January 27, 2021 Member Spotlight

Member Spotlight: Francis H. Morrison

By Francis H. Morrison

Tell us a little bit about your career.

In an odd way, my legal career started in September 1968 during my senior year at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, when my draft board sent me my I-A classification which would be followed by an induction notice immediately after graduation. Deciding that I would take control of my own fate, I applied to and was luckily accepted to Navy Office Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island (due in large part to my father’s WWII naval service as engineering officer on a Buckley class Destroyer). After my OCS graduation, I was sent to USS Grand Canyon (AR-28), a repair ship, where I served for 2 ½ years under a Captain who was on his third command at sea. He was an old-school graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, and made several runs to Murmansk on merchant vessels during WWII. His lessons for young officers included: attention to detail, timeliness, absolute ownership of one’s responsibilities, and immediate and loud consequences for mental mistakes. In addition to my weapons, crypto, and watch-standing duties, he sent me to the U.S. Naval Justice School in Newport for the six-week course to become a ship’s legal officer. Duties included managing the scheduling and written charges for non-judicial punishment under Article 15 of the UCMJ—otherwise known as “Captain’s Mast”. I learned about the Captain’s view of various offenses in his “sentencing” which could include time in the brig, fines, restriction, reduction in rank, and referral to courts martial. I learned about naval justice and the art of persuasion. My legal career had started.

When the time came to start law school at Duke, he gave me a couple months “early separation” from the service. I walked down the gangway of the Grand Canyon during overhaul at the Bethlehem Steel Yard drydock in East Boston as a Vietnam Era veteran exactly 8 days before my law school class was to start at Duke. I had my DD-214 and veterans’ benefits papers -- $270 a month that paid the rent in Durham, North Carolina. I thought, wrongly as it turned out, that I was leaving my navy experience behind.

Law School

Having been out of formal school for three years, I was nervous about law school—mostly the Socratic Method. I quickly learned that I brought some very useful skills from the Navy and  my Captain (aka “the old man”). His Socratic Method made the esteemed law professors at Duke look like pussy cats. Samples of the old man’s interrogations included 4:00 am quizzes in the pitch black of the pilot house on things like the content of the night orders (which every watchstander had to read, absorb, and sign before assuming the watch), plotting course, speed, and closest possible approach of contacts using the maneuvering board, parallel rules, and mathematical dividers. The requirement was not simply parroting data, but making a recommendation to avoid collision with contacts while observing the rules of the road. All the while having been entrusted with the 15,000 ton ship with its 250 man crew asleep below. It didn’t help either that the old man loved to fling, without warning, the dummy named Oscar over the side in a man-overboard drill to see if the Officer of the Deck (me) could correctly execute the “Williamson Racetrack Turn” and use the ship’s “Dead Reckoning Tracer” to get the ship back on the reciprocal of its course during the drill. In the North Atlantic, time was of the essence before hypothermia claimed the man in the water.

The proudest day of my early life was the day the old man personally delivered to me my “Officer of the Deck Underway” qualification letter—required certification that I was qualified to run the bridge watch and drive the ship. I found the law school Socratic Method almost tame after the old man’s examinations in the ship’s pilot house carried out for all present to hear and see. I was entrusted at the tender age of 23 with the safety of lives and property, not to mention our cargo of ASROC nuclear depth charges. It was invaluable preparation for being worthy of the trust clients would repose with me in many courtrooms with a jury in the box.

I graduated from Duke with distinction in 1975. Having achieved a very strong law school record—I “made” Law Journal where I was elected a Note and Comments Editor and had little trouble landing a job in a premier Connecticut firm. I had no idea what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. That was about to change.

My First Firm

My first firm was Day, Berry & Howard LLP (NKA Day Pitney, LLP), a general practice firm with a vigorous trial practice where I was to spend 32 years. Under its “rotation program” all associates were required to spend a year in each  of the firm’s three practice areas, one of which had to be “Trial”—“Litigation” was a word that the wise never uttered to identify themselves. So, I chose Securities and Antitrust rotations in my first two years and then dutifully did my year in trial.

I second-chaired the defense of a products liability jury case against a paint company claiming that the latex paint containing a phenyl mercury compound used by a seven-months pregnant mother was defective. It was what we now call a toxic tort case. I took some witnesses (who were more scared than I was) and did half of the individual voir dire. The baby, now the seven year old plaintiff was catastrophically injured and unable to walk with tumors and contractures all over his body—he was a nice, polite little boy laying in his little stretcher the day the jury met him. Both plaintiff’s counsel and my mentor were very experienced trial lawyers. For three months I saw all of the skills of masters on display. After 10 days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict for the defendant shortly before Christmas. I was hooked on trial work and the power of juries. Some 70 jury verdicts later, hopefully still counting, I still trust juries more than judges.

I owe a tremendous professional debt to the lawyers at Day, Berry & Howard who mentored me. In my early years as an associate, one particular partner—a trial lawyer through and through—developed a regular teaching practice with me. Every month or so, he would come to my office with a file and say, “this jury case is on trial next week in _____” and I’d like you to try it. Review the file and then let’s talk about the case and your goals. We discussed witnesses, jurors, strategy, and the presiding judge. I went all over the State of Connecticut. The goals got harder—they went from “try to come back with all your body parts in this one,” (plaintiff was a pregnant woman who lost her baby when rear-ended by our client—jury returned a verdict for defendant) to “make sure the co-defendant gets held along with you,” (only the co-defendant was held by the jury). I was incredibly fortunate for the mentoring. At one point while I was still an associate, juries returned 8 straight defendants’ verdicts in these “mentor” cases and when time came for my partnership vote I had tried 15 jury cases to verdict.

During my time in my first firm, my partners reposed confidence and trust in me by electing me Head of the firm’s trial practice in 1990, chair of the Firm’s Executive Committee in 1996, and to the Firm’s three member Partnership Compensation Committee in 1998. I served on the compensation committee until 2007. There was no right of appeal from that committee on which members served six year terms and had to get a 2/3 vote of the entire partnership.

From 1977 until 2007, I tried more than 50 cases to verdict or judgment. During these years, I was fortunate enough to earn membership in The American College of Trial Lawyers (1993); The National Board of Trial Advocacy (1986) and as a charter member of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (1984).

My Reinvention as a Trial Lawyer

In 2007, my present firm, Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider, LLP, called me and asked me if I was interested in joining them to try their technical patent and commercial cases. I was turning 60 in 2007 and my first firm had gone through a merger at the start of the year. I decided that if I was going to try this new platform for my trial experience, it was “now or never.” Leaving was very hard—a number of my partners tried to persuade me to stay, but the process convinced me to make the change. As I told my partners at the time, I would always be proud to have been a Day, Berry & Howard, LLP partner. So, I joined my present firm in June 2007. In the almost 14 years that I have been at Axinn, I have been very fortunate to have tried to verdict and judgment patent, trade secret, and commercial cases around the country including.

Appellate Experience

I have briefed and argued appeals in the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second, Seventh, and Federal Circuits and the Connecticut Supreme and Appellate Courts. These appeals have concerned patent infringement and invalidity, supply contract issues involving world-wide high-tech chemical processes, fraud and unfair trade practices, products liability, professional malpractice, civils right, and tax issues.

I am continuing to practice—nominally part-time. In addition to courtroom work, I am involved in a year-long monthly series sharing some real world trial experiences with all of the firm’s lawyers. An associate serves as the moderator of a panel including myself and another senior partner who has had substantial trial experience. Subjects covered so far include voir dire, opening statements, and closings. I love to teach and share my good fortune in having tried a lot of cases.

Is it what you had planned when you started law school?

Not at all. If my first firm didn’t have a mandatory trial rotation, it is very unlikely I would have become a trial lawyer. I thought (wrongly) that trial lawyers didn’t face difficult substantive and tactical issues and that they were “hip-shooters.” To see how a jury could take a very sympathetic 7 year-old plaintiff who had been catastrophically injured, review, and find facts, law, and expert opinions, and send him out of the courthouse with no award made a life-long impression. I still trust juries more than judges. The trial judge in that case described above (the “mercury case”) repeatedly told us that there was going to be an “explosive” plaintiff’s verdict. It didn’t work out that way.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I defended a Town Manager and the Town Council against claims of corruption and illegal appropriations in violation of the municipal corporate charter. The money at issue had been spent on a development project. The case lasted some five years and went to the Connecticut Supreme Court twice. I finally tried it and obtained complete vindication for all defendants. If plaintiffs had prevailed on their claims of illegal appropriations, not only would reputations of town leaders and bond counsel been ruined, but there was possible criminal liability. The media was against my clients. The case had an abundance of nastiness including personal attacks on me in my neighboring hometown where I was Corporation Counsel. I thought often about the Comment to ABA Model Rule 6.2 (Accepting Appointments). Although this was not a pro bono matter, it certainly involved accepting my share of unpopular matters or unpopular clients.

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

In law school, I was offered a clerkship by a federal district judge in Florida who was a Duke graduate. He had been nominated to the Fifth Circuit at the time. So, the clerkship would have probably lasted two years at both the trial and appellate levels. I didn’t take it because my wife was pregnant, and I felt I was already three years behind my peers because of my military service. The last point turned out to be true, but in retrospect I probably should have made a different decision. The experience would have been invaluable.

What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?

Spend some time between college and law school (e.g. work in a business or go into the military service). First, it will help you personally to mature. Precisely what you do isn’t critical, but I think that experience working with or supervising membership on teams is a critical skill for working on client teams after law school. Second, learn how to get information from someone who is giving you a project/task. You need to understand the project and work at getting the necessary facts. This will be a critical client communication skill. Lastly, work on projects where you get to learn from both successes and failures—learn to incorporate that knowledge going forward. Law is becoming more and more of a big business. Get business experience before you go to law school.

What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?

I still believe that success in practicing law has a simple algorithm—stature, hard work, and relationships. But being a good technical lawyer isn’t enough. You need to develop team skills, client communication skills, experience learning from your mistakes, and above all learning about what it feels like to have someone repose their trust in you. Those things are not taught in law schools.

When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you decide to join?

In the 1970’s. I joined because it is the premier professional organization.

What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?

It is really happening now—I love writing for VOE.

Are there any benefits that SLD or ABA that helped you decide to become a member of the ABA/SLD?

None in particular.

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

Probably be an engineer. I love to logically solve problems.

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Author

Francis H. Morrison is a partner at Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider, LLP in its Connecticut office. He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross (A.B. 1969) and served as a line officer (duties in weapons, ship’s legal and cryptography) in the US Navy on USS Grand Canyon (AR-28) (1969-72).  He graduated from Duke University Law School in 1975 (with distinction, Note and Comment Editor, Duke Law Journal).  He then practiced trial work at Day, Berry & Howard, LLP (nka Day Pitney, LLP) for 32 years before joining his present firm in 2007. 

His trial work has included bench and jury trials in the following areas: patents (pharma, electrical engineering and plasma physics); trade secrets; trademark; products liability (aviation accidents; mechanical failures and toxic torts); professional medical liability; insurance fraud and bad faith claims; governmental corruption claims; commercial disputes and personal injury cases.  He served a term as Corporation Counsel in West Hartford, Connecticut.  He is a Fellow, American College of Trial Lawyers; certified by the National Board of Trial Advocates and ranked in Chambers for commercial litigation.