Hail to the Self-Deprecating Chief
Jimmy Morris downplays his success; and that's a key to his success
Published in 2008 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 26, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Short and stoop-shouldered, James “Jimmy” Morris III, of Morris & Morris, is far from an imposing figure. He wears bow ties and dress shirts with his initials on the pocket and sprinkles “gosh” and “golly” in his conversation, and his deep-lined brow and gray hair make him seem more kindly grandfather than fearful litigator. Yet in the courtroom he is a colossus.
Morris has tried more than 500 jury cases to verdict, and in 1991 The National Law Journal identified him as one of the top tort liability defense trial lawyers in the United States. He has citations for excellence and professionalism up the wazoo, but he’s most proud of being inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL), which limits its membership to the most outstanding 1 percent of trial lawyers in the U.S. and Canada. In 2004, he was elected its president.
He waves off the honor with a self-deprecating comment. “I got active and lucked into being president,” he says. “There were lots of people who were every bit as capable or more capable and more deserving. There always are. Somehow, somebody gets chosen, and I got lucky enough to be chosen.”
Morris continues with an anecdote about the welcome he received visiting the South Carolina chapter of the ACTL. “I was introduced by a great lawyer in Charleston,” says Morris, “and he said to the collected South Carolina lawyers, ‘Every fellow in the American College should be grateful to Jimmy Morris, because if he can be president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, anybody can.'”
Who else should be grateful? Members of the Bar Association of the City of Richmond, the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys, the Defense Research Institute and the John Marshall Foundation. Morris is president, or has been president, of all of them. How lucky can one guy get anyway?
Even more impressive is who recommends him for these posts. As a young lawyer, Richard L. Williams, now a federal judge in Richmond, spent much of his time opposing Morris in court. “From ’57 to ’72, my specialty was putting as much scar tissue on ol’ Morris as I could,” he says. “In the old days, the fact that you were in an adversarial relationship didn’t prevent you at all from enjoying each other’s company. After you got through beating up on each other, you might even go out and have a snack together. … I have recommended him for every Bar position that ever came along and never had any occasion to regret any of my recommendations.”
Upon hearing the quote, Morris casts his eyes down. “Well, the first one was president of the Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys and nobody wanted the job. In fact, I held the job for three years; I couldn’t get anybody to take it away from me! That led to the Defense Research Institute, which has 20-some thousand members now, but was only 12 or 14 thousand when I was president.”
Chosen out of only 12 or 14 thousand? How lucky, indeed.
Growing up, Morris was not always a model of virtue. His first stop after high school was the Virginia Military Institute in the early 1950s, where he acted, he says, like he knew everything. Though he excelled academically, he racked up enough demerits to get himself expelled at the end of his first year. His cousin, a graduate of the Institute, convinced the administration to take him back for his sophomore year, whereupon Morris gave a repeat performance. This time, he was toast by October.
“So they called me in to see the general,” Morris explains, “and he said, ‘Mr. Morris, what do you have to say for yourself?’ And I said, ‘General, I’ve been thinking about it and I can’t think of anything I didn’t tell you the last time.'”
With the Korean War going on, it was not a good time for a 19-year-old to be expelled from school. “I had gotten my 1-A notice before I went home,” he says. “I was prime meat.” When his grandmother asked him what he was going to do, he replied, “I guess I’ll go to Korea and let the Chinese kill me.” It was November, and Morris didn’t think any college would take him. But, just as his cousin had interceded on his behalf at VMI, his maternal grandmother stepped in.
She said his paternal grandfather had been a missionary in Brazil at the same time as Dr. J. Earl Moreland, who had become president of Randolph Macon College. She contacted the college and the next day Morris got a call from Mrs. Moreland, who invited him to campus. They were having tea together in the president’s house when her husband returned home. Mrs. Moreland introduced him as “Jim Morris’s grandson” and said he would be signing up for classes. “The only more startled expression than Dr. Moreland’s,” says Morris, “was the dean of students when he took me in there the next day.
“Of course with the image of the Chinese Army in my head, I studied night and day and was able to catch up.”
A year-and-a-half later, Morris transferred to University of Richmond Law School at the same time as his old high school friend James C. Roberts. They quickly formed a study group with two other students and met in Roberts’ apartment, where his wife would lay out snacks for them.
“Law school cost $500 a year,” Roberts remembers, “and none of us had any money to speak of for food. Well, whenever I got up to describe the holding in a case, Jimmy would be the most voracious eater during that period of time. I think we had like $10 a week for groceries, but his appetite was about $20 worth.”
Even so, it wasn’t a bad study group. Roberts finished first in his class, Morris second.
Although Morris’ father was an accountant, his family tree is filled with lawyers. A cousin occasionally sends Morris 150-year-old news items about their lawyer relatives scrapping against each other. On the wall in the Morris & Morris conference room hangs an oil portrait of a man with a thick moustache: his uncle, Jack Browder.
“I thought I would enjoy doing what my uncle did,” Morris remembers, “which was trying cases, but I despaired of ever becoming a trial lawyer because I saw him in trial. He was over 6 feet tall, movie-star handsome, and had a style and grace about him. … I’m not that kind of person; I don’t have those attributes. And I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to be a trial lawyer if that’s what it takes.’ Well it turns out if you work really hard at it and people trust you, you can do it without being a paragon of beauty.”
Instead of good looks, Morris relied on skill, intelligence and integrity. “One of the great challenges is to get the trust of the jury,” he says. “One of the characteristics of a good trial lawyer is they’re able to do that. If you are, in fact, honest, it probably shows.”
“I don’t recall him ever being involved in any circumstance when he was not honest,” says Roberts. “You’ve heard the saying, If he tells you something you can take it to the bank? That’s the way I viewed Jimmy on everything I knew about him. And I knew a whole lot about him.”
Uncle Browder promised Morris that if he did well at school and earned good grades, he would hire him at his firm and pay him $300 a month. After one year in the firm, Morris got a raise to $350. “The next year,” Morris says, “he was getting smarter. He decided instead of giving me a raise he would put my name in the firm.”
Morris has had his share of high-profile cases. He’s represented law firms large and small, but the closest he’ll come to commenting about them is to say, “You have 600 to 800 lawyers [working for you], they’re going to get in trouble from time to time.” His discretion is a valuable commodity. When VIPs want representation and quiet handling, they call Morris. He has represented the son of a former governor as well as best-selling authors John Grisham and Patricia Cornwell. Asked about their cases, he clams up.
When the city of Richmond needed an outside lawyer to represent it (the city attorney had a conflict of interest), officials turned to Morris. It was an antitrust case regarding the Marriott Hotel and he was put in charge of antitrust experts from Washington, D.C. The first time he was set to meet them, the judge invited Morris into his chambers to show him a chemical shoeshine kit—a new thing in those days. “I put my foot up and Judge Mertz got down on his knees shining my shoes,” says Morris, “and in walk these 15 antitrust lawyers. Well, I tell you, I had no difficulty getting them to do what I wanted them to do.”
In addition to directing the Washington lawyers, he handled their pay. At one point, Morris had to ask the city council to transfer $1 million into his account to pay their fees. “That got in the paper,” he recalls, “Morris asks for $1 million. The city manager took it out of the snow removal fund since this was during March. I then went to a meeting of a bunch of lawyers in Mexico and that night Richmond had a 20-inch snowstorm. Nothing moved in the city; all the money for snow removal had been given to me to pay the lawyers, and I was on a beach in Acapulco.”
The case that Morris is most proud is one he originally lost. In 1988, an insured individual was suing Morris’ client, State Farm, for bad faith. The individual argued State Farm could have settled a previous case where he was the guilty party, so they should be liable for the damages owed that were above his insurance coverage. “I couldn’t convince the trial judge of the right kind of instructions he should have given the jury to overcome the emotional pull that the plaintiff had,” Morris says, “so we had to appeal it. In those days, our firm didn’t have any specialists for appellate matters. If you lost it, you appealed it. … The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed judgment and established at least three important principles that have inured to the benefit of defendants of bad faith cases ever since. It was an important decision that had a lasting effect on the practice of insurance law.”
He’ll take any type of case—from malpractice complaints to commercial disputes—which means he often has to familiarize himself with some new aspect of law for every case he argues. “I’ll consult with lawyers who are specialists in the overall field,” he says. “I’ll learn what I have to learn and then apply what is natural to me—the trial work itself—to that matter. But I don’t have to become a banking lawyer to try a commercial disagreement over the terms of a banking agreement.”
Morris shines in the examination of witnesses. “Jimmy has a real fine ability to relate to the jury and to cause the jury to relate to him,” says Roberts. “He’s always been a bright guy, but no highfalutin stuff, because the average person who sits on a jury is not highfalutin.”
“I attempt to let the jury know at one point or another how important their job is,” says Morris. “To be entrusted by your fellow citizens to decide for them one of the most important matters they might ever have—this trial—that they’re counting on you to do it the right way. And juries, I believe, understand that.”
Add them up? It’s more than 500 jury cases brought to verdict. “Many of them would’ve been considered small potatoes by most people,” he says. “But they were important to my clients and they sure were important to me.”
Everything about Morris bespeaks his Southern roots: good manners, no swearing and a Virginia drawl. Even his name has history. “I’m named after my grandfather, James Watson Morris,” he says. “And my father was named after him, and my son as well. In the South, if you have one decent person in your family, you can name every person after him.”
Place is important to him. Minus college, he has always lived in Richmond. He and his brother and two sisters, all of whom still live in Richmond, grew up on the north side of the city in an area called Ginter Park. Now Morris lives in a house that was built by a notable lawyer named John Davenport. Morris jokes that though he has lived there for 25 years, and Davenport has been dead for 10, people in Richmond still tell him, “Oh, you live in John Davenport’s house.”
Few of the Morris clan seem inclined to move, and when they do they don’t move far. When Morris’ firm grew to 60-plus lawyers and needed more space, it moved to a new office right across the street. When Browder died, Morris and his brother decided to split apart from the large firm and form a boutique operation. So where did they go? Right back across the street. Their original offices on the 12th floor weren’t available for a few years, but once they were, they moved back into those as well. “I hated to leave it,” Morris says, running a hand along the chair rail. “This was my uncle’s office.”
That office is now filled with family photos: The wraparound windowsill overlooking 8th Street and Main is stacked three-deep with picture frames. Prominent among them are Morris’ son and daughter.
“When I suggested they go to law school,” Morris says, “they both said, ‘You work too hard.’ They didn’t have the feeling that I did. This really isn’t work if it’s something you love doing.”