up behind you”. Never poll the jury after a defendant’s verdict. Do not look a gift horse in the mouth.


Rule 7 - “The client is always right”

Whenever a client called complaining about a charge our mentor’s advice was “take it off the bill immediately, no questions asked.” He did not believe in arguing over issues that the company may have had with any attorney’s billing. Although, we often wonder what his position would be in this day of electronic bill review and appeals and routine bill cutting by third party services hired to review defense attorneys’ bills.

Whenever a company complained about a trial attorney or file handling attorney, Mr. Morris’ advice was “take them off the file.” Do not argue and do not force any company to accept an attorney or convince them that he is a good attorney. Once they voice their displeasure with an attorney, it is hard to convince them otherwise. If the carrier has lost confidence in their counsel it is almost impossible to redeem him in their eyes.

Rule 8 - “Don’t argue about the rate”

Mr. Morris always told us before going out to a client meeting for the first time in an attempt to get new business: “Don’t argue about the rate. $5, $10 more or less doesn’t matter. Get the client, do good work and you will make it up with more cases.” He always said his most profitable client was one who had quoted him the lowest rate. Get the first file, prove yourself with outstanding legal work and then worry about the rate later. Tough advice to follow in these difficult times but has it always served us well.

Rule 9 - “Do the right thing”

Mr. Morris was not a big “schmoozer.” Back in the day there were fewer law firms and less entertaining in general. Your legal reputation carried you. While he was not a big believer in going to Yankee games, Broadway shows or having lunch or dinner Mr. Morris visited the sick and never missed a wake, a shiva, a funeral service or a memorial service for any of his clients and their family members.

Rule 10 - “They’ve got to see your face”

The last time we saw John Morris was when he left the office after the buyout and he told us as the new owners of the firm, “Come in everyday even if you come in late and leave early, come in everyday. They’ve got to see your face”.

Mr. Morris passed on to us these 10 basic rules to run a defense law firm. We think of him often when we come across situations both during trials and trying to run a defense practice in these challenging economic times.