MOVERS & SHAKERS
Legal TenderFifty years after William Morris first came to the aid of personal injury victims, word of mouth remains his most valuable marketing tool
BY TED McINTYRE PHOTO BY DARREN WHEAR
Most lawyers practice law; a select few make it. Amid a purposefully cluttered office rich in character, William Morris is decidedly casual in appearance. Although his resumé includes the 2006 Emelius Irving Award (given by the Hamilton Law Association in recognition of distinguished service to the legal community), and past presidential posts with the Hamilton Law Association, the Hamilton Medical-Legal Society, the Hamilton Jewish Federation Canada, the League for Human Rights of B’nai B’rith Canada and B’nai B’rith itself, Morris has also been known to wear unlaced, steel-toe workboots and an open tie to places where such attire was traditionally unacceptable. But rest assured he’s deadly serious about the clients who seek him out in often the most traumatic times of their lives.
Certified as a specialist in civil litigation by the Law Society of Upper Canada, Morris’ passion hasn’t chilled a degree since the Hamilton native graduated from Osgoode Hall (now part of York University) and opened his own practice 50 years ago. “When you’re articling as a student lawyer, you’re exposed to a lot of things,” recalls Morris, still razor-sharp at 76. “That’s when I first became exposed to people who were hurt in accidents, and the suffering they went through, and the fact that I could help them.”
Morris’ call to the bar was almost a siren’s song. While his father owned a humble tire retreading business—“I sold them out of a truck and delivered them when I was about 14,” he remembers—the final destination was never in doubt. “From the time I was two or three years old, my mother drummed it into my head that I should be a lawyer. That was the only thing I knew. And she told my two brothers they had to be doctors, and that’s what they ended up being.
“Of course, in those days you always listened to your mother,” he smiles.
To that end, Morris’ schooling included a Bachelor of Arts in both Economics and Business at McMaster University, before moving on to Osgoode Hall. He nurtured a successful criminal practice as well as family law in the early stages, eventually specializing in the personal injury element of his business.
Today the staff numbers 32 at Morris Law’s Main Street East address—an edifice that used to serve as Hamilton’s criminal courthouse. While the group includes six lawyers, not everyone is your typical legal firm employee. Morris is believed to be the first personal injury lawyer to hire full-time regulated health professionals, including an occupational therapist and a registered nurse, to assist in the management of the medical aspects of his clients’ cases.
“They’re invaluable for helping us understand the injuries better and the impact they can have,” notes Jay Morris, an accident benefits expert who helps manage his father’s firm.
“There are very few lawyers who know injuries intimately,” adds the senior Morris. “It helps to have a medical person in your house to explain things to you. That doesn’t eliminate talking to doctors when preparing for trial. There are people who are critical of us having a medical person on staff, but they’re the losers. They don’t understand the benefits.”
Morris also differs from many in his field with the added focus on his clients’ financial responsibility after an award is won.
“Yesterday we met with a client who is going to come into a lot of money, because her injuries are serious,” William notes. “We’re already talking to her about what she should do with her money. We want our clients to talk to somebody to help structure their money so that they’ll have a permanent pension the rest of their lives, so that they won’t have to worry about money or won’t do anything ill-advised with it.”
Morris is by no means a financial consultant. “I don’t have any interest in any investment companies. I don’t get any kickbacks. I just want to make sure they’re well looked after, whomever they deal with,” he says. “I represented a client a number of years ago who’s still a client of mine. At that time I got her in excess of $100,000, and within six months she had pissed all the money down the drain. That taught me a major lesson: that we should spend time helping clients in terms of what they do with their money.”
The financial settlements that Morris and company negotiate for their clients may never adequately compensate victims for their physical or mental anguish, but it can hopefully help ease their pain as well as the financial burden.
“You’re never going to be able to take a magic wand and go, ‘Poof, your life’s better,’” observes Jay Morris. “Unfortunately, the way our system works, the only way to compensate people for their losses is money. You can’t give them their health back. You can’t take them back to the day before the accident and say, ‘Don’t go out and drive!’ Money won’t make it all better, but at least they can buy that mattress that allows them to sleep better, or the psychologist who allows them to deal with their ongoing issues, or the physiotherapist who at least gives them temporary relief for a day or two.”
Sculpting new law
While every trial is momentous for the client involved, some leave indelible imprints on the Canadian legal landscape as well. Morris has twice been the artist of such change. Whereas most lawyers will practice a lifetime and never appear before the Supreme Court of Canada, Morris helped establish legal precedents on each of his two trips to the nation’s legal pantheon. The first, where he represented the respondent in Janiak v. Ippolito (1985),addressed the issues of whether refusal of treatment is reasonable or not.
“The health care provider had recommended surgery, while the client did not want to proceed in that direction,” Morris recounts. “The insurer’s position was that the client’s refusal to proceed with surgery should be held against him. The decision supported the client’s right to refuse treatment.”
Morris’ second trip to the Supreme Court, Murphy v. Welsh in 1993, extended minors’ limitation period to two years after their 18th birthday, as opposed to two years after the date of the accident.
“That was probably one of my proudest moments,” says Morris, whose winning argument was founded on the principle that a minor, by law, is incapable of making a decision or entering into a contract. “What made that particularly satisfying was that there’d been an Ontario Court of Appeal decision in the 1940s that had ruled in exactly the opposite direction.”
The firm’s groundbreaking work at the Ontario level, meanwhile, has included a successful defense of an insurance company appeal of a Financial Services Commission of Ontario arbitration decision in Violi v. General Accident Assurance Co. of Canada in 2000. The appellate court accepted a change to the “test of reasonableness” of medical treatment.
“Any time anyone can go in front of the court and make new law is a notable achievement,” says Jay. “But anytime you win on behalf of your client makes you very happy.
“My dad has always been a defender of the little guy,” Jay adds. “We don’t always take on cases in which we will necessarily make much money. Sometimes it’s just because we think it’s wrong what they’re doing to this person. Sometimes we think that they’re going to have a lot of troubles down the road, and if they are not guided in the right direction, they’re going to get nothing.”
“Insurance companies, even though they’re in the business of paying out claims, are also profit-making organizations,” William explains. “And profit-making organizations don’t always have people running the company who have the interests of the innocent victim at heart. In fact, in many cases, they treat the innocent victim in a very shoddy fashion, and it’s up to the lawyer to make sure these people are treated in the proper fashion—with respect and dignity.”
History suggests that their clients are pleased with the service, as word of mouth remains the firm’s most effective marketing tool.
“Yesterday afternoon we saw three people—all referrals,” Jay observes. “I remember a case that we took over concerning accident benefits, where you’re dealing with your own insurance company. This gentleman, who was also a referral, had an accident in 1994 and came to see us around 2003. He’d gone through two or three different lawyers before coming to see us. We asked, ‘What would be your wish?’ And he said, ‘I want a million dollars.’ And we got it for him. That gentleman is still sending clients to this day.”
“The most important thing about this practice as it’s grown is that not only can you help people, but they also know how to express the words ‘thank you,’” William says. “It’s very rewarding in that respect, because people appreciate what you do for them. Our opposition represents insurance companies—they’ve never heard those words.”
There’s a price to pay for emotional investment, however, and there’s a fine line between empathy and retaining one’s professionalism.
“You unfortunately also see people at their worst because they’re in pain virtually all the time,” Jay explains. “They’re not what they were in the past, and they’re dealing with this. On top of that, they’re dealing with what they need to do in order to cope with their various injuries.”
Even when not crippling, a client’s injuries can have extensive effects—not merely to one’s day-to-day life, but also to the pastimes and recreational activities they rely upon to rescue them from the pressures of normal family and work life. Sometimes it’s more traumatic than that, involving the death of a loved one.
“I would like to say we can turn the tap off when we go home—that we try not to let it bother us,” William says. “But there is nobody in this office capable of doing that, because we’re in the business of helping people who have experienced a lot of misery. But you have to keep your worrying and concern to a minimum, otherwise you’ll drive yourself and your family crazy. A good lawyer cannot afford to worry to such an extent that he destroys himself health-wise. But the head is always going. Some of my best thinking is done at three in the morning.”
It’s also when some alarm bells have gone off before a potential client was cut loose. “It’s a very rare occasion when we’ve come across someone who we felt was faking their injury,” William observes. “You have to trust your gut.”
While they must be ever-vigilant, success in any legal arena also entails a never-ending learning curve, and civil litigation is among the more active disciplines.
“We’re in an era where the government keeps enacting legislation depriving innocent accident victims of rights, and we have to be on our toes all the time to make sure we’re one step ahead of the insurance companies,” says William. “That’s the biggest hurdle we’ve faced in the past 20 years, and it continues to be the most arduous challenge. This is why there are very few people today that enter into this specialty, because you must always be involved in continuing education, and it’s very expensive to run an office of this sort.”
“You can’t dabble in this and say, ‘Oh, I’ll take a few of these cases.’ You just can’t,” adds Jay. “There are too many technical things, too many cases that come up all the time.”
Time well spent for Morris Law includes extensive charity work, particularly with the Canadian Paraplegic Association of Ontario, but William plays down his firm’s role. “I don’t want to know the totals,” he says. “We get involved in a lot of projects and give what we can. We like to help injured people, whether they’re brain injured or bodily injured. We want to do everything in our power to help them and work with associations to see how we can collectively improve things.”
You can’t put a price tag on quality of life, suggests the elder Morris, who has slightly curtailed his hours with age. But it’s also hard to put a value on the quality of his time with Morris Law.
“For a man with his experience,” says Jay, “it’s invaluable.”