Brothers in law on the South Shore

Issue July 2011 By Christina P. O'Neill

Attorneys and brothers John J. and Francis C. "Frank" Morrissey had always wanted to work together, and last year, after both had spent more than a decade practicing law in downtown Boston, they took the step. They opened Morrissey, Wilson & Zafiropoulos LLP, a small, "boutique" law firm in Braintree, specializing in real estate, personal injury, bankruptcy, commercial litigation and business law. The decision was preceded by many sleepless nights, the brothers say, but one would never know it today, because they appear to be having such a good time.

Their Braintree Office Park corner-office conference room four floors above ground level offers a sweeping view of the South Shore and Boston Harbor to the north. John, who ran a Tremont Street firm for more than 10 years, practices personal injury and workers' compensation law, while Frank, who had spent his entire professional life in the big-firm arena, practices real estate, creditors' side bankruptcy, and commercial litigation, and handles receiverships. Partner Michael Zafiropoulos practices commercial and residential real estate law and R. Lindsey Wilson II, commercial and residential real estate, private equity and general business law.

Basing the new firm in the suburbs was a calculated risk. The good points: Overhead is lower, and the office is easily accessible by highway. The office park runs a free shuttle bus to the MBTA's John Quincy Adams stop. Clients frequently use this service, as well as lawyers and staff from the office. Technology makes it easier to do legal business from non-central locations today than it did even five years ago. The uncertainties: John worried that his 180 existing clients wouldn't migrate with him from Boston to Braintree, and Frank wondered about the reaction of his institutional clients -- long used to doing legal business downtown -- to a suburban address.

The outcome, however, was positive or, at worst, a wash. One of John's clients asked, "What took you so long?" -- and he says all his clients came with him. The brothers realized that a spot next to the courthouse and lots of "big marble" are no longer the predictors of success. Even Fortune 500 companies' legal services often are no longer based in high-premium downtown locales. "The downtown premium [office space cost] doesn't translate into better legal services," Frank says.

Lower overhead has several advantages: More freedom to do non-billable activities such as teaching law, pro bono work and work in professional organizations; the flexibility to write off hours without having to consult upper-level big firm management, or to write down bills or institute flat fees that wouldn't be accepted in bigger firms with big overhead.

It didn't hurt that all four of the firm's partners came in with big Rolodexes -- and got their calls returned. "People want to see you succeed," says John, the older of the two brothers by four years. Once they opened the firm, old colleagues they hadn't heard from in some time contacted them. A big-firm litigator coached them in the necessities of cash flow, and a former bankruptcy judge shared his experiences in spinning off from a larger firm.

Combining forces provided opportunities in other ways. "I had resources I didn't capitalize on" because of the narrower scope of big-firm law practice, says John. "We now have a broader practice."

And Frank can now take receivership positions which he might have had to avoid in a big firm because of conflict-of-interest concerns arising from another attorney's legal relationship with a party connected with the receivership.

But that doesn't mean the brothers and their firm partners have turned away from their big-company colleagues. The working relationships Frank formed at Nixon Peabody and Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge have proven invaluable in starting MWZ, and Frank continues to get referrals from (and refer cases back to) his former colleagues. John's practice has always been one based on referral relationships. He has a network of attorneys that refer cases to him because either they do not practice in the area of personal injury or workers' compensation or because settlement efforts have failed and a case has to be tried.

"In the legal industry, not one size fits all. A large part of our business is working with large firms. We refer some business to big firms" and vice versa, John says.

Frank says that a big firm is a great learning experience, and an interesting and challenging place to work with all levels of staff. "They were a good fit when I was there, and they're a good fit now," he says of big firms. "Something [that would be] de minimis in town is big for us."

Giving back   

Anothver initial concern about moving to the suburbs was concern about being isolated, the brothers say. But organizational activities with the Massachusetts Bar Association, as well as teaching and pro bono work, has kept them in touch with a network of attorneys. Both brothers sit on MBA sections; John is vice chair of the Judicial Administration Section Council, a member of the MBA House of Delegates and a member of the Massachusetts Bar Foundation's Grant Advisory Committee, among other activities. Frank is chairman of the MBA's Business Law Section Council, chair of its Bankruptcy Practice Group, co-chair of the Federal Practice and Procedures Group, among other activities, and an arbitrator on the MBA's Legal Fee Arbitration Board.

The brothers credit the Law Office Management Assistance Program with helping them with one of their biggest concerns: How to handle the everyday administrative requirements of running a law practice.

"I still look at the practice of law as a profession [to which] you owe something," says John. His organizational activities have brought him into contact with lawyers of like mind, who create a sense of community in the profession.

Family ties

The Morrissey brothers were glad to give up two to three hours of round-trip commuting each day. But they say the move wasn't spurred by a wish to downshift their careers. "It's not a lifestyle thing," Frank says. "We are all ambitious."

Instead, it's a family thing. The Morrissey brothers are two of seven siblings and family is important. John loves to coach youth sports. "I don't work less hours, but I'm home more," he says. He also sits on the board of directors of Central Cooperative Bank and Central Bancorp, headed by John and Frank's father, William P. Morrissey, who serves as president and as a member of the board of directors. "As my kids get older, it's harder and harder to do that commute into town," John says.

Frank, who lives in Milton, now has time to drop his daughter off at school before heading to the office.

The brothers, who are quick to give credit to everyone who has helped them along the way, cite family support as a sine qua non, without which they would not have started the firm. Along with spouses whose support was make-or-break in their decision, their father William, now 84, (the youngest of 11 children), is their biggest bulwark when he's not getting on their case. Literally. He calls them frequently to keep tabs on how much new business they've brought in since his last call. "When things are good, he reminds you to work over the weekend," Frank says. "When you get a kick in the head, he says, 'It's not a big deal, what do you care?'"

Being able to rely on one another through the launch was critical. Frank's receivership posts in both state and federal courts is an important niche for the firm, and one in which it is gaining traction, says John. These engagements included serving as a receiver for more than 800,000 square feet of commercial real estate that served as collateral for failed commercial mortgage-backed securities financings, as well as a chain of restaurants located throughout Massachusetts.

However, this type of fiduciary work does not get compensated on a monthly basis, but typically at the conclusion of the engagement, which can take years, in some cases. The same is true for John's plaintiff personal injury practice, which is contingency fee-based and can also take years of representation before a settlement or verdict results in an attorney's fee. "This is where having a diversified practice becomes critical," notes John. "Work that gets billed and paid on a monthly basis literally keeps the light on while we wait to get paid in fiduciary or contingency fee cases."

The brothers tell of a maternal great-grandfather, Martin Cosgrove, an immigrant from Ireland, who served on the Boston Police force. When the police went out on strike in 1919 to protest adverse wage and living conditions, Cosgrove and the other strikers were fired from the force by then-Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge. With himself and his family facing economic hardship, Cosgrove started a door-to-door milk delivery business in Dorchester, primarily by wagon at first, which the second and third-generation Cosgroves grew into Cosgrove Trucking, with routes up and down the East Coast and into Canada. The Morrissey brothers' grandfather, Frank Cosgrove, anticipated the deregulation of the trucking industry and sold the business and routes to a large conglomerate immediately prior to deregulation.

"You manage your career," Frank says today. "Nobody will do it for you." And, he adds, "It's not where you start that counts. It's where you end up."

Christina P. O'Neill is custom publications editor at The Warren Group, publisher of the Massachusetts Lawyers Journal.