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
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
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."
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
"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.
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
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
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