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John Morgan: the bombastic, omnipresent lawyer fueling Florida's 2014 election

John Morgan’s passion for personal injury law was cinched when Disney refused workers’ compensation to his brother after an accident.
Published Dec. 1, 2013

ORLANDO — You'd think after making thousands of "For the People" TV ads for his law firm, John Morgan would be more than comfortable before the camera.

But as he looked at his cherubic baby face on the TV monitor recently, Morgan groaned. "Laawd," he said in his deep Kentucky drawl, "high def is a m-----f-----."

Insecurity runs deep, even for a bombastic multimillionaire who leads the country's largest personal injury law firm, has hosted President Barack Obama at his 18,000-square-foot mansion and is poised to be the most important man in Florida politics this election cycle other than Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

Morgan, 57, is leading a high-profile ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Florida for medical use, and he's a key adviser to former Republican Gov. Crist's unprecedented campaign to win back the Governor's Mansion as a Democrat.

Some wealthy middle-aged businessmen bag trophy wives; Morgan goes for trophy lawyers, and Crist is the biggest trophy and best rainmaker at Morgan & Morgan.

"I'll definitely lose a lot of money if he becomes governor," said Morgan, describing Crist as a magnet for lucrative cases — from BP oil, to sinkholes, to a pollution case where damages could approach $100 million. "People call all day long to talk to Charlie. The guy walks down any aisle of Publix and passes out five business cards. Those people call."

If you live almost anywhere in Florida, you've seen Morgan's ubiquitous TV ads, pushing everything from his firm's trial experience to the importance of adopting shelter pets. Lately, you may even see him on a highway billboard dressed as Santa.

"We see that billboard every morning driving to the office. Sort of ruins the holidays," said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which represents many of the business interests Morgan & Morgan ("Representing the people, not the powerful") constantly sues.

What you may not realize is that this shameless self-promoter came from next to nothing, the oldest son of an alcoholic mother and father who bounced from job to job. Or that Morgan is known among attorneys nationally as a trailblazing business leader. Or that the leading Democratic fundraiser gives huge donations to Florida GOP leaders, too.

Or that Morgan claims to worry perpetually about losing every penny.

"If you came from nothing, like I did, you'd understand. How we grew up was pretty hellish, where you know what it's like to not know where you're going to turn," said Morgan, who often served as the de facto father of his four siblings. "If you peel back the onion, there's more insecurity than ego with me."

• • •

That accent you hear on the radio? Lexington, Ky.

Morgan grew up there with his family living from paycheck to sporadic paycheck. They moved to the Orlando area when Morgan was a teenager. He worked his way though the University of Florida and the UF law school, variously dressing as Pluto and one of the Three Little Pigs at Disney World, handling UPS packages after midnight, and assorted other jobs.

Even as a financially strapped student, he cut a larger-than life-profile on campus, serving as the elected president of the prestigious Florida Blue Key leadership society.

"He was always very cunning and always entertaining, one of the funniest people I've ever known. He loves to get laughs, loves to tell stories and has always drawn people to him like a magnet," said Rick Dantzler, a college roommate who later served in the Legislature and ran for governor.

His passion for personal injury law, Morgan said, was cinched his second year of law school when his brother Tim, working as a lifeguard at Disney's Polynesian Resort, wound up a quadriplegic after a diving accident.

Morgan said the family had to hire a lawyer after Disney fought the workers' compensation "tooth and nail," offering at one point to let Tim work the graveyard shift as a Disney phone operator rather than pay any claim.

"I became enraged and I never got over that," said Morgan.

• • •

Morgan did not invent aggressive marketing for lawyers, but some lawyers say he may have perfected it. He frequently lectures across the country on his 2011 book, You Can't Teach Hungry: Creating the Multimillion Dollar Law Firm.

"John is the master in terms of personal injury law firm management. What he's conceived of in terms of marketing, growing and largesse is mind-boggling. He's got a genius for that," said Geoffrey Fieger, a prominent trial lawyer who ran for governor of Michigan in 1998 and whose clients have included Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. Dr. Death.

"Managing lawyers is like herding cats. I'd probably kill myself if I had to manage as many lawyers as John does."

Fieger has about 20 lawyers in his law firm outside of Detroit, which makes it an enormously large personal injury firm.

Then there's Morgan & Morgan: 260 attorneys among 1,800 staffers in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Manhattan.

The Morgan recipe? Unlike some settlement mills that advertise their legal services and rarely try cases, Morgan said he pays handsomely for good lawyers, and he insists that most of them take at least three cases a year to court (or else get docked $25,000) so insurance companies know low-balling litigants won't work.

Some 100 people work in a call center in downtown Orlando, answering about 2,000 calls a day for the law firm (and a few close lawyer friends, including disgraced former presidential candidate John Edwards and his new firm in North Carolina), plugging the information into Morgan's special analytic software. Ultimately, the firm only accepts about 8 percent of the cases all those ads attract.

At any given time, the firm has $30 million to $40 million invested in cases awaiting a verdict or settlement. It spends about $45 million annually on advertising, not just television and radio but a sophisticated social media operation led by a team in New Jersey. The firm has zero debt.

• • •

Even lawyers who roll their eyes over Morgan's marketing and outsized ego describe him as a remarkable entrepreneur with a flair for spotting legal trends and opportunities.

That means being one of the first firms to go after tobacco companies, for instance. It means that as other firms are focused on conventional auto accidents, Morgan is plotting legal strategies for when automated, driverless cars dominate the roadways. The firm practices in a vast number of areas, from medical malpractice, to class-action, to product liability, securities and corporate cases.

"John studies demographics and has an uncanny knack for being three steps ahead of the pack. No question, he is brilliant," said Dantzler, who works for Morgan & Morgan, which is named for John and his wife of 31 years, Ultima Morgan.

Twenty five years after starting the firm, Morgan's business interests include assorted hotels, a bank, the WonderWorks chain of interactive attractions, the Crime Museum in Washington, D.C., a Margaritaville casino in Biloxi (with his pal Jimmy Buffett) and an advertising firm specializing in legal ads that does $40 million annually in billing.

Former Gov. Crist joined the firm in 2011, soon after his crushing loss to Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race. Morgan has known Crist for nearly two decades and supported several Crist campaigns.

Crist calls Morgan an "absolutely terrific" boss with a "great heart" and a passion for helping everyday people. His salary has never been disclosed, but Crist says he's earning significant money for the first time in his life.

The managing director who prides himself on long-term thinking says he never expected back in late 2010 that Crist would return to elected office, but instead saw him as a lucrative addition to the firm without ever needing to set foot in a courtroom. Flying to New Orleans together on Morgan's Citation, the mega-firm's leader made an enticing pitch.

"Most of these ex-politicians, they go to a law firm and here's how it works for them: They're given an office, they're given a salary, and then they're told go get us business. And then, when they're not getting business, the managing partner's coming down saying, 'What . . . are you doing? Can you make this phone call? Can you get us in front of this person?' It's miserable."

"I told Charlie, 'You're never going to have that with me. I'm never going to say what are you doing. I'm just going to say go out in the state of Florida and be Charlie, and it'll happen.' And it has happened. It's been great," Morgan said.

Of course, it also would be great to have a close friend in the Governor's Mansion.

• • •

Morgan & Morgan invests heavily in politics, not just to Democrats but also Republicans who in recent years have much more say in how far state leaders go in curbing lawsuits. Since 2010, the firm has given about $175,000 to the Florida Democratic Party and nearly $200,000 to the Florida GOP. Morgan, a registered Democrat, calls himself a big supporter of state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, in line to be Florida House speaker, and calls Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi "one of my closest friends."

Still, Crist may be his biggest political investment yet. He estimates his firm alone could raise $6 million for Crist's campaign.

"It's so smart of him to attach himself to Charlie Crist. I think this is about getting the Supreme Court justices that John wants appointed because they would be good for his own pocketbook,'' said the Florida Chamber's Wilson, who expects the next governor could appoint as many as four justices, who would have an enormous say in how Florida restricts lawsuits.

"John Morgan can dress up as Santa Claus all he wants, but I'm interested in seeing what happens when the voters discover that he and his elf aren't really who they say they are. That's exactly what this next year is going to be about," Wilson continued, arguing that personal injury lawyers care far more about making money than protecting clients. "The problem with plaintiff lawyers like John Morgan is they get rich by taking it from people who are trying to make an honest living."

This is an old debate and inevitably draws the invective of Morgan. Without trial lawyers, he says, cars like the Ford Pinto would still be erupting in deadly explosions, kids' pajamas would still be catching fire easily and insurance companies would never hesitate to deny valid claims from customers.

"I'd rather have one John Morgan than all the government bureaucrats put together in Washington, D.C., because we're the civil police," Morgan said.

• • •

Critics see the medical marijuana initiative as nothing but a ploy to juice turnout among liberal voters to help Crist's campaign. Morgan calls that nonsense.

It's not so much about politics, Morgan said, as it is his latest charitable project. He likens it to helping people in need, not unlike the $2 million he and his wife gave to fund a hunger relief center in Orlando, money he's given and work he's done related to cerebral palsy, or helping fund a successful minimum wage increase initiative in 2004.

Marijuana helped relieve his dying father's pain from cancer treatments, Morgan said, and helped his paralyzed brother Tim's pain.

"If my brother didn't use marijuana, he'd be taking Xanax and Percocet all day long."

Contact Adam Smith at asmith@tampabay.com.

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