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Losing a Few Suits

It's the end of an era for personal injury lawyer and billboard personality John Morgan. The Orlando attorney has completed a deal to buy out his two name partners in the 85-lawyer Morgan, Colling & Gilbert firm where the three worked together for 17 years.

Workers' compensation lawyer Stewart Colling, who founded the firm with Morgan in 1988, and medical malpractice lawyer Ron Gilbert, the firm's third partner, have known Morgan since their high school days. Morgan and Colling attended Winter Park High School, and Morgan and Gilbert worked summers together at Walt Disney World ["John Morgan Unplugged," December 2003].

Colling and Gilbert, along with four other lawyers from the Morgan Colling firm, Jay Colling, Melvin Wright, Nathan Carter and David Barszcz, have opened their own personal injury firm, Colling, Gilbert & Wright, in Maitland.

Morgan says the parting was amicable. "They wanted something smaller and more manageable," he says.

Gilbert concurs. "We wanted to develop in central Florida," he says.

The Atlanta decision
Among other issues, the lawyers did not agree with a move by Morgan to open a fifth out-of-state office in Atlanta. "They didn't want to do it," Morgan says. "They were like, 'we've grown enough.' "

Colling says the decision was in the works for some time, as some of the Morgan Colling lawyers began to tire of the scale of Morgan's empire-building. "It got to where every medical provider in the state was being sued by that law firm," says Colling. "John was more interested in trying to conquer the whole United States of America. We just wanted to focus on practicing law."

The deal leaves Morgan with another 25% interest in the firm -- now called Morgan & Morgan -- and three remaining partners, including Morgan, his wife, Ultima, and H. Scott Bates, a fraternity brother from Morgan's days at the University of Florida.

Morgan says he has no hard feelings. Although growth at the 600-employee firm is "leveling off," business is still profitable enough that he believes it was worth paying Colling and Gilbert "millions and millions and millions of dollars" for their stake in the firm.

Morgan says business at the 17-year-old firm, which was built on the strength of Morgan's relentless marketing campaigns, has been affected by legislation limiting both tort and nursing home lawsuits and by increasing competition among personal injury lawyers. There is also a growing willingness among younger lawyers to advertise, despite the continued irritation of Florida Bar leaders who believe it demeans the profession.

"The real advantage that I had, that I will never have again, was that the lawyers who could afford advertising wouldn't do it because they were concerned about what would be said at the Bar meeting, and the lawyers who were willing to do it couldn't afford it," says Morgan. "There was a huge hole up the middle."

Today, he says, the old guard of anti-advertising lawyers in the Bar is dying off -- or as Morgan prefers to envision them, "rotting in old lawyer nursing homes, eaten up with bedsores" they can't sue for because of tort reform restrictions.

Empire building
Morgan, 49, is not yet ready for his second act, though he acknowledges that his side investments in quirky tourist attractions -- including WonderWorks in Orlando -- are "a hell of a lot more interesting" than the business of law.

Morgan sees Atlanta as a new opportunity to build on his empire. "There's nobody there doing legal marketing the way I do it," he says of a business plan that devotes up to 15% of revenue, or about $12 million a year, to advertising that touts his "For the People" slogan.

Morgan has also diversified his practice, taking some business litigation cases on a contingency fee basis, some mass torts and being "more selective" in the personal injury cases he accepts. Even so, Morgan says the firm has 26,000 cases "in the pipeline."

Despite his success, Morgan says if he could have foreseen the flood of tort reform measures that legislators would endorse, he might never have ended up in Florida at all. "I could have not designed a worse place to set down," he says.