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Playing the Ultimate Game of Chess

Putting All the Pieces Together Before Trial Brings Attorney and Client to “Checkmate.”

“Trial work in our practice areas is very complicated and there are a million angles. The lawyers on the other side are very good, so the process is very much like a chess match. I truly love the mental challenge of figuring out the strategy of your opponent and checkmate them before they get there. When you can put all the pieces together properly, the case can be won before you even walk into court,” says Shawn Morris, Founder and Managing Partner of Morris, Sullivan & Lemkul.
This strategy and attitude is reflected in the firm’s motto: We do not lose. “If we take a case to trial, we will win it. We have never lost any trial. This includes the other partners of my firm. We take ultimate pride in our success rate and this success is directly attributed to hard work—in preparation and then at trial. If you work a case up, you know how to get out of the way of the bad ones and you know how to win the marginal ones. The good or ‘easy’ case is rarely out there,” Morris says.
He says one of the key advantages he and the members of his firm have is their work effort. “We are extremely hard workers. We like to think that we may not be the smartest people on the planet, but we’ll always outwork you. When it comes to figuring out the evidence and putting things together, that’s what we do.”

A Record Breaking Settlement in a Heart Breaking Case

Just how well all that hard work and preparation pays off was demonstrated by the results of a case involving the death of a young man named Mark Lovett, a case so heart-rending that it became personal for Morris.
Lovett, age 26, lost his life unnecessarily in an industrial accident. He was a certified building inspector with all the prospects of a successful future in his chosen field. He was recruited in 2012 by a large corporation and on the first day of his new job he was sent to inspect a high rise building. Prior to the inspection, the demolition contractor on the project had cut underneath part of the metal sheeting used in construction. “He cut it like someone cutting a can of tuna, but he did not block it off or set up a warning,” Morris says.
During the inspection of the second floor, Lovett fell through this unmarked cut and fell 22 feet. He died a painful death, suffering horribly for about 20 minutes. Typically, Morris says, all of the contractors started pointing fingers at everyone else. The demolition contractor did not have a lot of insurance and the general contractor knew the demolition contractor had a history of violating safety codes and not working safely. During the punitive damages portion of the suit, the general contractor claimed they had no knowledge that the demolition contractor was even working in the area. “Here’s where I get back to where hard work gets you,” Morris says. The opposing firm turned over an enormous amount of documentation, essentially burying key information. Hard work on the firm’s part turned up a photograph taken by the general’s own chief inspector showing the demolition taking place. When the opposing attorney finished his argument against punitive damages, Morris presented the judge with a photograph taken one hour before the tragic incident. The photo showed the demolition taking place. “I said, ‘Oh, and you might ask a question, Your Honor. Who took this photograph?’” The time of the photograph showed it was taken one hour before their client fell and that it was taken by their chief inspector contrary to what they all testified in their depositions. That was the end of their argument. The settlement is confidential, but Morris was told that the firm paid the largest amount for a wrongful death for a single person in the State of Nevada.
Morris says, “I love working with juries and being in trial. This allows me to get into almost anything. I have done personal injury trials, trademark infringement trials, easement disputes, property line disputes, you name it. I have secured more than forty million dollars for clients in various trials over the last 30 years. There is nothing more rewarding that hearing a juror hand down justice for a client you have fought so hard for. It’s checkmate.”

The Right Attitude Shows the Right Way to Success

Morris received his Bachelor of Arts Degree from San Diego State University in 1985. In 1988 he earned his Juris Doctorate from the California Western School of Law, where he served as the law school’s lead articles editor. “I was the first one in my family to go to law school. My family did not have the money to pay for my college and post graduate studies. I had to work many jobs and handle many long nights to get my law degree. But if you have the right attitude, it is part of the fun,” he says.
Morris and partner Mike Sullivan were partners of Wingert Grebing, one of San Diego’s oldest and most respected law firms, before creating Morris, Sullivan and Lemkul, and it was at this firm where Morris met Charlie Grebing, who became his mentor.
This is also where he developed his interest and early experience in his firm’s current practice areas. There he found the opportunity to try a variety of cases so that didn’t fall into any particular legal niche. “I got involved with construction and that was because when I was working with Charlie there were rooms of boxes of documents and nobody wanted to take the time to go through them and work up the case. I volunteered and started doing some of those big complex cases. That experience has paid off ever since. When you have a pretty broad base of trials, you have a lot of opportunities to have a lot of clients from different businesses and industries come to you,” he says.“I had a feeling that my ideas for running a law firm would not be fully realized unless I was on my own. Fortunately, I have found a large, like-minded group,” Morris says. The auspicious start of his own firm (with Mike Sullivan) took a very inauspicious downturn when ten days later 9/11 occurred. The firm had a number of institutional clients in New York and needed those clients to keep the new doors open for new business.
“I had two junior partners and I brought in a couple of associates and a staff of six people. It was financially challenging. It was challenging to hold our existing business, to find new business and, as a new business owner, understand just how to run a business. I had to work hard to get over that inevitable learning curve.” Again, the work ethic paid off. Today the firm employs 40 people and is expanding. They now have offices in San Diego, the Bay Area, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Austin, TX and are opening a new branch operation in South Carolina. Morris is admitted to practice in the State of California and the State of Texas.
“We never planned to expand to such diverse economies, but we responded and are responding to the needs of our clients who require a local presence,” Morris says. Today the firm provides a full range of legal services, representing and advising clients in the areas of civil litigation, construction and insurance litigation, personal injury, commercial litigation, as well as trademark and trade secret claims.
Morris is responsible for shaping many current aspects of California’s construction defect laws. In addition to construction claims, he handles a wide range of litigation involving product defect, personal injury, trademark disputes and insurance related claims. He is a frequent lecturer and author on litigation-related topics ranging from WRAP insurance policies to indemnity and builder risk management.
He has been involved in numerous high-profile cases. The firm defended the world’s largest candle manufacturer; represented WalMart; and defended celebrity Chef Paula Deen in a case involving just under $200,000,000.00. “That case was sought after by many firms but we were very lucky to secure the client and ultimately a defense dismissal. We paid zero dollars and actually made money back on the case after being awarded attorney fees. Again, that’s what I like to call ‘checkmate.’” The firm’s practice areas are: Litigation, Mechanics Liens/Surety, Davis-Stirling Common Interest Law, Mass Torts, Class Actions, Personal Injury, Trademark Infringement Claims, Construction, Insurance Law, Business Litigation, and Civil Litigation.

Open Doors, Open Communication

Morris believes that one of the best ways to keep the doors open to the business is open communication with the firm’s clients.
He says, “If you are communicating to them and explained as much of the process that you can, it allows the business process of the firm to go much more smoothly. I think a lot of firms and lawyers in my experience are too anxious to get a case in the door and they are not as forthright in explaining to their client what it’s going to mean from a cost standpoint and that can create issues later on. I try to avoid those as much as possible. It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but when you do have a conflict you can remind the client of those conversations. And that helps in calming the situation.”
The firm’s attorneys are conscientious about informing individual clients, families and businesses of exactly what the legal process they’re contemplating may entail in terms of not only financial, but emotional costs. Ongoing and two-way communication is a key element in every case. Morris says, “My partners and I have always had the philosophy that our clients have our cell phone numbers and we can be reached 24/7. I have had clients who have awakened with an anxiety attack, either very late at night or very early in the morning, and my phone rings and they want to talk. You have to take that phone call. You have to talk them off that ledge and explain to them that whatever is happening at the moment is just part of the process.”
That open communication policy extends to the firm’s employees, especially the younger attorneys. Morris seeks to motivate, train and instill in them his own commitment to the work ethic. “In the practice of law, the harder you work the faster you’re going to get past your peers. You’re going to get desired results quicker and find the rewards quicker. When you’re practicing law, you don’t even know much about what you’re doing for the first five years. Get people to see beyond themselves and not just the lawyers, but the paralegals and staff. To instill in them that the rewards are there for those who seek them and those who really work hard.”
After nearly 30 years as an attorney, he still enjoys the competitive environment of a trial. “It’s great to work with a jury and watch the hard work we put into a case unfold before people that are new to whatever the dispute may be. I feel very fortunate to have worked at a high level for so long but I am most proud of the law firm I have created with my partners. I am really excited to see what lies ahead over our next 20 years.

Shawn D. Morris
Morris, Sullivan & Lemkul, LLP
9915 Mira Mesa Boulevard, Suite 300
San Diego, CA 92131


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