“Hi, I’m Goliath from Goliath & Goliath.” – A Philly Lawyer Takes on Morgan & Morgan

Let’s take a minute and talk about these huge, multi-state law firms that swoop into the local area and start slinging their advertising dollars around.  These are the candymen of the legal advertising industry, keeping radio jingle writers and shady TV commercial producers in dollars so they can run all of their ads during Rush Limbaugh or the seventeenth mid-day rerun of Judge Judy.  We all know the types of guys I’m talking about, with ads that say shit like “call us, we’ll get you your money” and some 1-800 number that takes you to a switchboard before directing your ass to a regional office in some big city. The dirty little secret of lawyering is that these places are really just mills, gigantic firms from out of state with not a single named partner who could find your podunk little shithole on a map unless their private jets were flying overhead.  

These guys are, basically, the Waffle House of the legal world, with a branch every damn place.  They’re the bane of the small law practitioner, and especially the small PI guy, who can’t compete with the advertising and the crisply pressed suits of some partner that shows up in the commercials but never in court.  After flooding the local airwaves with commercials, lining the streets with billboards, and getting the name recognition that used to go to the decent guy down the street, they’re gonna take every call from a dog bite to a fender bender  and move on.

These are the personal injury mills.

Now, as you folks know or may recall, I’m the son of a local personal injury practitioner.  Dad, when I was growing up, never had to advertise to get his clients, because they were all referred to him.  Someone had a case that needed special attention and a damn good litigator? They were given Dad’s card. Recently I got the chance to talk to my father, who had always done a pretty good business, and he clued me in that back home the personal injury work was drying up and drying up fast.  The reason, according to Dad, had nothing to do with his age or a diminution in his local stature, but rather the fact that a big ass firm had moved in with their ads and started flooding the market.  And one of those firms, of course, was…

…Morgan and Morgan.

Morgan & Morgan started back in 1988 down in Orlando, Florida, land of alligators and methamphetamine, and by 1995 was big enough that they were able to open a second office out in Tampa.  From there, with the incorporation of the titular Morgans’ sons into the office, it grew to a personal injury practice of over 300 lawyers with offices in 13 states, and expanded to a couple of other high-turnaround areas of law where the cases go through and the money comes in.  Moving ahead of them, like harbingers of doom, were their ads, proudly announcing in a serious tone that they were “Morgan, of Morgan and Morgan.” Unlike the idiots who made funny or amusing commercials, Morgan & Morgan carved out a niche of appearing to be non-heavy handed, serious attorneys that were responsible and dedicated, and people responded.  They responded fucking well, considering that their practice not only has grown, but continues to grow into new states as they pump all the crude contingency oil they fucking can from the well of human tragedy.

And if they don’t have an office near you?  Oh. Oh yeah, they’re fucking coming brother.

This was the situation facing Philadelphia Attorney Jeff Rosenbaum of Rosenbaum & Associates back in 2016, when Morgan & Morgan began an advertising blitz in the Philadelphia area to reap in some of those sweet, sweet plaintiff’s dollars.  Rosenbaum, who for roughly 14 years has practiced in that area and is a known entity in the Philly personal injury scene, took issue with the Morgan & Morgan advertising blitz, especially after learning that Morgan & Morgan, far from opening a fully functional office in the Keystone state, hadn’t yet opened any office whatsoever, and, far from establishing a stable of experienced personal injury attorneys, decided that the best person to head up a multi-state personal injury firm’s office in the home of the Cheesesteak and motherfucking American justice in general was Jacob David Sternberger, a recent graduate of Dickinson School of Law who was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar the same year he joined the wonderful firm of Morgan & Morgan.

What an opportunity, eh?  Straight out of law school and now the lead Pennsylvania counsel for a major, nationwide law firm?

None of this escaped the attention of Mr. Rosenbaum, who immediately took Morgan & Morgan to task, releasing ads decrying them as what could best be described as, I guess, reverse carpetbaggers reaching from the down home South into the big city with their advertising dollars, pointing out that they were in no way an established Pennsylvania firm, and contesting the statements made by Morgan & Morgan that the firm had litigated or was actively pursuing any lawsuits in Pennsylvania.  This culminated, of course, with the filing of a complaint against Morgan & Morgan by Rosenbaum, accusing the larger-than-life collection of “Florida Men” of playing dirty pool in establishing an office with a single inexperienced attorney and calling it a functioning law firm, and claiming injuries due to deceptive advertising.

Because when lawyers get into a slapfight, folks, legal process starts flying.  

Morgan & Morgan, having failed to get the suit dismissed, instead began to bolster their credentials in the Pennsylvania area, hiring in an actual established Pennsylvania attorney, Clancy Boylan, to man the desks with Mr. Sternberger and (hopefully) provide him with a little mentorship while the lawsuit was pending.  Likewise, two Morgan & Morgan attorneys who primarily practice in the Florida offices, Octavio Gomez and Angeli Murthy, came into PA, with Gomez getting admitted during the pendency of the action in PA and Murthy having, apparently, been licensed there years ago…which raises the question as to why Murthy wasn’t put in charge of the Philadelphia office from the get-go.

Anyhow, all of that is beside the point:  The crux of Rosenbaum’s case was that Morgan & Morgan was advertising in Pennsylvania as being a Pennsylvania law firm actively seeking to represent Pennsylvania residents in Pennsylvania cases, despite having only one attorney on staff at the time the ads were running with very little experience.  Notably, Rosenbaum made some hay out of the fact that Morgan & Morgan used phrases like ““I’m not just any lawyer, I’m your lawyer” and the fact that Morgan and his sons, none of whom are licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, showed up in the ads without any reference to other attorneys in his office.  On the home stretch of the same complaint, Rosenbaum goes on to accuse Morgan & Morgan as acting as a fancy lawyer referral service, which instead of representing clients operated solely to get their information then farm them out to other attorneys in the Philadelphia area for representation.  In short, Rosenbaum was accusing Morgan & Morgan of advertising services they never intended to provide: legal representation of people in Pennsylvania plaintiff’s cases.

The whole thing was met with a bit of bluster from the founder of the behemoth, John Morgan, who, through a representative, stated “It is utter nonsense. This guy doesn’t like competition. Sorry, it’s the American way. We look forward to delving into his financials and deposing his staff and clients.”

This, folks, is what those of us in the trade call “grandstanding,” where you give a strong and forceful statement to present an image of certainty of your rightness.

Which makes it all the more surprising that, on May 11, 2018, the ABA Journal reported that it appeared the case had been dismissed pursuant to a settlement agreement reached between the parties.  While the details of the settlement aren’t known, and will probably never be known, the fact is that this was a shot across the bow of the large national firms that reach into local areas with minimal staff and reputation and start actively seeking cases.  

While Morgan & Morgan has certainly had a successful expansion plan in the past, the presence of an office with only one attorney in it, and apparently no office at all before it started advertising in the area, is what drew the case, not the prospect of competition.

Fact is, small attorneys deal with competition every day of the week.  Morgan & Morgan, while certainly a juggernaut of the personal injury world, isn’t all that different. And, as they appear to have found out when dipping their toes into the hard-bit world of Philadelphia personal injury law, the rules that govern how lawyers have to advertise doesn’t care if you’re Joe Blow from down the street or the big-ass firm from Florida.  They all apply equally.

And, really, I take no small amount of delight in hearing that a local lawyer took on the juggernaut that is the multi-state firm and held them to task for this stuff. Fact is, the practice of law is amazingly local in nature, and while the huge white-shoe firms up on New York City may have always had a stranglehold on the national and international practice of certain types of law for huge corporations and the [Bernie Sanders voice] millionaires and billionaires out there, the day-to-day practice of law is about the representation of people.  When you get down to it, old Martha from down the street wants a lawyer that isn’t only good, but knows who the fuck she is outside of being aware of what her claim is.  As more large, faceless firms expand their tentacles into new markets, that shit goes away.  We’re no longer counselors to individuals, but rather faceless service industry peons out to make a buck for the corporate masters several states away.

In short, these firms are basically the goddamn Walmart of the legal world…and while Walmart may give you some consistency in their products and, on occasion, lower prices, there’s a reason folks still go to the mom and pop shop on the town square, and that’s the attention, the personality, and the appreciation and professionalism that comes along with such a place.  That’s where the small time lawyer, who’s steadily seeing their income streams dwindled down to nothing, has the advantage.

The only real question is: how much longer do we have it?

-BB

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