Jawn Morgan on the back of a SEPTA bus

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You know John Morgan’s name, but not his story.

“I’m Jawn Morgan” ads are everywhere in Philadelphia right now. They’re covering billboards, wrapping SEPTA buses, and popping up in subway stations. The campaign is ubiquitous enough for most residents to have a passing familiarity with the attorney.

A personal injury lawyer from Florida co-opting a word rooted in Black Philadelphia dialect has generated eyerolls, excoriations, and newspaper columns.

Getting attention is the point. Throughout his career, John Morgan has made a habit of putting out controversial ads, then surfing the publicity they generate. For years he’s been a mainstay on Philly-area cable TV, where watchers have heard about his hatred for bullies as programs cut to commercial.

It’s not just this region. Morgan & Morgan kicked off a national ad campaign last year, with billboards saying “Size Matters.” The hubbub around what some deemed inappropriate anatomy humor ended with Morgan firing half his staff — including, reportedly, every employee who complained about the ad copy.

But there is a reason Morgan’s ads are so prolific here:

Philadelphia has a reputation as a plaintiff lawyers’ paradise, where juries regularly hand down high-dollar awards.

The notion is so pervasive that attorneys representing the victims of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire — which took place in London — fought to bring their case across the pond to Philly. But it might not actually be true.

“The perception and the actual statistics probably are not all that consistent,” said Mark Tanner, managing partner at local personal injury firm Feldman Shepherd.

Jawn Morgan is in ur Regional Rail station Credit: Lizzy McLellan Ravitch / Billy Penn

Who is John Morgan, anyway?

John Morgan is a founding partner in Morgan & Morgan, a family firm that’s based in Orlando.

The boast of being the country’s biggest injury law firm is not an exaggeration. Actively expanding with over 800 attorneys and thousands of staff, the firm can cash in on that claim.

And advertising has been John Morgan’s bread and butter from the jump.

A 2003 profile notes how Morgan & Colling, a predecessor to John Morgan’s personal injury empire, opened in 1988 — when a lawyer aiming for TV spots was seen as gauche, if not desperate. But when the firm opened their doors, Morgan started producing his own ads and buying air time.

Morgan’s plan worked in a big way. The firm became Morgan Colling & Gilbert, then a 2005 buyout birthed Morgan & Morgan, by then a firm successful enough to have a seven-figure yearly advertising budget in the mid-2000s. Today, ads run the company $100 million per year.

Intent on setting the industry standard, Morgan also co-founded Practice Made Perfect, a consulting group that handles marketing for law firms and runs yearly seminars for trial lawyers.

Philly’s good at mass torts

“Jawn Morgan” isn’t alone. If you start looking, you’ll notice lots of marketing for trial attorneys in Philadelphia. (It’s to the point that you couldn’t be blamed for seeing a Lundy Law poster in the background of your dreams.)

The media market is based on the volume of torts cases that the city handles, and the view that juries from the city are liable to hand down large, costly verdicts.

But the narrative is “rooted in the anecdotal perception of hearing about a big verdict here and there,” said Tanner, of Feldman Shepherd. What’s really making the difference, he said, is the efficiency of the system Philadelphia has set up.

Out of 300+ civil cases listed for trial from December to February, only nine ended in verdicts in favor of the plaintiff, per Tanner. In Philly, as is the norm, a settlement is reached in the majority of civil cases.

Tanner recalled his early days practicing, fresh out of Temple Law, when “we would file a case, and you would tell your client, ‘OK, the case is filed, and roughly six years from now we’re going to get to trial.’”

The backlog he referenced was contextualized in a 2005 Committee of Seventy report that described a “crisis in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.” A lack of judicial accountability in the 1980s created “significant discrepancies” in productivity and decreased trust, the report said.

To address this, Philly in 1992 created the Complex Litigation Center — the first courthouse in the country to handle only suits involving multiple plaintiffs.

“They started placing cases on tracks and giving certain dates, and that six-year period of the case percolating before it would reach trial went away,” Tanner. “Now it’s closer to a year and a half to two years.”

Such efficiency, he says, is the reason the city’s courts see such a high volume of torts cases.

A full SEPTA bus wrap for Jawn Morgan Credit: Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

‘Jawn Morgan’ was once sued over ads

In 2017 Jeff Rosenbaum had seen enough TV ads, and triggered the exception clause.

Rosenbaum, who leads the Philly-based firm Rosenbaum & Associates, decided to sue Morgan for false advertising, holding that the Morgan & Morgan was not properly staffed to actually serve Philadelphians.

The complaint noted that although ads beginning in 2016 featured Morgan and his four sons — named as defendants in the case — none of them were licensed to practice law in the commonwealth.

Rosenbaum also alleged Morgan & Morgan hadn’t hired any lawyers in the area when the ads started pouring in, and only had one lawyer on staff admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar weeks before being hired, all months after ads were running.

Beyond that, based on information he had, Rosenbaum stated that Morgan & Morgan would refer clients to other firms, although some ads included phrases like “I’m not just any lawyer, I’m your lawyer” and one specifically stated that it was not a referral service. These aspects and more led Rosenbaum to sue for false advertising.

Morgan called the suit “utter nonsense,” claiming Rosenbaum didn’t like competition.

U.S. District Judge Mark Kearney dismissed claims of personal liability for the Morgan family, but allowed the case to continue over the phrases Rosenbaum excerpted from their ads.

Proceedings ended through a stipulation of the parties that was filed after Morgan & Morgan hired another, more experienced lawyer to work in the Philly region. But as you, dear reader, well know, the ad buys haven’t stopped.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...