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Chris Morris, with Bassford Remele, becomes the president of the Hennepin County Bar Association on July 1, 2009. He talked with Patrick Burns about his background and his goals for the Hennepin County Bar Association.
THL: Congratulations, Chris, on your new position and responsibilities. Tell us about your personal and professional background.
CM: I was raised near
THL: Where did you go to undergraduate school?
CM: I went to
THL: I decided not to attend Harvard. What made you want to go there?
CM: Well, at the time I actually had some degree of reluctance to leave
THL: So, then you went to law school at the U of M. How did you pick the U of M?
CM: I obviously knew about the
THL: What did you do after law school?
CM: I clerked at the Minnesota Court of Appeals for one year with Judge Gary Crippen, who was originally a district court judge in
THL: You did that for one year?
CM: One year. I came to Bassford in August 1993. It was then known as Bassford Heckt Lockhart Truesdell & Briggs.
THL: What is the focus of your practice today?
CM: I started out doing a lot of legal malpractice defense work. Our work defending lawyers and others in professional negligence cases started to include more and more claims under consumer protection statutes such as the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and Fair Credit Reporting Act. That has accelerated over the last decade to the point where now about half of my practice is defending lawyers, financial institutions, and insurance companies in cases involving federal consumer protection claims, often pled as class actions. The other half of my practice is representing parties in an assortment of business disputesósuch as unfair competition claims and shareholder disputes.
THL: So does your practice heavily involve arbitration or primarily federal litigation?
CM: In the business dispute side of my practice, we are frequently arbitrating either through the AAA or whatís now known as FINRA or with private arbitrators, as well as litigating in Hennepin County District Court and federal courts.
THL: What do you like most about your practice of law?
CM: I enjoy the variety of cases and clients, and analyzing the interesting legal questions that arise. I feel fortunate to practice in the Twin Cities, because it is normally very easy to get along with opposing counsel, and because we have a group of quality judges who are very much engaged in the motions and the cases that are brought before them. Itís also rewarding to be in a position to counsel and advocate for clients who are involved in a process that can be somewhat foreign and stressful to them. The parting send off I often hear from small business and individual clients is, ďThanks, it was great working with you, but I hope I never see you again.Ē But thatís as it should be. You hope that the client is able to avoid any future disputes.
THL: Do you have a singular victory or accomplishment professionally?
CM: Itís hard to point to any one case as a singular achievement. I guess I feel the same sense of accomplishment wheneveróat the resolution of a caseóa client feels like theyíve received good counseling that has seen them through the dispute to a fair resolution. Sometimes that means we have prevailed in a summary judgment motion or at trial, but often that might mean that we havenít litigated the case that far but instead, framed the case for an early resolution. Iíve never had a client who has settled a case and then come back to me later and said, ďGee, I really wish I hadnít settled that case. I really wish that we had gone to trial.Ē That being said, there are some cases that you just canít settle for a variety of reasons. And those are fun for the lawyers, because arguing summary judgment motions and participating in a trial or arbitration is really what weíre trained for as trial lawyers.
THL: Many lawyers are familiar with Bassford Remele; what is something about the firm that makes it unique?
CM: Itís a very enjoyable place to work because the lawyers and staff really support one another, and itís probably closer knit than most law firms of our size simply because we are a boutique in that all we do is civil litigation. I also think we are unique in the frequency that weíre able to take cases to trial.
THL: Tell us about your hobbies or interests outside of work.
CM: During law school, golf was my main hobby. Thatís really taken a back seat since having kids, but Iíve made headway in one of my life goals which is to convince my kids that golf is great fun, so, actually tonight, theyíve each got a golf lesson that Iím taking them to and theyíve shown a fair amount of interest and some ability to hit the golf ball, even at their ages: 7 and 9. Hopefully that will continue. Sarah has played golf since she was a kid. We took a spring break trip to
THL: How did you get involved with the HCBA?
CM: Iím not sure if anyone specifically invited me to become involved. I definitely had an awareness that other senior lawyers in our law firm were involved and had been involved, such as Lew Remele and Fred Finch, who are both past presidents of the HCBA. And I think lawyers from the firm who are now deceased had been presidents and heavily involved in the HCBA as well. I was interested in professionalism issues and so I joined the Professionalism Committee. I ended up serving as co-chair of that committee for a number of years.
THL: What year did your involvement start?
CM: That started sometime in the mid- to late-90s. Later, I served a few years in the 4th District Ethics Committee. About four years ago the then-president of the HCBA, Marlene Garvis, appointed me to chair the Finance and Planning Committee. And that was a great opportunity because that was a year in which the association had to create a new five-year strategic plan. The committeeís work that year didnít just involve that yearís budget, but also involved a lot of serious thinking about what programs were working, what were not, what programs correlated most closely with the mission of the association, and where we should devote our resources in the next five years. We interviewed leaders of the bar association to gather data, and we ended up with a new long-range plan that weíve been working under ever since I became an officer. I really didnít have a good understanding of all the things that the association does until I finished that year as chair of the Finance and Planning Committee. So, at that point, I felt comfortable enough to apply for the secretary position, which puts you on the ladder to becoming president, and was fortunate enough to have the Nominating Committee and board select me as secretary. And Iím still learning about all the things our association does.
THL: So, obviously, this is a very time-involved and serious commitment. How has it been fulfilling to you personally and professionally?
CM: First of all, itís a great opportunity to get to know and work with our judges as well as lawyers in
THL: It is harder to bicker with somebody you know.
CM: And itís very hard to bicker if Iím going to see that person at a Fourth District Ethics Committee hearing the next day or if Iím going to be meeting with that person to work together on lobbying the state Legislature for better judicial funding for
THL: Well, maybe thatís a good lead-in to sharing your goals for the HCBA during your year as president.
CM: One of the things Iíve learned from participating in this bar association and visiting with other bar leaders around the country is that itís very hard to predict what your attention is going to have to be focused on in the upcoming year, because things are going to crop up in the Legislature or in the courts that are going to be a surprise. But there are a few things Iím fairly certain will be a focus of the upcoming year.
One is seeing through a pro bono project developed under Mary Vasalyís leadership. The HCBA has authored a model pro bono policy, because we recognize that smaller to midsize firms may not have adopted formal policies and may not be able to have someone full-time dedicated to coordinating pro bono. What weíre trying to do is make it easier for firms and in-house legal departments by making available a template policy.
Second, judicial funding. I have no doubt that itís going to continue to be an issue to deal with over the next year simply because there are going to be budget cuts. The bench is going to have to figure out where to cut among its workforce and activities, and the bar association will continue to work closely with the bench to find ways that law firms in Hennepin County can help ease the caseload and the crunch that the Hennepin County court is going to experience.
Third, the issue of judicial selection is going to continue to be an issue. There was good headway made this year in adopting the goals of the Quie Commission Majority Report into a bill that would allow a vote on a constitutional amendment in 2010, but it ran out of time in the House. The HCBA has resolved to support that bill, so the leadership of the HCBA will be working hard next legislative session and even before that to continue to push on judicial selection reform.
Finally, the HCBA has been working very hard for a number of years on whatís come to be known as the Call For Justice. United Way has an existing three digit number, 2-1-1, thatís used by the community to find assistance in legal matters and other things, as well. What we have in mind is to provide staffing to respond to those calls and coordinate the provision of legal services, because the Twin Cities has never had a centralized place someone in financial need can go for referral to the appropriate legal service agency.
THL: So the HCBA is partnering with
CM: Yes, it is a partnership with
THL: Who will run Call For Justice?
CM: The board will include the executive directors of the Hennepin County Bar Association and the Ramsey County Bar Association, and others who will be appointed by the boards of the two bar foundations, with equal representation between the two. No employee will be hired unless and until the matching $250,000 has been raised. Tom Fraser has agreed to chair the fundraising committee for Call For Justice. Heís been extremely involved in the whole process over the last three years. Many others in
THL: Is this something that was generated from within the HCBA?
CM: While the issues have been discussed for a number of years in the legal services community, I believe the idea for this project was germinated about three years ago in the Advisory Board to the Affiliation Agreement. This board is made up of representatives from VLN, the HCBA, and the Hennepin County Bar Foundation, but
THL: So then youíre volunteering to stay on as president for another year or two to accomplish all of these things?
CM: No. In less than a year Iíll be a lame duck and I will be happy to attain the title of past president. And the good news is we have excellent leadership coming up the ladder. Courtney Ward-Reichard has a tremendous amount of experience with the HCBA and our foundation, and I will pass her the gavel next year. She will be followed by Jewelie Grape and Tom Jensen, who have also been great leaders in the HCBA.
THL: What do you think are the most significant challenges facing the bench and bar in
CM: The immediate challenge is the economy and funding situation that is jeopardizing the ability of the Hennepin County District Court to fully function. It also poses great challenges to legal service providers and public defenders. The situation is even worse in
The other thing that may be less immediate, but right on the horizon, is the problem of partisan elections ruining judicial independence. When you see whatís happened in other states, such as in
THL: Tell us something that very few people know about you.
CM: I guess this would be unusual, even in
THL: What happened?
CM: Itís gotten rusty. I had grandparents who spoke Swedish. Harvard teaches a huge variety of foreign languages, including Swedish, which I thought would be fun to take, and it did make my grandparents happy to receive correspondence from me in Swedish while I was in college. I, and about six other people, mostly from
THL: Last question, favorite current read or favorite book and favorite movie.
CM: Letís see, Iím going to say my favorite movie is Hoosiers, although Caddyshack is close. The best book I have read in the past few years is Freakonomics, which was written by a college classmate, Steve Levitt. But my favorite all-time is probably Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy.
THL: Chris, thank you for your service to our profession. We all wish you the best of luck in this adventure.
Chris Morris At-a-Glance
1992 J.D., University of
1993-present, Bassford Remele
U.S. Supreme Court; Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, U.S. District Courts for the District of Minnesota, District of North Dakota, District of Nebraska, Eastern District of Arkansas, District of Colorado, Eastern District of Wisconsin, Western District of Wisconsin, State of North Dakota, State of Minnesota
President-Elect, 2008-2009; Treasurer, 2007-2008; Secretary, 2006-2007, Hennepin County Bar Association
Board Member, Hennepin County Bar Association, 2000-2004
Co-chair, HCBA Professional Conduct Committee, 2000 - 2005
Chair, HCBA Finance and Planning Committee, 2005 - 2006
Investigator, Fourth District Ethics Committee, 2005 - 2008
Member, Minnesota State Bar Association
Member, Federal Bar Association (
Member, Association of the Bar of the
Volunteer Lawyer's Network, Past President and Board Member of the Harvard Club of Minnesota, Past Regional Director for the North Central States
Chris and his wife, Sarah, have two children.
His interests are coaching youth sports, fishing, and golf.