State bar names Amarillo attorney Tom Morris a ‘Texas Legal Legend’ at age 97

Amarillo attorney Tom Morris will become the 21st lawyer named a “Texas Legal Legend” by the state bar’s litigation section. (Michael Schumacher / Amarillo Globe-News)

When Tom Morris becomes the 21st lawyer named a “Texas Legal Legend” by the State Bar of Texas on Monday, the 97-year-old Amarillo attorney plans to spend a few hours with his family around Lubbock.

The next day after being honored by the group’s Litigation Section, he’ll be back in his Underwood Law Firm office, where there’s a conference room named after him, studying books and cases just as he has done since Brown v. Board of Education was rising through the courts.

“What else would I do?” Morris said. “Law is an eternal challenge. I love law, I love to read law, I love to practice law. I’d rather come down here to the office and study than watch a football game.”

Morris was dressed in a fitted gray suit, white collared shirt and patterned black tie on Thursday, an impressive head of hair combed neatly to the side. He reports to work five times a week in a similar ensemble, staying from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day.

He prefers dusty law books and crisp white paper to computers and email, even when defending corporate behemoths like Cargill alongside Underwood shareholders such as Slater Elza.

He sticks to a diligent schedule nowadays, but his life has been anything but monotone. Morris has flown Navy aircraft into battle, won a landmark Supreme Court case and drained five hole-in-ones at the Amarillo Country Club, where he teed off regularly until last year.

“He’s kind of like Forrest Gump. He was everywhere, he was involved in everything,” Elza said.

But Morris’ proudest moment took place not in a courthouse, on a battlefield or a golf course. It was marrying his wife Estella on June 14, 1943.

The two would remain together for 68 years until Estella’s death in 2011, leaving Tom with his two daughters and five grandchildren — the second-most noteworthy accomplishments in his life, he said.

Tom and Estella met while he was studying at the University of Texas Law School but would soon be separated by the Pearl Harbor bombing, which forced the 22-year-old into service for nearly four years as a Navy pilot.

A midair collision with another plane hospitalized Morris for sixth months and would have killed him had he not managed to lodge his plane in a throng of pine trees.

Morris finished out his degree after being discharged in October 1945, serving as an editor of the Texas Law Review. He taught torts and property law at UT for two years after graduation, educating some of the university’s first black students in the “separate but equal” law school.

He also taught five or six female students per 150-person class, including one he would frequently encounter later in the Northern District of Texas federal court. Mary Lou Robinson collected many accolades throughout her time on the bench, including being named a Texas Legal Legend in 2015.

“I take a little credit for her great career,” Morris said jokingly. “She became such an outstanding lawyer and achieved so much. We’ve not only had that professional relationship but personal as well — she’s a good friend of mine.”

Morris left UT for a Harlingen firm, where he stayed for just over a year before moving to Amarillo in September 1949. He began working at Gibson Ochsner &Adkins — then known as Gibson Ochsner &Little — the following April. A few years later, he began laying the groundwork for the case that would eventually define his career.

Amarillo manufacturer William Graham sued Jeoffroy Mfg. Inc., Morris’s client, claiming they had copied his patent on a brace device and spring-loaded hinge clamp.

Morris initially lost the case before winning on appeal. When Graham moved on to suing John Deere for a spring clamp invention, the tractor-makers brought in Morris for a case that would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Oct. 14, 1965, Morris began making his case that Graham’s invention was the direct result of an ordinary man solving a given problem, not a stroke of genius. The court agreed, ruling in favor of John Deere in a decision Morris says has been cited at least 40,000 times as precedent.

Morris mentored several young lawyers as a managing partner at the firm, including Tom Riney, who worked for Gibson Ochsner &Adkins from 1976-2003 before founding Riney &Mayfield LLP. Now 65, Riney still occasionally calls on Morris’ ever-sharp mind for legal advice.

“Without question, Tom Morris is the smartest and hardest-working lawyer in Amarillo,” Riney said. “And I think anyone who’s practiced law in Amarillo for any period of time will say that.”

The firm dissolved in 2003 when Morris was 83 years old. He had earned the weekdays on the golf course and playing poker that his peers had enjoyed for the previous 20 years.

But that lifestyle would have bored Morris. He got a job working on oil and gas and probate cases at Underwood instead. Two years later, the Texas Bar Foundation named him one of five outstanding lawyers with more than 50 years experience.

Both Riney and Elza noted Morris’ reputation for putting his clients above himself, a courtesy Elza said extended into his personal life as well. When Estella aged and had to enter a nursing home, Tom was there every night, fixing her hair or walking with her to the dining hall, Elza said.

“He’s what we know as a gentleman’s lawyer,” Elza said. “He’s not going to try to trick you, he’s not going to try to slide something by you. He’s going to face you head-on and honor his word. And most of the time, he’s going to whup you.”

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