Rob Ford’s counsel known as low-key ‘people’s person’

Who is Dennis Morris, the lawyer for beleaguered Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?

Friends and colleagues say Morris is a “people’s person” and suggest it’s no wonder a politician who often paints himself in that same light would choose him as his counsel.

In the nearly 10 years he practised criminal law out of 127 John St. in downtown Toronto, lawyer Greg Lafontaine says he came to know Morris, his next-door neighbour at the nondescript office at 129 John St.

In the criminal law bar, Morris has a reputation as an “exceptional negotiator” also known for his subtleties and his ability to keep things under the radar, according to Lafontaine.

“Dennis is a lawyer who is never really worried about capturing the limelight. It’s not as though he’s somebody who is involved with Mayor Ford because of a desire to get attention,” says Lafontaine.

Lawyer John Rosen, who has known Morris since his call to the bar in the early 1970s, says the mayor’s counsel has always been someone who works on his own rather than forming partnerships with colleagues.

He has had a busy practice with “a lot of quality cases on the go all the time,” according to Lafontaine.

Some lawyers found it surprising Ford didn’t go to “the usual suspects” on Bay Street when he got into trouble, says Rosen. But Morris, his peers say, has friends everywhere in the criminal justice system.

“He’s always been somebody who’s been completely committed to his clients’ best interest and he works well with other players in the justice system,” says Lafontaine. Choosing someone like Morris for a lawyer is consistent with Ford’s “populist image,” Lafontaine adds.

“He has selected a lawyer who is very much a people’s person, much like the image he’s crafted for himself. [Morris] has got friends in every aspect of the criminal justice system — I mean from prosecutors to police officers to members of the judiciary to court staff — you name it.”

Ford chose Morris because he knew he needed “one of the most respected lawyers in the profession who is both conservative and ethical and polished,” says defence lawyer Marcy Segal.

“He’s well known for his subtleties and professionalism. He’s not known for court tactics or outlandish views.”

Because of his personable character, Morris is often capable of negotiating results that “other lawyers wouldn’t dream of being able to obtain,” says Lafontaine.

In 2003, after the theft in broad daylight of five pieces of palm-sized ivory sculptures that belonged to billionaire Ken Thomson from the Art Gallery of Ontario, Morris facilitated the negotiations that saw them returned.

The pieces of art, with a combined worth of $1.5 million, were dropped off at Morris’ office. He didn’t disclose who dropped them off due to client-solicitor privilege.

“That was fantastic legal work on his part,” says Lafontaine.

“Everybody ended up winning as a result of the way he handled that matter.”

Even through what’s potentially a very difficult job of representing an embattled Ford — an ordeal that saw the mayor’s intoxication and alleged recent drug use captured on audio and video recordings before he took leave to enter rehabilitation — Morris has “rolled with the punches” and did the best job he could, says Lafontaine.

“I think he’s been exceptional” through the Ford ordeal, says Segal.

“How your client is is partly dependent on the lawyer’s advice and partly dependent on their own desires,” she says. “So in spite of his attempts to try to keep Ford out of the limelight, temptation sometimes gets the better of you.”

Morris, who has known the Ford family for many years, has been “exemplary” in his work for the mayor, Segal adds.

“He’s shied away from the spotlight. He’s not looking to use this as a career enhancer and he’s tried to be on top of it as much as he can and I’m sure he’s given him great advice on places to go for substance abuse or anything else.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man known to avoid the spotlight, Morris didn’t respond to requests for an interview with Law Times for this article.

Having infamous clients adds a different dimension to a lawyer’s role, says Lafontaine. “You have to be mindful of how your work on behalf of the client reflects on the client in the public domain and, of course, you want to do things in a way that casts that individual in the best light possible,” he says.

Is it tough to defend someone many people tear apart? “It’s a challenge,” says Lafontaine.

“It’s a challenge I’ve always welcomed and enjoyed, but that’s why I took the job, I guess.”

Rosen says he would have done some things differently had he been in Morris’ shoes as the lawyer for the beleaguered mayor.

“I would define my role as being a legal adviser as opposed to a person who is handling the media,” he says. “I would have gotten a media expert, especially in a situation where the client, Rob Ford, has not been charged with anything.”

Those who know Morris agree on his congeniality.

“He’s a gentleman through and through,” says Segal, who describes Morris as a “straight shooter” as well as “a fabulous father.”

“He works very hard; [he’s] very conscientious, very down to earth,” says lawyer Alan Gold, who has worked with Morris on several cases over the last few decades. “He doesn’t worry about generating a high profile; he worries about doing the best possible job for clients.”

An avid Blue Jays fan, Morris is also known to unwind in Barbados or Aruba once in a while, according to Segal.

“A very likable guy — just a decent person,” says Lafontaine.

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